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Analysis: Obama in Europe

Paris is ripe with excitement ahead of Obama's visit to the City of Lights.
by Stefan Nicola
Berlin (UPI) Jun 4, 2009
After trying to mend ties with the Arab world, U.S. President Barack Obama sets his eyes on old ally Europe.

The visit to Germany and France on Thursday, Friday and Saturday is aimed at burying once and for all the tensions that accompanied the presidency of George W. Bush.

The groundwork to do so has already been laid.

Several of Obama's foreign policy initiatives, including bids to mend ties with Iran and Russia, a revamped Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy and ambitious measures to fight climate change have gone down well with European leaders. Moreover, Obama is hugely popular with ordinary citizens here -- some 200,000 turned out for a campaign speech the president held in downtown Berlin last summer.

Among German politicians, however, Obamania has subsided a bit.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have felt snubbed by the president recently. Not only did it take weeks for a video conference to be scheduled with the president (such conferences were held regularly with the former president), Merkel also failed in scoring a bilateral with Obama ahead of the Group of 20 summit in London.

Last week the high-ranking German negotiation team tasked with rescuing car maker Opel, a General Motors daughter, was very upset when the U.S. Treasury Department sent only a lower-level official to the negotiation table.

Even the current trip sparked frustration. Merkel had tried to bring Obama to Berlin, but the president refused.

The chancellor would have liked to clinch a photo-op with Obama ahead of regional and national elections this year in Germany.

Berlin is ripe with speculation as to what the reasons for the refusal may be.

Some say it's due to a lack of personal chemistry; others say it's a private revenge for Merkel's refusal to have Obama speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Germany's symbol of the peaceful anti-communist revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall.

But a third reason may be more likely: The German leadership simply isn't that flexible right now.

Washington has long tried to get Berlin to send more troops to Afghanistan and to dispatch a portion of them into the volatile southern provinces, where U.S., British and Dutch troops are suffering casualties in firefights with the Taliban.

Obama knows that before September, when Germans go to the polls to elect a new government, not much will happen in Berlin in terms of concrete security cooperation pledges.

That cooperation to fight extremism pays off is one of the central messages Obama will bring to Europe this week.

After arriving in Dresden Thursday, the president is due Friday to visit the former Buchenwald concentration camp, which was liberated in 1945 by U.S. troops. Charles Payne, Obama's great-uncle, was part of a U.S. infantry division that in April 1945 liberated Ohrdruf, a satellite camp to Buchenwald.

Obama will finish off his visit to Germany by touring Ramstein Air Base and meeting with U.S. troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan at the Landstuhl military hospital. He will then go to France for bilateral talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy and extensive celebrations commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe in Paris and Normandy.

Sarkozy, nicknamed "L'Americain" by his fellow citizens, courted Obama long before he became president. This has paid off. It seems that at the moment, America's relations with France are trumping those with Germany -- a historic first in many decades.

Obama told French television he enjoyed a "wonderful relationship" with Sarkozy, lauding the French president's commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan and his strong stance against Iran's nuclear program.

Paris is ripe with excitement ahead of Obama's visit to the City of Lights. First lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, will join him there Friday. They may even dine atop the Eiffel Tower, the French press has speculated.

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