- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2016

President Obama embarked Thursday on his 20th trip to Europe, a continent facing more uncertainty than when he took office, as it grapples with Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, a mass migration of Muslim refugees and rising concern over Russia’s unchecked military aggression.

Mr. Obama’s arrival Friday in Warsaw, Poland, for a NATO summit comes amid criticism from some foreign policy specialists that he has failed to deal effectively with Europe’s problems while his administration was pivoting its attention to Asia and elsewhere over the past eight years.

“The White House has yet to fully acknowledge the shift in Europe today and the challenges that it faces,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“There was a misdiagnosis and lack of attention. And now we’re paying the price for that. U.S. influence in this debate is greatly diminished.”

The summit will provide Mr. Obama with his first face-to-face meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron since the United Kingdom voted two weeks ago to leave the EU, a move that prompted Mr. Cameron to announce that he would resign in October. The president rankled many British voters during a trip to London in April when he urged them to remain in the EU, raising accusations that he was meddling in Britain’s domestic affairs.

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has suggested the results of the referendum were partly a backlash over Mr. Obama’s perceived interference.

White House advisers said Mr. Obama will use the NATO summit to reinforce the importance of alliances and transatlantic cooperation in the wake of the “Brexit” vote. The meetings also will allow Mr. Obama to “get a sense from them over how they are thinking about the discussions and negotiations that they will have surrounding the British decision to exit the European Union,” said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser.

“We should be reaffirming our commitment not just to our alliances, but also to the success of the European project, the success of the values of democracy and pluralism and tolerance and openness and open markets,” Mr. Rhodes said. “I think all of that is going to be front and center in what the president is saying privately and publicly throughout his time in Europe.”

The trip is likely to be Mr. Obama’s last to Europe. On his first visit, in 2009, his assessment was that “each leader seems to be able to rise above parochial interests” to achieve common objectives.

At Mr. Obama’s first NATO summit in April 2009, “there was total focus on Afghanistan,” Ms. Conley said. Later that year, the president ordered a surge of 30,000 troops into the war theater.

The war in Afghanistan is still a pressing challenge for Mr. Obama and NATO as leaders of the alliance meet this week. Mr. Obama announced Wednesday that he’ll keep 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the time he leaves office in January, up from the 5,500 troops he had planned to leave in the country.

The president said the increased troop level will show NATO allies that the U.S. is still committed to Afghanistan’s security in its “precarious” situation amid new momentum by the Taliban. He’ll also meet in Warsaw with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

When he became president nearly eight years ago, Mr. Obama promised to “reset” U.S. relations with Russia. It hasn’t worked, and the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine is still vexing the U.S. and NATO.

NATO is planning to deploy four battalions — each with about 1,000 troops — as a deterrent to Russia across Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Analysts say it’s only a fraction of what’s needed to show Moscow that NATO is serious about stopping incursions in the Baltic states, all former Soviet republics like Ukraine.

NATO just wrapped up a two-week military training exercise in Poland involving 31,000 troops, designed to reassure Poland and the Baltic states concerned about a repeat of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine in 2014.

The military demonstration prompted German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to warn against NATO raising tensions with Russia.

“What we shouldn’t do now is to inflame the situation by loud saber-rattling and shrill war cries,” Mr. Steinmeier said. “Those who believe symbolic tank parades on the alliance’s eastern border will bring more security are mistaken.”

Mr. Obama spoke by phone with Mr. Putin on Wednesday, urging him “to take steps to end the significant uptick in fighting in eastern Ukraine” and to implement an agreement to end the hostilities. They also spoke about their shared commitment to fighting the Islamic State in Syria, where Russia is propping up the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Many diplomats and observers question whether the EU will hold firm in its economic sanctions against Russia now that Britain is leaving the trading bloc.

“At the heart of this, the center of gravity is European unity and transatlantic unity,” Ms. Conley said. “And we know the United Kingdom was very proactive in ensuring that the EU maintained a robust sanctions regime against Russia.”

The second half of Mr. Obama’s five-day trip will be a visit to Spain that has the appearance more of pleasure than policy. Spain has an acting prime minister who’s still looking to form a government as the country wrestles with 21 percent unemployment; Mr. Obama instead will tour cultural attractions in Seville with the king, visit sailors at a U.S. Navy base and hold a town hall meeting with Spanish youth in Madrid.

Mr. Rhodes said the president is visiting Spain because it is “really the largest European country that the president has yet to visit.”

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