Obama hosts U.K.’s Cameron at ‘March Madness,’ but Afghanistan casts pall on upbeat visit

President Obama kicks off three days of hosting duties for visiting UK Prime Minister David Cameron by giving him a taste of some "March Madness" in Dayton, Ohio. The two will watch a first-round game on Tuesday night of the US collegiate national championship basketball tournament with the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers facing the Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils.

But for all the chummy appearances and invocations of "the special relationship" Cameron's American tour is scripted to offer, the United States and UK have been going through something of a rough patch the past few years, say some scholars. The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and American anger over Scotland's 2009 release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to Libya strained normally placid U.S.-U.K. ties. More recently, Obama's declared intention to pivot American foreign policy's orientation to Asia has caused some anxiety at 10 Downing Street. In the same vein, the United States has lamented its closest military ally's planned steep cuts to defense spending as part of UK austerity measures.

Only the second European leader the Obama White House has hosted for a state dinner, after Germany's Angela Merkel, the visit by Cameron and his wife is meant to underscore both the personal rapport between the two young leaders and their wives, as well as "an alliance the world can count on" around the globeas Obama and Cameron wrote in a joint Washington Post op-ed Tuesday. But the visit is now likely to be overshadowed by fallout from the shooting rampage in Afghanistan by a U.S. soldier Sunday, analysts said. The United States and United Kingdom are the two largest troop contributing nations to the troubled ten year old security force in Afghanistan. Britain has already been traumatized by the killing of six U.K. troops in Afghanistan last week.

Amid all the presidential-prime ministerial phone calls and consultations, "one feels there's been something missing" in the so-called special relationship, at least until recently, Heather Conley, director of European programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Yahoo News in an interview last week.

"Beyond the headlines of the week's visit, the U.S.-U.K. friendship is undergoing a profound test," she wrote in a more extensive analysis of the visit Tuesday, sent to Yahoo News, which set out a list of issues concerning the allies behind the scenes.

"Can the partnership be effective as both the United States and the United Kingdom turn inward to focus on their excessive debt overhang, unemployment, and public spending reductions?" asked Conley. "Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers for the future prospects of the special relationship."

Obama and Cameron set out to signal the strength and breadth of the relationship in their Tuesday op-ed. "The alliance between the United States and Great Britain is a partnership of the heart, bound by the history, traditions and values we share," they wrote, after invoking Winston Churchill. "But what makes our relationship special—a unique and essential asset—is that we join hands across so many endeavors."

The U.S. and U.K. are intensely cooperating on a set of pressing security matters around the globe: trying to dissuade Israel from launching a pre-emptive military strike on Iran this year, pressuring Syria's Bashar al-Assad to halt his crackdown and advancing a fragile global economic recovery. But the dilemma of what to do in Afghanistan is likely to be a heavy topic of discussion among the leaders.

British envoy to the United States Peter Westmacott told journalists at a press briefing in Washington Monday that international coalition discussions are continuing with the Afghans on the reconciliation process as well as on a post-2014 strategic partnership agreement. "My Prime Minister is certainly determined to stick to the strategy he laid out." However, he "may want to review" those issues with allies going into the NATO summit in Chicago in May "so we are clear about where we are."

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