In Europe and the Middle East, Obama Will Get an Earful

On one of his last major foreign trips, the president is expected to get pushback from allies upset by his recent comments in The Atlantic.

President Obama meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office in 2015
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
April 18, 2016, 8 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama has some ex­plain­ing to do this week as he un­der­takes what may be his fi­nal trip as pres­id­ent to the Middle East and his last vis­its to Eng­land and Ger­many, a jour­ney made dip­lo­mat­ic­ally dicey by his can­did com­ments about the lead­ers of key U.S. al­lies. For Obama, it’s a week of dam­age con­trol as he holds high-level talks with Per­sian Gulf lead­ers and tackles trade, ter­ror­ism, and Rus­sia in his European stops.

The tone for the sev­en-day, three-coun­try swing was set by the pres­id­ent’s ex­tens­ive com­ments to Jef­frey Gold­berg in April’s is­sue of The At­lantic, when he cast doubt on Saudi Ar­a­bia’s re­li­ab­il­ity as a U.S. ally, dis­missed many NATO al­lies as “free-riders” not pay­ing their fair share, and seemed to blame Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on and oth­er al­lies for the mess left be­hind after Liby­an dic­tat­or Muam­mar el-Qad­dafi was ous­ted from power in 2011.

“Quite frankly, I think the pres­id­ent had bet­ter live down the At­lantic art­icle,” said An­thony Cordes­man, a former Pentagon in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial and na­tion­al se­cur­ity aide to Sen. John Mc­Cain. Both Camer­on and Saudi King Sal­man were known to be peeved by the pres­id­ent’s com­ments and will be listen­ing to Obama’s ex­plan­a­tions. “One of the things you have to do when you cre­ate a ma­jor level of dis­trust among your al­lies is go out and re­as­sure them,” said Cordes­man.

In Saudi Ar­a­bia, there was con­sid­er­able dis­may as well at what the Saudis see as the pres­id­ent giv­ing pref­er­en­tial treat­ment to their long­time foe, Ir­an. “This is kind of an awk­ward vis­it for Obama in the wake of his con­fes­sions in The At­lantic about how he feels about his Ar­ab al­lies as free-riders and ur­ging the Saudis to ‘share the neigh­bor­hood’ with Ir­an,” said Dav­id Ot­t­away, a seni­or schol­ar in the Middle East pro­gram at the Wilson Cen­ter. “These are fight­ing words in Riy­adh. I’m sure they are go­ing to ask him what he means by these com­ments, and they will de­fend them­selves.”

At the White House, though, Obama aides don’t ac­know­ledge the need for any dam­age con­trol on the trip. Ben Rhodes, deputy na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, con­ten­ded that the pres­id­ent in the in­ter­view merely re­stated long-stand­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion policy. “The only way to truly deal with glob­al chal­lenges is if every­body does their part,” Rhodes said, adding: “So the ba­sic point that we want every­body to play their part is a reg­u­lar fea­ture of our dia­logue with these coun­tries, pub­licly and privately.”

In­stead, the White House points to oth­er chal­lenges that will con­front the pres­id­ent this week. None is trick­i­er than find­ing a way to deal with the on­go­ing Brit­ish de­bate and up­com­ing ref­er­en­dum on the coun­try’s con­tinu­ance as a mem­ber of the European Uni­on. Obama wants to re­peat his earli­er stated strong po­s­i­tion that the United States wants Bri­tain to stay in the EU. But he has to do it in a way that does not in­trude on Brit­ish sov­er­eignty. “The ap­proach he’s go­ing to take is that he will of­fer his view as he is asked his view,” said Rhodes. “He will make very clear that this is a de­cision for the people of the United King­dom to make; it’s not a de­cision for us to make. But we have no closer friend in the world, and if we are asked our view as a friend, we will of­fer it.”

The pres­id­ent ar­rives in Riy­adh on Wed­nes­day for meet­ings with the king and, on Thursday, a sum­mit meet­ing with the heads of the six mem­bers of the Gulf Co­oper­a­tion Coun­cil—Saudi Ar­a­bia, Kuwait, the United Ar­ab Emir­ates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. The fight against ter­ror­ism tops that sum­mit agenda, which will also fea­ture dis­cus­sions on the fight­ing in Ye­men, Syr­ia’s civil war, and the latest de­vel­op­ments in Ir­aq and Libya.

On Fri­day, Obama moves to Lon­don, where he and first lady Michelle Obama will be­gin their vis­it with lunch at Wind­sor Castle with Queen Eliza­beth, who the day be­fore will have cel­eb­rated her 90th birth­day. They will be joined at the lunch by Prince Philip. That even­ing, the Oba­mas will have din­ner at Kens­ing­ton Palace with the duke and duch­ess of Cam­bridge, Prince Wil­li­am and his wife, Kate; and Prince Harry.

Obama also will meet with Camer­on on Fri­day, with the state of Europe and the al­li­ance up for dis­cus­sion. Com­plic­at­ing Obama’s task is con­tin­ent­al con­cern about anti-al­li­ance com­ments by Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Don­ald Trump. “The al­li­ance sys­tem is un­der pro­found stress,” said Heath­er Con­ley, dir­ect­or of the Europe Pro­gram at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, cit­ing Obama’s com­ments and cam­paign rhet­or­ic. On Sat­urday, the pres­id­ent will hold a town hall meet­ing with young people be­fore mov­ing on to Ger­many.

On Sunday, he will at­tend the Han­nov­er Messe, the world’s largest tech­no­logy trade show. The gath­er­ing is ex­pec­ted to draw 250,000 people from more than 70 coun­tries, in­clud­ing a heavy rep­res­ent­a­tion from the United States. In Han­nov­er on Monday, the pres­id­ent is sched­uled to de­liv­er the ma­jor speech of the trip. It is viewed by the White House as an op­por­tun­ity to look at the biggest chal­lenges fa­cing the West­ern demo­cra­cies as well as “re­view what we’ve done over the course of the last sev­en and a half years of his pres­id­ency and look ahead to what we need to be do­ing go­ing for­ward.”

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