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CNN Today

President, British Prime Minister Discuss International Issues

Aired February 23, 2001 - 4:28 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to go back to Camp David now for the start of that news conference between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

To fill us in on some of the issues they may be discussing there, let's turn to our senior White House correspondent John King, who's been standing by to follow and to cover this news conference.

John, we know that they've got an awful lot of issues to discuss, and also an attempt to build a personal relationship?

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: First and foremost, that's what both governments say is important here. Prime Minister Blair had a very close personal relationship as well as a working relationship with President Clinton. Prior to that, President bush, this president's father, had a very good relationship with then- Prime Minister John Major. And, of course, it was famous in the United States and in Great Britain -- the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

But also some very difficult issues on the table. First and foremost, of course, Iraq, because of those military strikes last week and next week's debate in the United Nations over the sanctions regime against the government of Saddam Hussein. These two governments often the lonely voices calling for a continuation of the sanctions against Saddam Hussein. So they're trying to coordinate strategy now, and to reassess their ongoing military operations as well.

FRAZIER: Voices often in concert, which explains that there's no surprise that Prime Minister Blair would be the first European leader the president chooses to meet with.

KING: Right; both governments making clear they want to cement the continuing, quote, "special relationship." That's the term used both in Washington and in London for this relationship.

And look at another issue on the table: national missile defense; a very controversial plan by the Bush administration to build, unilaterally by the United States, a national missile defense program. Most of the European allies very critical, very skeptical. The Chinese and the Russians forcefully object to this. Mr. Blair, however, in a signal -- in a sign of his friendship with the United States, has taken a much more measured approach; raising some questions about it, but also saying he's willing to listen and that he understands the reasons the United States government would want such a program. So he could be a key middleman, if you will, if the United States tries to have conversations, not only with the NATO allies, but also with the Russians, as well, about a new Russian proposal for some sort of a shield over Europe.

FRAZIER: And I gather, John, that that job of helping to talk to the Russians about this just got easier because they seem to have moderated their opposition to the shield and acknowledged that certain countries, not their own, may pose a threat to the allies.

KING: Well, the question, in the eyes of the Bush administration and key members of Congress who support a missile defense plan is, is the Russian plan designed to help broker a compromise, or is it a gambit by the Russians just to say the United States' plan is extreme, and that here's a more measured approach? Do the Russians actually want a joint agreement with the NATO allies or with the United States, or are they simply offering this to try to divide the NATO alliance?

That is a question Washington, and particularly this new administration, says it can't answer yet; but they do view this as progress. What they're trying to do in their political argument is say the Russian proposal, now that it is on the table, is an acknowledgment by Moscow that there is a need for nations to defend themselves against the threat of a missile attack by a rogue nation -- say an Iran, say a North Korea.

So the administration focusing on what it considers the positive -- an acknowledgment from the Russians that perhaps such a system should be developed.

FRAZIER: Still on defense, John, it's interesting now that Europeans are feeling a little rested and ready to move, perhaps, beyond NATO, their relationship with Canada and the United States, and to discuss this rapid deployment force that would be staffed only by European nations and would move in to interventions where the United States has no interest in acting.

KING: Some concerns in the United States about that, particularly as to whether this European defense force would do anything out of step with the NATO alliance.

Now, the Europeans saying they would not do so, that they would only use this force in situations where the NATO alliance decided it was not appropriate for the alliance as a whole to intervene. Still, the United States wants some questions about just how that would work -- how would the notification process work within the NATO alliance? Who would have the final decision? And would any of those forces used in the new European force draw down existing NATO forces?

So some questions there; some skepticism in Washington. But, again, if you went back six months or a year ago when this proposal was being discussed, the rhetoric was much more heated than it is today.

FRAZIER: Right; and, John, let's go back now to this notion of forging a personal relationship. Kind of difficult when you think of the contrast between the left-centrist political stance of Prime Minister Blair, which was very much in harmony with that of former President Clinton and how he would jive that with the right-centrist or even a little bit right-of-center views of President Bush. How do you think that's going to work?

KING: Well, certainly tradition would say the Republican Party not in concert with the Labor Party in Great Britain; but both of these are leaders who have strived for the middle. Mr. Blair reforming his party, Mr. Bush breaking many Republican traditions as he won the White House in this past election.

Certainly, he comes to the table -- President Bush does -- believing himself to be more conservative than the prime minister, but these two men promised to forge a special relationship, and eyes probably more in Great Britain, watching this relationship because of the upcoming election season there, as to whether Mr. Bush would show any, perhaps, preferences in the race coming up.

But both men saying it's very important, particularly because of the issues on the table: the Iraqi sanctions, the missile defense plan, the future of the NATO alliance; also the trade disagreements between the United States and the European union, that these men at least develop a good working relationship and, in the process they're hoping to develop a good personal relationship as well.

FRAZIER: And you just raised the issues of these trade disagreements. Even today, John -- I'm not sure if you've been following along here -- more beef from Britain banned throughout Europe because of the potential of various diseases from their beef products.

Very difficult for Britain right now, not only with the United States, but with the rest of Europe?

KING: And the United States views that as largely a European question; but, certainly, they will discuss ongoing trade disputes between the United States and the European Union. That is one in which the United States has been insulated; it's largely a European debate, but certainly among the issues that do get discussed -- if not between the leaders directly, then certainly among the lower officials, the trade officials.

FRAZIER: John, this has been a terrific preview of the issues that we're likely to hear about in this news conference. It appears they're not going to bring it off on time, so we're going to step away for the time being. And if you would, please standby and bring us up to date when we get a sense that those two leaders are going to join us at the microphones.

John King, our senior White House correspondent.

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