LONDON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama held talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday, grappling with the turmoil across the Arab world and the NATO effort to dislodge Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi.
Obama, on the third day of a European tour, swapped the glitter of a royal state banquet and the tradition-soaked ritual of a British visit for testing diplomatic questions facing the transatlantic alliance.
The president and prime minister held 90 minutes of talks at Downing Street before dropping by a barbecue hosted by their wives in honour of military veterans, in a nod to the two nations’ decade of common war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
They also had a press conference on their schedule, and then Obama was set to deliver what aides have described as the anchor speech of his tour of Ireland, Britain, France and Poland, on renewing ties with Europe.
The talks come as European powers like France and Britain step up the pace of attacks on Libya, in which Washington is playing a support role, as the White House and Downing Street insist the effort has not hit a stalemate.
“We believe that the trends show that time is very much working against Kadhafi,” said Ben Rhodes, a US deputy national security advisor. “We believe that Kadhafi and his forces are under tremendous strain.”
Washington has given no sign however that it is willing to return to the lead firepower role it adopted at the start of the Libya operation before handing over to NATO in March.
Obama, facing a reelection campaign next year, is wary of embroiling Washington in a third war in a Muslim nation, and is facing rising questions from Congress over his constitutional authority to deploy US assets in Libya.
Britain seems to accept Washington’s position, saying Washington is not taking a “back seat” in the combat mission, even as Britain and France prepare to send in ground attack helicopters.
“We couldn’t have done what we did at the beginning of the military operations in Libya — the destruction of the Kadhafi regime’s fixed air defences — without the unique assets of the United States,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio on Wednesday.
British media reports also suggested the two leaders would discuss the idea of seeking to open some kind of dialogue with the Taliban, as Washington seeks to transfer security to the Afghan government by the end of 2014.
The two leaders were also set to announce a joint national security task force to formalise cooperation between the two capitals.
Later, Obama was set to deliver a rare speech by a foreign leader to the two houses of parliament in Westminster Hall, focusing on Europe, a continent where some players have been disappointed with his engagement so far amid a growing US focus on Asia.
“Our focus is on maintaining the role that the US and Europe play together as a catalyst for action,” said Rhodes.
“We believe that in the emerging context of the 21st century, not only is that as relevant as ever, but it’s going to demand contributions from all nations.”
US hopes for more burden-sharing on security from Europe face the reality that European defence budgets are being shaved, while the continent battles a debt crisis.
Obama is seeking European support for a new initiative to nurture democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, and to spur other autocratic nations in the Middle East to embrace reform.
The Arab Spring is also set to be a key issue at the G8 summit, which Obama and Cameron are due to attend from Thursday in Deauville, France.
On Tuesday, Obama basked in the pageantry of a white tie state dinner at Buckingham Palace, designed to reaffirm enduring bonds between Britain and America.
The queen said in her dinner toast that Obama’s visit recalled “our shared history, our common language and our strong intellectual and cultural links.”
Obama concluded his toast with a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III.
“To her Majesty the Queen, to the vitality of the special relationship between our peoples and in the words of Shakespeare, ‘to this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.'”
Breaking free from starchy convention, he also drew a regal smile as he told the queen his daughters Malia and Sasha “adored” her.
Obama will host a dinner in the queen’s honour later Wednesday at the US ambassador’s residence.