Obama charms the French, pushes for Afghanistan help

McClatchy NewspapersApril 3, 2009 

STRASBOURG, France — Heading into a summit with NATO allies, President Barack Obama took his pitch for more help in Afghanistan to the people of Europe on Friday, telling them they face an even greater threat from the spread of al Qaida terrorism than the U.S. does.

He made the case in private to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and later to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In public, he presented his argument directly to the people in a U.S.-style town hall meeting that produced cheers, applause and some converts. However, some remained unconvinced of the need to send more troops.

Obama's campaign underscored his broader effort to repair relations between the U.S. and Europe, which grew strained during the Bush presidency as he invaded Iraq, locked up suspected terrorists without charges and allowed aggressive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.

Speaking largely to young people gathered in a sports arena, Obama said it's time to restore a trans-Atlantic relationship that's drifted and at times turned sour.

"I know that there have been honest disagreements over policy, but we also know that there's something more that has crept into our relationship," he said.

"In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive," he said.

Members of the audience nodding knowingly; several later noted the hostile rhetoric in the U.S. after France opposed the Iraq war, such as renaming French Fries "freedom fries" on Capitol Hill.

Obama, however, added quickly that the cynicism worked both ways.

"In Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what's bad."

Ultimately, he said, that enmity prevents both sides from realizing that their partnership is critical to facing challenges such as the economy, global warming, and terrorism.

"America cannot confront the challenges of this century alone," he said. "Europe cannot confront them without America."

Top on that agenda is the war in Afghanistan, which Obama said once had wide popular support before "we got sidetracked in Iraq."

He said he'd ask NATO allies at their summit on Saturday to commit more to the war, not only help finance development and reconstruction, but also with military manpower.

"There will be a military component to it," he said. "And Europe should not simply expect the United States to shoulder that burden alone. We should not, because this is a joint problem, and it requires joint effort."

Obama was working to build popular political support for the war in Afghanistan even as he strives behind the scenes to win new commitments from political leaders. Polls show that he's popular across Europe, but the idea of sending more combat troops isn't.

Based on the reaction in the arena, Obama had some success.

"This is a common problem. We've got to get rid of the problem," said Elisabeth Vogel, a teacher from Colmar, France. "We have sent troops, and we have had some casualties. But the French should be more involved."

Yet even among those who raved about the man, there were several who didn't applaud his proposal on Afghanistan.

"Maybe so," said Julian Dhuennesen, 17, of Heidelberg, Germany. "Maybe."

"He's very charismatic, very friendly. He's inspiring," said Helena Darras, 17, a student from Colmar, France. But sending more French troops to Afghanistan? "I don't know," she said. "I don't think the solution is to send more troops."

Earlier, Obama and Sarkozy offered complimentary statements about one another.

"I have not had to drag France kicking and screaming into Afghanistan," Obama said, noting that Sarkozy agreed that al Qaida terrorists based in Afghanistan and Pakistan pose a greater threat to Europe because of their proximity.

"We completely support the new American strategy in Afghanistan," Sarkozy said.

He added, however, that France wouldn't send any more combat troops.

Later, after meeting with Obama, Merkel said that Germany would help to train Afghan soldiers and police.

"We want to bear our burden of responsibility," she said. "We want to do something in order to train the Afghan National Forces but also the police in Afghanistan." She didn't mention combat troops.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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