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Europe Becomes Obama’s Re-Election Campaign ‘Prop’

Obama’s six-day trip to Europe — high on style but low on substance — was far more about creating photo opportunities than it was about strengthening the transatlantic relationship.

by
Soeren Kern

Bio

May 31, 2011 - 12:13 am

President Barack Obama is back in the United States after a six-day trip to Europe that from start to finish was carefully planned to quell criticism from opponents that he is a lightweight on the world stage. With his poll numbers at all-time lows in the United States, undiscerning Europeans dutifully turned out in droves to fawn over Obama, thus handing the president (who has mostly ignored them since taking office) enduring images that his campaign managers are sure to use as political fodder in the months ahead.

Book-ended by picture-perfect visits to Ireland and Poland in an effort to reach out to important political constituencies back home, Obama also visited France and Britain, where he upgraded the relationship from “special” to “essential.”

Obama began his European tour in Ireland in an ostensible effort to “rediscover” the roots of his great, great, great grandfather. To cheers from an exuberant crowd numbering 25,000 in Dublin, the American president began his evening address with the greeting: “Hello Dublin! Hello Ireland! My name is Barack Obama of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.”

Writing for London’s Daily Telegraph, columnist Cristina Odone said Obama’s trip to Ireland was “naked electioneering.” Wrote Odone: “Barack Obama is no more O’Bama than I am O’Done. And the Irish know it. They’re watching, bemused, as the most powerful man in the world comes to visit their President and Taoiseach, then visit Moneygall, home of his great-great-great grandfather. They know it’s not their smiling eyes he’s visiting for — but for the 35,975,855 Americans who claim Irish roots. That’s a sizeable chunk of the electorate and geographically strategic, too: Irish-Americans are numerous in precisely those states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, that often prove to be decisive during presidential elections.”

She continued: “Obama’s O’Bama act will strike Irish Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic as highly hypocritical not only because, as his autobiography ‘Dreams from My Father’ shows, his Kenyan heritage, not the Irish one, shaped his vision; but also because as President, Obama has pursued an anti-Catholic agenda that has been unapologetically pro-abortion and pro stem cell research. His stand on the death penalty is no different from previous administrations, and his U-turn on Guantanamo Bay betrays a disregard for human life that offends Catholic teaching. For Catholic Ireland, his trip is not so much the return of the Prodigal Son as the photo-op of the wayward cousin.”

Odone suspects Obama’s “Machiavellian tactic” will backfire: “The Irish will spin it as a PR triumph capable of regenerating their tourism rather than as a politically momentous occasion; the Irish Americans will quite rightly view the trip as a desperate, last ditch appeal to them. O’Bama, oh why sink so low?”

With the sought-after photos of adulating Irishmen in hand, Obama left Ireland as quickly as he arrived amid fears that Air Force One could be grounded by a volcanic ash cloud blowing down from Iceland. But not before posing for one last photo, of Obama sipping a pint of Guinness beer with ordinary folks at Ollie Hayes pub in Moneygall.

Obama’s next campaign stop was Britain, where analysts said the president was hoping to piggyback on the popularity of the British royal family in the United States after 23 million Americans tuned in to watch Prince William and Kate Middleton marry. To be sure, Obama remains highly popular in Britain despite having ejected Sir Winston Churchill from the White House in what was the first foreign policy decision of his presidency.

Letting bygones be bygones, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip welcomed the Obamas to Buckingham Palace with pomp and pageantry and a 41 gun salute and a state dinner. Obama returned the favor by botching a toast to the queen and refusing to drink the royal tap water. But he regained control of his image by becoming only the fourth foreign dignitary to address Parliament at Westminster Hall since World War II.

Obama, who is widely viewed as the least Anglophile of recent presidents, received a standing ovation from star-struck British MPs after he announced a new, more sensitive U.S. foreign policy, one in which America would follow rather than lead a changing world. “We will proceed with humility and the knowledge that we cannot dictate outcomes abroad,” Obama told an enraptured audience. One Member of Parliament described the scene of fawning British politicians eager to capture some of Obama’s stardust as “political Beatlemania.”

