BADEN-BADEN, Germany | President Obama on Friday used his massive popularity in Europe to speak bluntly to the continent, condemning what he called “insidious” anti-Americanism and calling on allies to do more to fight the war in Afghanistan and boost its military muscle.
Addressing thousands of young French and Germans at a campaign-style town hall event in the French border city of Strasbourg, Mr. Obama took on cultural misperceptions on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Europe, he said, “there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what’s bad,” he said.
But Mr. Obama also reached out to his hosts, condemning “dismissive, even derisive” U.S. attitudes toward Europe’s “leading role in the world” - not mentioning that many Europeans thought his predecessor, President George W. Bush, embodied those attitudes.
The large crowd in Strasbourg, which cheered wildly upon Mr. Obama’s entrance, was quiet during the portions of his talk when he challenged deeply held European biases.
The president, battling a persistent head cold in the middle of his weeklong European tour, also tried to win over his European audience by talking up his administration’s plans - popular here - to eliminate nuclear weapons, close the Guantanamo Bay prison, end torture and tackle global warming.
But in one sign of lingering policy differences, Mr. Obama and other NATO leaders were unable to agree on a new chief as a two-day alliance summit began. Turkey is balking at the leading candidate, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, because of his role in the global controversy in 2006 over Danish political cartoons seen as offensive to Muslims.
“We don’t have consensus yet,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said at a news briefing. “The discussion will continue tomorrow.”
The town hall event was the highlight of a day when Mr. Obama also met in the morning in Strasbourg with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a harsh critic of U.S. policies ahead of the just-concluded London G-20 summit, and in the afternoon with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the quaint German town of Baden-Baden. A dinner with the heads of state of the NATO alliance wrapped up the day.
Mr. Obama’s mix of frank talk and rhetorical olive branches produced at least one breakthrough: Mr. Sarkozy praised Mr. Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo and said France was ready to accept some detainees from the prison in Cuba.
“Guantanamo was not in keeping with U.S. values,” Mr. Sarkozy said in a joint briefing with Mr. Obama. “You don’t combat terrorists with terrorist methods.”
He said France might accept some detainees that U.S. officials deem a danger but cannot try in a court of law.
“We can’t condemn the United States to have this camp and then simply wash our hands of the whole business when they close it down. That’s not what being an ally, a friend, means,” Mr. Sarkozy said.
The NATO dinner was expected to focus primarily on Afghanistan, with the United States pushing its allies to contribute “more civilian and military support” after Mr. Obama in recent weeks ordered 21,000 more U.S. troops to the war.
But the president’s most remarkable exchanges came at the town hall meeting, where he repeatedly tried to ingratiate himself with the European public while pushing European leaders to do more.
Mr. Obama said he had come to Europe “to renew our partnership, one in which America listens and learns from our friends and allies, but where our friends and allies bear their share of the burden.”
He stressed the need for Europe’s nations to increase their military capabilities and reaffirm their commitment to Afghanistan. Currently, the NATO-led coalition fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda now comprises 58,000 U.S. troops and only 32,000 troops from all other countries.
“Europe should not simply expect the United States to shoulder that burden alone. We should not because this is a joint problem and it requires joint effort,” he said.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs hammered home the point when speaking to reporters early in the day.
“The responsibility is there for Europe to step up,” Mr. Gibbs said. “This is more than the concern of the United States, but rather the concern of the world.”
But the message was proving a tough sell with political leaders who must deal with widespread anti-military domestic sentiment.
Both Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy made clear that they intend only to increase their assistance in noncombat roles.
“There will be no extra troops, French troops, because the decision to step up our troop presence was taken already last year,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “We are not waging a war against Afghanistan. We are helping Afghanistan rebuild.”
Mrs. Merkel said Germany wants “to bear our burden of responsibility,” but that its job would be “to train the [Afghan national army] but also the police in Afghanistan.”
Mr. Obama saw the anti-war sentiment firsthand as he was keeping his political appointments. One of the thousands who flocked to see Mr. Obama’s motorcade wind through the narrow streets of Baden-Baden held a rainbow-colored flag aloft with the word “peace” emblazoned in white as the president passed by.
With Europe’s aversion to armed conflict in mind, Mr. Obama talked throughout the day about the need to persevere in Afghanistan.
“We would not deploy our own troops if this mission was not indispensable to our own common security,” Mr. Obama told the town hall gathering. “If there is another al Qaeda attack, it is just as likely, if not more, that it will be here in Europe in a European city.”
But he also sought to counter attitudes about war and conflict in general, and said a change of U.S. administrations did not lessen the burden for others.
“It is important for Europe to understand that even though I’m now president and George Bush is no longer president, al Qaeda is still a threat. We cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president, suddenly everything is going to be OK,” he said.
“Don’t fool yourselves, because some people say, ‘Well, you know, if we changed our policies with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or if we were more respectful towards the Muslim world, suddenly these organizations would stop threatening us.’ That’s just not the case.”
He even called the war in Afghanistan “just,” a term usually reserved for theological debates about whether state-sanctioned bloodshed can be morally justified.
“I understand that after a long campaign in Afghanistan, people can feel weary of war, even a war that is just,” he said.
Mr. Obama did not specify what he is seeking from NATO allies, though Mr. Gibbs talked about the need to ensure security for Afghan elections in August, increase training for Afghan police, offer humanitarian aid and provide financial assistance to neighboring Pakistan.