- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2011

The fervent belief of the early Obama days — punctuated by a Nobel Peace Prize — that President Obama ushered in a new U.S. foreign policy era that Europeans would welcome has given way to growing concern over the U.S.-supported NATO campaign in Libya and questions over the pace of troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.

Security issues are sure to reign supreme as Mr. Obama embarks Monday on a four-nation, six-day visit of the region, but his trip also comes as Europe struggles with a sovereign debt crisis that’s forced many governments to adopt unprecedented austerity measures.

The sweeping cuts have been met by violent protests in many countries, while some nations, such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal, have had to beg their neighbors for a bailout.

Mr. Obama will swing through Ireland, Britain, France and Poland in a visit experts say will be aimed at reframing Europe’s role in partnering with the U.S. to confront the world’s many challenges, even as nations trim their defense budgets. The trip, analysts say, should also address what role the largest economies will play in the “Arab Spring” unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa.

“The irrational exuberance of Europe when President Obama was inaugurated is now met 2½ years later with a daunting list of domestic challenges, international challenges, and we have to understand how each relationship is going to work within that complexity,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Indeed, much has changed in just the six months since Mr. Obama’s last trip to Europe — for a NATO summit in Portugal in November — with the most significant shifts taking place in the Arab world, where pro-democracy uprisings ousted autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt while often-violent protests continue throughout the region.

In particular, the ongoing, bloody conflicts in Libya and Syria are certain to come up during the president’s state visit to London, where he’ll meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron before heading to Deauville, France, for a summit of the G-8 nations, several of whom are also key NATO allies assisting the U.S. in Libya and Afghanistan.

Ms. Conley described the London leg of Mr. Obama’s trip as an opportunity to “put the ‘special’ back into the U.S.-U.K. special relationship” in the wake of last year’s deadly explosion at an underwater oil well owned by London-based BP as well as the release of the Lockerbie bomber, a Libyan who was convicted of killing 270 people by blowing up a Pan Am flight headed for New York in 1988.

Despite the flaps, Britain remains one of America’s closest allies, providing 9,500 troops for Afghanistan, the largest non-U.S. contingent. Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Cameron has signaled the country will begin withdrawing its forces this summer as part of the broader plan for Afghanistan to take charge of its own security by 2014.

Analysts said Mr. Obama and his counterparts likely will hash out whether any escalation is in the cards for the NATO effort in Libya, where rebels and pro-government forces appear to be at a stalemate two months after the U.S. and its allies started bombing the air defenses of leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi. The strongman, who has held power for more than four decades, still controls Tripoli and western swaths of the country as members of his opposition appeal to Washington and other foreign capitals for funds.

Although it’s not clear when anti-Gadhafi forces can expect a “decisive blow,” Stephen Flanagan, a senior vice president who holds the Henry A. Kissinger chair at CSIS, noted there needs to be a plan.

“There is the question of what to do post-Gadhafi if in fact the NATO pressure is successful,” he said.

Within the context of the G-8 meeting, the leaders are also expected to weigh in on the Arab Spring, with observers waiting to see if other members of the group take a page from Mr. Obama’s Middle East speech on Thursday by pledging financial assistance to fledgling nations like Egypt and Tunisia.

Mr. Obama’s final stop, in Warsaw for what Polish officials say will be an informal summit of Eastern and Central European leaders, is both symbolic and strategic. It comes more than a year after a volcanic ash cloud prevented him from attending a funeral for the country’s president and other top government officials who were killed in a plane crash. It also comes as American companies express interest in developing considerable shale gas deposits in the country.

On the security front, the Poland visit will be an opportunity for Mr. Obama to shore up the U.S. ally after he decided in fall 2009 to scrap a missile defense agreement it had negotiated with the Bush administration. Polish media outlets have reported he’ll formally sign off on a plan to station F-16 fighter jets in central Poland.

By all accounts, Mr. Obama’s first stop on the trip will be more a chance for the president to explore his Irish roots than a visit freighted with international heft. According to Irish media reports, Mr. Obama is expected to pay a visit to the village of Moneygall, the birthplace of his great-great-great-grandfather, who left Ireland for New York in the mid-1800s.

Nevertheless, he’ll also meet with Irish leaders, and at a breakfast briefing with reporters, Irish Ambassador Michael Collins noted the close business and personal relationship between Ireland and the United States. U.S. investment in Ireland is more than $235 billion, while Irish investment in the United States is about $35 billion, he said.

Asked about the value of a U.S. presidential visit to Ireland, Mr. Collins said, “It’s unquantifiable.”

James Morrison contributed to this article.

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