Obama's European headache
By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — It is no small irony that President Obama’s re-election bid is being undermined by his friends in Old Europe.
Forty-six months ago, then-candidate Barack Obama flew to Berlin to call for a new era of friendship with Europe after it and the United States had “drifted apart.” With an offer to end the American unilateralism of the Bush years, he urged the adoring crowd: “Now is the time to join together through constant cooperation.”
But in his long weekend of summitry — Group of Eight leaders at Camp David and NATO leaders in Chicago — he found European cooperation coming up short just when his political fortunes depend on it most.
The French are going wobbly on Afghanistan, which, if the sentiment spreads, could threaten his plan for an orderly withdrawal and increase disenchantment with the war at home. And Europeans generally are resisting his urgings that they prop up their ailing economies. Combined with a prospective pullout of Greece from the euro, this could send the U.S. economy back into recession — and evict Obama from the White House.
“I think we all understand ... what’s at stake,” the president said at a news conference in Chicago on Monday afternoon. “What happens in Greece has an impact here in the United States. ... And we’re already seeing very slow growth rates, and in fact, contraction in a lot of countries in Europe.”
He was similarly blunt about Afghanistan, speaking of “strain” and “some bad moments” ahead. “I don’t think that there’s ever going to be an optimal point where we say, ‘This is all done, this is perfect.’ ... And it’s sometimes a messy process.”
In recent days, the messes visited Obama at home. On Friday, France’s new Socialist president, Francois Hollande, sat in the Oval Office and said he would make good on his campaign promise to withdraw French combat troops from Afghanistan this year.
The next day, at Camp David, the G-8 leaders were unable to agree on much of anything regarding Greece, the euro, and the tension between austerity and growth in Europe. Instead, they issued a communique full of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand platitudes:
“We welcome the ongoing discussion in Europe on how to generate growth, while maintaining a firm commitment to implement fiscal consolidation.”
“We commit to take all necessary steps to strengthen and reinvigorate our economies and combat financial stresses, recognizing that the right measures are not the same for each of us.”
“We affirm our interest in Greece remaining in the eurozone while respecting its commitments.”
Next, Obama flew to his hometown of Chicago, where his task was to put the best face on the ambiguous situation in Afghanistan. In a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, he looked hopefully to the time after 2014 when “the Afghan war as we understand it is over.”
In his post-summit news conference the next day, the president began with a stream of upbeat descriptions of the NATO mission in Afghanistan: “We have delivered. ... We’re now unified. ... We reached agreement on the next milestone. ... We leave Chicago with a clear road map.”
But the phrases turned less cheerful when the first questioner, Julie Pace of the Associated Press, asked Obama whether he had been able to resolve the diplomatic dispute with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari over supply routes into Afghanistan.
“My discussion with President Zardari was very brief,” he answered, adding: “We didn’t anticipate that the supply-line issue was going to be resolved by this summit.”
When Alister Bull of Reuters asked about the possibility of Greece setting off a “Lehman-like shock,” Obama voiced empathy for the Europeans’ difficulty.
“They’ve got 17 countries that have to agree to every step they take,” he said. “I think about my one Congress, then I start thinking about 17 congresses, and I started getting a little bit of a headache.”
Obama, seeking to steer the subject to a more unifying theme, called on Jake Tapper because the ABC News correspondent had told the White House that he had been interviewing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But this brought no relief, because Tapper selected a question about a premature withdrawal leading to Taliban rule.
Obama granted that “the Taliban is still a robust enemy” but said it would be good enough to leave an imperfect Afghanistan so “we can start rebuilding America and making some of the massive investments we’ve been making in Afghanistan here back home.”
This could be a good campaign theme, if his European friends cooperate.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, (c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group.