Obama wowed them in Europe, but was trip a success?

McClatchy NewspapersApril 7, 2009 

ISTANBUL, Turkey — President Barack Obama headed home from his first trip overseas Tuesday confident of at least one thing: He'd managed to put his face indelibly on American foreign policy for much of the rest of the world.

Using personal diplomacy to advance his broad policy goals, Obama charted a new course as he moved rapidly across the continent, attending three summits, visiting six countries and meeting at least 15 foreign leaders, wrapping up with a surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday.

Among the highlights:

  • A summit in London of 20 economic powers that worked to find a coordinated way to bring the world economy out of a tailspin.
  • A summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at which fellow government leaders cheered Obama's new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, but committed additional troops only to guard elections and train Afghans, not to fight al Qaida.
  • An agreement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to negotiate a new treaty further slashing both countries' nuclear arsenals.
  • A proposal to curb all nuclear weapons and keep them out of the hands of non-nuclear powers such as Iran.

Everywhere he went, Obama was a figure of fascination to foreign leaders eager to take his measure, as well as to everyday citizens, who saw him as personally and politically far different from his predecessor, George W. Bush.

"It was so easy to work with him," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.

"He's a great, great man," said Elisabeth Vogel, a teacher from Colmar, France, who came to see Obama when he appeared in nearby Strasbourg.

"Obama number one," said a broadly smiling taxi driver in Istanbul, flashing a thumbs up.

Perhaps. How much he succeeded is open to debate, however, and it could take a long time to gauge how successfully he managed to reshape American policy, and with it the course of world affairs.

"This will be tested in time," Obama said at a town hall meeting in Istanbul, his second of his trip.

"Moving the ship of state is a slow process. States are like big tankers; they're not like speedboats. You can't just whip them around and go in a new direction. Instead you've got to slowly move it and then eventually you end up in a very different place."

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod called it an "enormously productive trip."

He said it produced an international approach to solving the economic crisis, restoring growth and creating a new regulatory framework for business and finance, including hedge funds.

White House aides also lauded the agreement by NATO allies to send an additional 5,000 troops to Afghanistan, though they didn't mention that none would be combat troops.

Ultimately, they said, Obama got to know world leaders, recommitted the United States to working through international alliances and demonstrated a personal leadership style in mediating disputes between France and China over tax havens and between European powers and Turkey over appointing a new secretary-general at NATO.

"He . . . projected the best of America on this trip, and I think the world responded in a very positive way," Axelrod said.

"Why didn't the waters part, the sun shine and all ills of the world disappear because President Obama came to Europe this week? That wasn't our expectation. That will take at least a few weeks," he added to laughter.

Reginald Dale, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national-security research center in Washington, wasn't among those laughing. He called Obama's trip a disappointment.

"It was very strong on glamour and presentation but much less so on substance," Dale said. "To draw an analogy, it reminded me a bit of an Easter egg: very colorful, but when you open it up, it's hollow."

He said:

  • Obama came up short at the G-20 summit when other countries refused to commit more money to stimulus spending on the scale the United States has done under Obama.
  • The president failed to win combat troops from NATO.
  • His lofty goal of a world free of all nuclear weapons "is largely irrelevant to the world's problems at the moment and impossible to achieve in the foreseeable future."
  • "He let the Europeans set the agenda on international regulation. He let them define what their response would be on Afghanistan." In both cases Obama said it was a wonderful success, "which it clearly wasn't," Dale said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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