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19 November 2010

Obama seeks to show Europe he still cares

Everything is about him, isn't it? He probably thinks that the sun rises because of him too.

WASHINGTON – Just days after an exhausting and sometimes disappointing trip to Asia, President Barack Obama is dashing to Europe to assure America's trans-Atlantic allies that he is not neglecting them.

Obama departed from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland shortly before midnight. His two days of diplomacy in Lisbon, Portugal, will be framed by back-to-back summits: one with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and then a joint U.S.-European Union gathering.

But it's Obama's agenda — from the future of the Afghanistan war to disputes over currency and trade — that will be in the international spotlight at a time when he's been weakened at home by his party's defeats in the midterm elections and rebuffed abroad by world leaders.

During Obama's swing through Asia last week, he failed to ink a highly coveted free-trade deal with South Korea and couldn't rally wide-ranging international support for his opposition to China's currency manipulation.

What Obama, America's self-proclaimed first "Pacific president," did do in Asia was make clear that the economically booming region is of increasing strategic importance to the U.S. It's a reality not lost in Europe.

"There is some disappointment in the sense of how much attention he's given to Europe — that maybe he's been more focused on Asia, more focused on other problem areas, and that really the interest in Europe is about how many trainers and forces you can provide for Afghanistan," said Stephen Flanagan, a former State Department official who is senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Those concerns peaked earlier this year when European Union officials were forced to cancel a summit with the U.S. planned for Madrid in May after the White House said Obama would not attend.

Both U.S. and European officials say the administration has worked hard since then to bridge any divides with Europe, and Obama does remain personally popular there.

"We are each other's closest partners. Neither Europe nor the United States can confront the challenges of our time without the other," Obama wrote in a New York Times editorial published Thursday.

The White House has been quick to note that Obama's trip to Portugal will be his eighth trip to the continent since taking office — though many of those stops have been just long enough for the president to spend the night. Two separate visits to Copenhagen last year didn't even allow time for that.

Obama's direct engagement with the European Union while in Lisbon will be brief. Just two hours have been allocated on Saturday for the delayed U.S.-EU summit, though European nations will play a central role in the more extensive NATO meetings.

On the heels of his 10-days in Asia — the longest amount of time he's spent abroad as president — some Europe watchers say Obama must use his time with the continent's leaders, however brief, to assure them that his commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance remains strong.

"They want a sense of a steady hand that's also concerned about the same problems that they see as most immediate," Flanagan said.

Chief among Europe's concerns: Afghanistan, counterterrorism and the economy, which is again causing deep concern on the continent amid news that European countries may have to step in to help stabilize debt-stricken Ireland.

Some in Europe have questioned Obama's handling of the economic crisis, most notably his reliance on stimulus spending as a path toward recovery at a time when many European nations are slashing spending and raising taxes. Germany's foreign minister racheted up the criticism earlier this month when he said the Federal Reserve's move to flood $600 billion into the U.S. economy inflated the value of the dollar and gave America a trade advantage.

Despite the growing policy divide, the economic ties between the U.S. and Europe remain strong. By some estimates, one in 10 U.S. jobs is created as a result of the relationship, and $4 trillion in trade and investment flows across the Atlantic each year. Both parties plan to discuss opportunities for more cooperation during Saturday's summit, including reducing trade barriers and streamlining regulations, especially for new and emerging technologies.

Obama will also face skepticism from Europe over his strategy in Afghanistan. Weary of war and hampered by public anger, many European leaders are under pressure to reduce their countries' combat roles in Afghanistan or shift to a training-focused mission.

The White House hopes a plan NATO is expected to adopt outlining a timeline to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans by 2014 will appease U.S. allies and provide them political cover at home. The agreement will call for the transfer to begin next year and continue across Afghanistan's 34 provinces through the end of 2014, based on conditions on the ground.

Obama and his European counterparts are also expected to discuss increased security cooperation in light of recent terror threats that led the U.S. to issue travel alerts to Europe after attempted attacks on cargo transport networks.

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