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Henry: Did Bush make Brown his BFF?

  • Story Highlights
  • British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visits Bush at Camp David
  • Previous prime minister, Tony Blair, suffered for close relationship to Bush
  • Brown acknowledges "duties" in Iraq but may distance himself from U.S.
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By Ed Henry
CNN White House Correspondent
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush was eager on Monday to show he can be jocular with new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (just like with his old buddy, Tony Blair) when he teased New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg about his birthday.

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Prime Minister Gordon Brown, left, and President Bush walk on the lawn at Camp David Monday.

"Amazing country, Gordon," Bush said at the two leaders' first joint press conference at Camp David, Maryland. "A guy that's under 40 years old asking me and you questions. It's a beautiful sight."

"Six of my cabinet are under 40," Brown retorted about the youth movement at 10 Downing Street.

"Are they?" Bush said, adding with a smile: "You must be feeling damn old."

"Absolutely," said Brown, 56.

Rutenberg, meanwhile, tried in vain to convince everyone he's even younger: "Forty's the new 20."

Well, maybe. But since he's not one of those 20-somethings, it's a good bet the 61-year-old president has no idea that "BFF" is the proper way to greet a "Best Friend Forever" when sending a text message.

But make no mistake, the president spent just about the entire press conference trying to convince the world he and Brown really can be BFFs in a post-Blair era.

"The notion of America and Britain sharing values is very important in that we have an obligation, it seems to me, to work for freedom and justice around the world and I've found a person who shares that vision and who understands the call," the president gushed.

And you could hear the audible sighs in the West Wing of the White House when Brown returned the favor by suggesting that he will be a stalwart ally on Iraq, despite the fears within the administration that the new prime minister will break with the president to show he's not "Bush's poodle," the criticism Blair drew.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Brown said, "in Iraq we have duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep." Video Watch Brown talk about Britain's duties in Iraq »

Brown added, in what had to be music to the ears of his counterpart: "We're in a generation-long battle against terrorism, against al Qaeda-inspired terrorism and this is a battle for which we can give no quarter. It's a battle that's gotta be fought in military, diplomatic, intelligence, security, policing and ideological terms."

But when you peel back the platitudes, there was also the hint of very important differences.

Even though the prime minister's office has denied British media reports that he's planning to pull out the country's remaining troops from Iraq, Brown did hint at an exit when he talked Monday about moving British forces into a support role in relatively short order.

"And we've moved from combat to overwatch in three of the four provinces for which we, the British, have security responsibility," said Brown. "We intend to move to overwatch in the fourth province and that decision will be made on the military advice of our commanders on the ground."

Then Brown added somewhat cryptically to American ears, "Whatever happens, we will make a full statement to Parliament when it returns."

My colleague, CNN's Robin Oakley, pointed out the British Parliament returns from a break in about eight or nine weeks, so that could be a clue about potential British troop pullouts in the fall. Or maybe not. But the point is that it was not exactly what the White House wanted to hear.

Perhaps more intriguing is the fact that Brown also declared, "Afghanistan is the front line against terrorism."

That seems to clearly be at odds with the president's claim that Iraq is the "central front" in the war on terror, a point on which a British reporter pressed the prime minister.

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Brown clarified, "I think I described Afghanistan as the first line in the battle against the Taliban" -- though that's not what he had said. As he struggled a bit to get back to the Bush talking points, Brown added that in Iraq, "you're certainly dealing with a large number of al Qaeda terrorists."

So, the bottom line is there's only a little daylight between Bush and Brown. But still more daylight than there was between Bush and Blair. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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