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Has BP oil spill damaged the US-UK 'special relationship'?

Some British officials complain about harsh criticism of the company formerly known as ‘British Petroleum.' Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron will try to smooth US-UK ties when they discuss the BP oil spill – among other topics – this weekend.

By Staff writer / June 10, 2010

Greenpeace demonstrators protest outside the staff entrance to BP headquarters in central London on May 20. The BP oil spill is becoming an issue in US-UK relations.

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Washington

In simpler times, President Obama and new British Prime Minister David Cameron might have been placing a friendly bet over Saturday’s US-England World Cup match when the two leaders talk by phone this weekend.

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But before they can talk sports, the two top representatives of the US-UK “special relationship” have to address more pressing issues like Afghanistan. And then there’s the mounting fallout from BP’s handling of the BP oil spill and environmental disaster.

With the British press and even some officials increasingly seeing attacks on Britain itself in the president’s and his administration’s criticisms of BP, Mr. Cameron has sought to calm the waters. During a visit to Afghanistan Thursday, he said the oil spill would no doubt be part of what his office says is a “routine” phone conversation, but he ducked pointed questions about an anti-British side to criticisms of BP.

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“I completely understand the US government’s frustration because it’s an environmental catastrophe,” he said. “The most important thing is to mitigate the effects of the leak and get to the root of the problem.”

That was a passionless response worthy of the erstwhile “cool Obama.” But as Obama’s rhetoric has ratcheted up over the course of the continuing oil leak – and as BP’s stock price has continued to slide – more British voices have sounded alarms over what they consider to be growing anti-British sentiment in the White House.

In this environment, both leaders need to be politically agile, some transatlantic experts say.

Holding emotions in check

“This is a relationship with a plate of issues that’s already running over, with everything from Afghanistan and plans for British defense cuts to financial regulation,” says Heather Conley at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “You don’t want this disaster and its implications to become a distraction, but that can happen if some of the emotions aren’t held in check.”

“As the pictures and reports of the impact [of the leak] pour in, it’s going to be all the more difficult for Obama to keep things on an even keel,” she adds.

The most alarmist remarks emanated from London’s city hall, where Mayor Boris Johnson cited as a “matter of national concern” the “anti-British rhetoric that seems to be permeating from America.”

“When you consider the huge exposure of British pension funds to BP it starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up,” said Mr. Johnson, a member of Cameron’s Conservative party

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