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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