President Obama left on Sunday night for the most extensive European trip of his presidency, a week-long, four-country swing that will mix light nostalgic stops with serious exercises in summitry, all designed to help reassure a wary continent that its interests are still linked with the United States.
Before he returns to Washington on Saturday night, the president will visit Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, and Poland, confer with at least 40 other world leaders, and confront questions about U.S. policy toward Libya and the Middle East and concern about Washington’s delay in raising the U.S. debt limit, a step that the other leaders see as crucial for maintaining stability in the world’s largest economy.
For a president facing a tough reelection battle, the trip also affords Obama the chance to be seen enjoying the applause of Irish and Polish citizens, many of whom have cousins in the United States who vote.
Along with that applause, though, will come questions from a continent that still has remarkably high regard for him but is more sober in its assessment of a president whose election they enthusiastically embraced. “There is still a freshness and a newness to him,” said Philip Barton, charge d’Affaires and deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Washington.
But, said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “they had expectations that could not be met, and changes that they had anticipated that President Obama would make.” She cited widespread disappointment overseas in Obama's positions on closing the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the troop surge in Afghanistan.
The president has also had to reassure skeptics that he is committed to maintaining the “special relationship” with London and would continue to turn first to traditional allies in Europe when confronting global challenges.
That is why the White House put as the top goal of the current trip as: “to reaffirm our core alliances in the world, our European allies,” when Ben Rhodes, the deputy National Security Adviser, briefed reporters on Friday.
And that will be the message the president will deliver in the most important speech of the trip, an address to both houses of Parliament on Wednesday. Rhodes said Obama will focus on both U.S. ties with Great Britain and the larger, enduring reasons why the United States will remain engaged in Europe.
The trip begins on a note that is less global and geopolitical and more personal and—perhaps—political. The president will do what so many of his predecessors have done and lay claim to Irish roots. Like an estimated 45 million other Americans, Obama has an ancestor who lived in Eire. In Obama’s case, it was shoemaker Falmouth Kearney who left famine-struck Ireland in March 1850 for Ohio.
Now, 161 years later, the shoemaker’s great-great-great grandson returns to the small village of Moneygall in County Offaly as the president of the United States. That return will be celebrated on Monday with a pub stop and brief visit there by Obama, a trip that the president views as “a homecoming of sorts,” according to Rhodes. “He’s very excited to see this small town in Ireland from which he has roots.”
In Dublin, the president will meet with government officials, discuss the country’s debt problems, and reaffirm the continuing U.S. commitment to the peace process—first championed by President Clinton—that ended most of the bloodshed between the warring communities in Northern Ireland.
When he moves to London on Tuesday, the palace replaces the pub. He and first lady Michelle Obama will be the guests of Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, site of a state dinner that night. He will also meet with Prime Minister David Cameron, with the two expected to discuss the next steps in Libya now that the allied attempt to unseat Muammar el-Qaddafi has entered its third month.
The crushing burden of debt—both in Europe and in the United States—and its implications for sustaining economic recovery is also on the agenda both at 10 Downing Street and throughout the trip. “I think we are all concerned,” said Robert Kupiecki, the Polish ambassador to the United States. Barton, of the British embassy, said “concern” is “the wrong word.” Instead, he said the British have “a very keen interest” in what happens next in Washington as Obama strives to raise the ceiling.
Certainly, questions will come when the Obama entourage on Thursday moves to Deauville, France, the Normandy town that is home to this year’s G-8 summit. The other leaders want to hear from Obama what comes next in Libya, how will the troop draw-down in Afghanistan proceed, and how can they coordinate their responses to the Arab Spring.
The backdrop to all these questions is American alarm over the deep cuts being made by all the European allies in their defense budgets because of debt concerns. Libya has “revealed some of the strains that the U.K. is suffering in the operations of its military,” said Stephen Flanagan, a senior National Security Council and State Department staffer during the Clinton presidency and now at CSIS. “So this has led to the question of how long can we keep this up?”
While in Deauville, the president will meet with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan as well as with a group of nine African leaders brought to the summit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He will meet with a similarly large group the next day when he goes to Poland. In Warsaw, Obama will participate in the final session of a meeting of leaders from Central and Eastern Europe.
U.S.-Polish relations have been troubled since the start of the Obama administration when the new president embarrassed Warsaw by canceling a planned missile defense system strongly opposed by Russia. It took a year to hammer out an amended agreement, with a missile defense site in Poland now expected to become operational in 2018. But there is still a need for Obama to arrive in Warsaw with “a message of reassurance to Poland, righting a relationship that got off on the wrong foot in 2009,” said Conley.
During this trip, the president is expected to give Poland something else it has been requesting for some time—the basing of some American warplanes on Polish soil. Obama will announce that a squadron of F-16s will be shifted in 2013 from Aviano, Italy, to the central Polish town of Lask.
But the Poles are decidedly unhappy with Washington over another issue that has long been a sticking point in U.S.-Polish relations—the administration’s reluctance to include Poland in the program that permits Polish citizens to travel to the United States without a visa. Obama has promised to resolve the issue before he leaves the White House, but early indications are that it is not yet done. This “resonates badly among Polish society,” said ambassador Kupiecki. “We understand... how complex the situation is in the United States. But there is no logical explanation currently for the situation.”
At the White House, Rhodes made no promises. “We have been working this very hard and have made progress,” he said Friday. “It’s not a simple matter,” he added.
In some ways, the Polish stop is a belated make-up of a visit the president planned to make last year after a tragic plane crash killed the Polish president, his wife, and much of the top civilian and military leadership of the government. Obama intended to attend the funeral. But he was thwarted by a cloud of ash that hovered over Europe at the time in the wake of a volcano in Iceland. Now, the president will honor the victims with a wreathlaying.