By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009
STRASBOURG, France, April 3 -- With a call to common purpose and the generational appeal to youth that helped him win election at home, President Obama pressed his efforts here Friday to change the tone of a relationship with traditional allies that was soured by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Arriving from London, where at an economic summit he pushed for united action to combat the global recession, Obama shifted his focus to the threat al-Qaeda poses to Western nations and the need for a united response. But while he won pledges of support from French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for his new strategy for winning the battle in Afghanistan, the two leaders stopped short of promising to back the American effort by sending more combat troops to the war-torn nation.
Obama will push his new plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan on Saturday during a conference here marking NATO's 60th anniversary.
"We're not looking to be the patron of Europe -- we're looking to be partners with Europe," he said at a town hall meeting shortly after arriving in this city on the French-German border. "The more capable they are defensively, the more we can act in concert on the shared challenges we face."
The president and first lady Michelle Obama strode onto a stage in the middle of a sports arena to thunderous applause, an image that invoked candidate Obama's trademark rallies. In his comments to the mostly college-age audience, the president acknowledged that the United States has contributed to the "drift" in relations across the Atlantic. "There have been times where America's showed arrogance," he said, but went on to chide his audience: "There is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious."
He said Europeans have a responsibility to join the United States in the Afghan fight because the threat from terrorism is even greater for them, and suggested that Americans expect more support for the effort than European leaders have been willing to offer.
"There will be a military component to it, and Europe should not simply expect the United States to shoulder that burden alone," he told the audience. "This is not an American mission. This is a NATO mission; this is an international mission."
Obama did not specifically call for more troops from European nations, which are balancing their desire to forge a new era of transatlantic cooperation with a reluctance to commit more resources to Afghanistan.
Sarkozy told Obama on Friday that "we totally endorse and support America's new strategy in Afghanistan," but he insisted that his country will offer only assistance with development and more people to help train the Afghan police force.
"There will be no extra French troops. The decision to step up our troop presence was taken already last year," Sarkozy said after meeting privately with Obama for almost an hour at a palace here.
Merkel pledged to support Obama's new efforts in Afghanistan during a similar meeting in nearby Baden-Baden, Germany. But she did not offer any specifics. German officials have said that any increase in the country's 3,800 troops is highly unlikely.
The American president played down any rift between the United States and his European counterparts, praising Sarkozy and Merkel for their broad support of his new approach for Afghanistan.
"I've not had to drag France kicking and screaming into Afghanistan, because France recognizes that having al-Qaeda operate safe havens that can be used to launch attacks is not just a threat to the United States, but to Europe," Obama told reporters.
But implicit in his remarks was a not-so-subtle message: that along with "reengagement" will come new responsibilities.
The United States has contributed most of the fighting force in Afghanistan, and last month it increased the number of American troops there by 21,000. Within the NATO deployment, Germany has sent 3,640 forces, France has sent just under 3,000 and Italy has sent 2,350, making those countries Europe's major contributors after Britain. Spain on Friday offered to add to the 778 troops it has there, and Belgium indicated that it will send an additional 65 to its force of 500.
In his meetings with Obama, Sarkozy said France will accept one prisoner from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay as a way to show approval of Obama's decision to close the facility in Cuba, adding that "it feels really good to work with a U.S. president who wants to change the world."
Obama said he wants to close Guantanamo Bay within a year because "I don't think it makes America safer." He said the United States will need help finding places to send the approximately 240 detainees who are still at the prison, and he thanked Sarkozy for "being good to his word" in agreeing to accept a prisoner who has links to France.
"We can't condemn the United States because they have that camp and then wash our hands of it once they close it," Sarkozy said. "That's not what being allies is about."
In a 25-minute speech before taking questions at the town hall meeting, Obama talked about the United States and Europe being connected by history and shared interests, pledged to fight climate change, and repeated his long-term goal of eliminating nuclear weapons.
"This generation cannot stand still. We cannot be content to merely celebrate the achievements of the 20th century," he said. "This is our generation, this is our time, and I am confident we can meet any challenge, as long as we're together."
The president was in turn playful and serious, calling on questioners and then expressing mock outrage when two of them turned out to be Americans. "I just want to say I did not call on the American on purpose," he said after the first questioner acknowledged being from San Francisco.
"I'm technically half-German, if that makes anyone feel better," she told the audience.
Obama then urged other U.S. citizens to hold back.
He told one questioner that he longed for the pre-presidential days when he could explore Europe's neighborhoods and cafes without the security bubble that keeps him confined to hotels and meeting rooms.
"That is something that is frustrating," he said.
Urging the audience to find ways to engage in public service, he said: "The world has so many challenges now. There are so many opportunities. Jump in. Get involved. It does mean sometimes you'll get criticized, and sometimes you'll fail and you'll be disappointed. But you'll have a great adventure, and at some point in your life you'll be able to look back and say, 'I made a difference.' "
Obama began his trip to France by meeting with Sarkozy at a palace, arriving to adoring crowds lining the streets. As he continued his five-country tour of Europe, Obama announced that he will return to France in June to visit the beaches of Normandy.
Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren in Washington and correspondent Edward Cody contributed to this report.