Obama's Europe tour raises question of how much U.S. can afford to help

McClatchy NewspapersMay 28, 2011 

WARSAW — President Barack Obama wrapped up a European tour Saturday that amounted to a roving pep rally for the spread of democracy tempered by debts at home that might make it difficult to pay for much more than talk.

His four-country, six-day trek was designed to showcase the appeal of self-government, from a celebration of time-tested freedom in England, to a pledge from the U.S. and its allies to help fledgling democracies in North Africa, to a reassurance that the U.S. stands with Poland and sees its overthrow of Soviet oppression as a beacon to the world.

Yet his commitments did not add up to anything on the scale of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II. And he concluded with an appeal to folks back in the United States to support U.S. efforts overseas even as they focus on their own recession-drained pocketbooks and staggering government debt.

"Even at a time when we have fiscal constraints," he said Saturday before flying home, "I want the American people to understand we've got to leave room for us to continue our tradition of providing leadership when it comes to freedom, democracy, human rights."

His remarks came as he proposes to give $2 billion in aid to Egypt. He and allies also agreed at a summit in France to seek other aid to emerging democracies. That money might come from the International Monetary Fund and perhaps from the European fund created to help countries such as Poland make the transition from communism to capitalism and democracy.

Yet his trip came as Europe, too, wrestles with debt, and Congress is gearing up for a fight over whether to raise the legal limit for U.S. government borrowing.

"My sense is that he is making a direct appeal to Congress not to neuter the foreign assistance budget, particularly at a time when the transformation of (the Middle East and North Africa) is at stake," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

On his last stop after Ireland, the United Kingdom and France, Obama hailed Poland as an example for countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.

Meeting with veterans of the Solidarity labor movement that first challenged authoritarian rule, he said they helped led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rapid rise of freedom and democracy in Poland and Central Europe.

"Poland's story demonstrates how a proud and determined and enthusiastic people can overcome extraordinary challenges and build a democracy that represents the great strength and character of this nation, while now serving as an example for Europe and the world," he said later.

Missing from the meeting: former Solidarity labor leader, Polish president and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa. He refused to attend, calling it little more than a photo opportunity.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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