Obama then teamed up with British Prime Minister David Cameron to challenge students at London’s Globe Academy to a ping-pong match. Obama also co-penned an essay with Cameron for the Times of London, which states that the bond between America and Britain is not just a special relationship but “an essential relationship — for us and for the world.” The same article says — without a hint of irony — that bilateral relations under Obama are closer than those between former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former President Ronald Reagan, whose partnership helped end the Cold War.

Never mind that just six months ago, at a White House photo opportunity with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama gave the “essential relationship” honor to France. On January 10, 2011, Obama said: “We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people.”

As the British historian Niall Ferguson said in an interview on BBC Radio 4: “The British think they’re in a special relationship, but the Americans have quite a few special relationships and I don’t think that we’re the most special.”

Ferguson also said that Obama had been “mugged by reality” and was now pursuing a surprisingly neo-conservative position. “Actually, the differences between these two presidents [Obama and Bush] are remarkably small on foreign policy, which is deeply ironic when you consider how many Europeans thought the Messiah had arrived to redeem America after the wickedness of the Bush years.”

Obama’s next stop on the campaign trail was France, where he attended the two-day Group of Eight Summit in Deauville. After signing the Patriot Act by autopen just minutes before a midnight deadline, Obama won the only two foreign policy achievements of his entire six days in Europe: The leaders of the G8 gave “strong support” to Obama’s insistence that Israel must return to its pre-1967 borders. They also adopted a unified position that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi must go.

Meanwhile, Obama pledged $40 billion to promote democracy in the oil-rich Muslim world, this despite having led the United States close to bankruptcy.

Obama’s final campaign stop was Poland. After having sold out the Poles in a failed effort to appease Russia — which had objected to American plans to build a missile defense site close to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad – Obama said he would send U.S. F-16s and C-130s to train in Poland. It is a consolation prize Obama’s campaign managers hope will appease the 10 million potential U.S. voters of Polish origin.

Not all Poles were willing to play Obama’s game. Former Polish President Lech Walesa cancelled a meeting with Obama because he did not want to be part of a photo opportunity. Walesa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 for his role in helping to bring down communism, told Poland’s TVN24: “It’s difficult to tell journalists what you’d like to say to the president of a superpower. This time I won’t tell him, I won’t meet him, it doesn’t suit me.”

Not surprisingly, Obama ended his campaign stop at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, where he tried to convince American Jewish voters as well as a group of Holocaust survivors that “I will always be there for Israel.” This just one week after Obama threw Israel under the bus to appease the Palestinians.

Washington Post columnist George Will, speaking on ABC News, said Obama suffered a major strategic defeat while he was in Europe. Will said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrated that he has more of a grasp on foreign policy than Obama with the U.S. Congress.

“While the president was overseas, Netanyahu speaks to a joint session of Congress,” Will said. “At the end of which you could ask the question whose Middle East policy has more support in the Congress of the United States — the president’s, or the prime minister of Israel’s? The answer is the prime minister of Israel’s policy.”

Obama did, however, achieve his goal of creating video for his 2012 campaign ads. As the presidential campaign gears up, Americans can expect to see lots of footage of Obama with the royal family as well as images of the visits to Ireland and Poland, coupled with public compliments from European leaders about the successful operation that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, all packaged to reinforce Obama’s national security credentials.

At a news conference in Poland, Obama said: “Even at a time where I spend most of my day thinking about our economy and how to put folks back to work and how to make sure that we’re reducing gas prices and how we stabilize the housing market and how we innovate and adapt and change so that we are fully competitive in the 21st century and maintain our economic leadership, I want the American people to understand we’ve got to leave room for us to continue our tradition of providing leadership when it comes to freedom, democracy, human rights.” One remaining question: Is Obama for real?

Soeren Kern is Senior Analyst for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.
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