By Matt Falloon and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron presented a unified front on Wednesday, seeking to ratchet up pressure on Iran and Syria and stay the course in Afghanistan even as they papered over differences on economic strategies.
Amid the pomp and ceremony of a state visit, Obama and Cameron called each other by their first names and stressed solidarity in the face of global security challenges that have tested the much-vaunted alliance between their two countries.
Cameron is on a three-day U.S. trip, eager to dispel any concerns in Britain that its treasured "special relationship" with the United States has dimmed in recent years as Obama has pivoted U.S. foreign policy towards Asia's dynamic economies.
At a state dinner where guests dined on bison and White House-grown baby kale, the British prime minister praised Obama in a toast that came close to an endorsement of the Democrat in this year's presidential election.
"You don't get to choose the leaders that you have to work with, but all I can say is that it is a pleasure to work with someone with moral strength, with clear reason, and with fundamental decency," Cameron said.
The leaders used a joint news conference to try to turn up the heat on Iran over its nuclear program and warn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of the consequences, including possible war-crimes prosecution, if he continued a bloody crackdown on his opponents.
Their White House talks also focused on the war in Afghanistan, with both resisting calls for a rush to the exit after the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier.
Polls show increasing U.S. and British public discontent with the war and Obama's Republican foes see his Afghan policy as a point of vulnerability in his 2012 re-election bid.
Obama and Cameron made clear that for now they want to stick to a NATO strategy that calls for a transition to Afghan security responsibility in 2013 and withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014. A NATO summit in Chicago in May will consider further details.
"In terms of pace, I don't anticipate at this stage that we're going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have," Obama said.
TOUGH TALK ON IRAN AND SYRIA
Obama took the lead on Iran, warning Tehran that "the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking" and pressing it to take seriously upcoming negotiations with world powers. He has warned that military action remains an option if sanctions and diplomacy fail.
Cameron said that if Syria's Assad did not step aside in a political transition "then civil war or revolution is the inevitable consequence." But he and Obama made clear there was no appetite for a Libya-style Western military intervention and offered no new steps.
The news conference pointed up differences of economic policy, which the two leaders sought to play down. The Democratic president is pushing for more spending to stimulate the fragile U.S. recovery and further cut unemployment and is worried that Europe's debt crisis could spill over.
The Conservative prime minister is taking a different route, with an unprecedented austerity program of spending cuts that some critics say is holding back Britain's economic recovery.
"There are differences ... between the states of the two economies and the circumstances we face but we're both trying to head in the same direction of growth and low deficits," Cameron said.
At a welcome ceremony on White House south lawn complete with a cannon salute and a fife-and-drum marching band, Obama and Cameron lauded the historic alliance between their countries and bantered good-naturedly.
Obama has often been portrayed in the British media as lacking much interest in the "special relationship," a phrase first coined by Winston Churchill after World War Two.
While Washington and London have worked together closely under Obama and Cameron, the British prime minister has sought to avoid any hint of subservience to U.S. interests.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was accused by British media of acting as former President George W. Bush's "poodle," especially in joining in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Obama, who seized the moment to reaffirm U.S.-British ties as "rock solid," has been careful to avoid offending British sensibilities as he did early in his term when he returned a loaned bust of Churchill on display in the Oval Office.
Continuing a gift-giving tradition, Obama gave the Camerons an elaborate barbecue grill to take home. Cameron gave America's First Family a table-tennis table to commemorate a match he and Obama played against a pair of teenagers on the president's state visit to London last year.
(Additional reporting by Alister Bull, Samson Reiny and Jeff Mason; Editing by Eric Beech)