- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

PARIS | Cheered in Europe when he took office a little more than two months ago, President Obama flies here this week with relations clouding over differences on Afghanistan, prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center, and how to tackle the global financial meltdown.

The U.S. president still holds superstar status among many Europeans eager to see the back of the Bush administration, whose tenure sunk trans-Atlantic ties to a low point.

But Mr. Obama’s trip to Britain, the French-German border and Prague for talks on some of the world´s stickiest problems will test how much of that good will remains.

“In a strange sort of way, Europeans are quite apprehensive” about Mr. Obama’s visit, said Robin Shepherd, director of international affairs at the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank. “There’s a sense of admiration for Obama; there’s a sense of emotional connection. But now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of hard politics.”

One of the most fundamental differences involves how to handle the economic crisis. The topic will be hashed out Thursday, when leaders from the Group of 20 industrialized and developing countries meet in London.

European leaders led by Germany have resisted Washington´s calls to spend more to fight the economic downturn, concerned about mounting public debt.

“I think when it comes down to questions of hard cash and state budgets, European governments will feel they are doing what they can, and it really isn´t up to the United States to tell them what to do,” Mr. Shepherd said.

The message at the end of the day will likely be ” ‘We’ll do it our way, you’ll do it yours and, of course, we’ll coordinate,’ ” he predicted.

The White House on Saturday denied any significant tension between the administration’s goals and those of the European governments on responding to the economic meltdown.

“Nobody is asking any country to come to London to commit to do more right now,” Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, said in Washington. “I think what we do have is a consensus around … is that the G-20 agrees as a whole that we’ll do whatever is necessary to restore global growth, that we’ll ask the IMF to monitor what’s going on with the global economy and what’s necessary, and that we’ll maintain that effort over a sustainable period of time.”

Mr. Froman said Mr. Obama’s focus at the G-20 will be on hashing out agreement on the degree to which hedge funds should be regulated and on how to bring offshore tax havens “into the overall community of the global economy.”

There are other differences between the U.S. and Europe, some of them carried over from the previous administration. Western Europeans are skeptical of Washington´s support for fast-tracking Ukraine and Georgia membership in the NATO alliance, though the Obama administration view on these issues appears less enthusiastic than that of its predecessor.

Poland and the Czech Republic also want to know whether Mr. Obama will follow through on Bush administration plans to site a missile-defense system in their countries or scrap it to help “reset” the U.S. relationship with Russia.

And while Europeans have saluted Mr. Obama’s vow to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, many are not eager to accept ex-detainees, calling for full information on their backgrounds first.

But the war in Afghanistan remains the thorniest defense question, a subject likely to dominate a summit of NATO members in Strasbourg, France, and a separate meeting on Afghanistan that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will attend in The Hague on Tuesday.

“I think a lot of European allies are looking to the United States to roll out a new Afghan strategy they can more comfortably buy into, and they will be looking to whether they can up their military contribution, their economic contribution after they´ve seen that particular strategy,” said Daniel Korski, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

European reaction to Mr. Obama’s proposals, which were unveiled Friday, has been publicly positive. But French analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges ruled out chances that Europeans will contribute substantially more troops.

“It’s clear that many Europeans consider the war in Afghanistan is lost. It’s why they are wondering what kind of political solution the U.S. wants to propose, and I think the debate will be, how we can get out of Afghanistan without any kind of defeat,” he said.

Still, there is little doubt Mr. Obama remains widely popular here.

Europeans applaud Washington´s shift on climate change and new overtures to Iran.

“I think they’re really hopeful that Obama is going to pursue a multilateral strategy as he seems to indicate,” said Hall Gardner, professor of international relations at the American University of Paris, “[and] that American unilateralism and arrogance is over.”

Mr. Obama’s presidency has also generated fresh hopes for Europe´s minority politicians. And the U.S. leader topped the list of most respected world leaders in a February poll by Harris Interactive.

“He´s barely arrived in the White House, and I don´t think people are rushing to judgment, ” Mr. Shepherd said.

“At the end of the day, this is still very much Barack Obama´s honeymoon period.”

The White House restated the significance of the visit Saturday.

“This important trip … is obviously going to be a fundamental part of the president’s agenda of restoring America’s standing in the world, and particularly in Europe,” Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said in Washington on Saturday.

• White House correspondent Jon Ward contributed to this report from Washington.

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