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Obama Promotes Afghanistan Strategy to NATO Allies

April 3, 2009 at 6:15 PM EST
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President Obama met Friday with NATO allies in France to rally support for his new strategy in Afghanistan. Margaret Warner reports on the two-day summit of 26 leaders from NATO countries.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, President Obama and other NATO leaders convened a summit today in France. The president also engaged in a kind of goodwill campaign to win over hearts and minds in Europe.

Ray Suarez has our report.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good afternoon. Bon apres-midi and guten tag.

RAY SUAREZ: The president brought the air of an American political campaign to the banks of the Rhine in eastern France. He and First Lady Michelle Obama arrived to a thunderous reception at a town hall meeting in Strasbourg.

The Alsatian border city is hosting the 60th anniversary meetings of NATO, the transatlantic alliance.

BARACK OBAMA: I’ve come to Europe this week to renew our partnership.

RAY SUAREZ: The audience — mostly French and German citizens — listened as Mr. Obama bluntly assessed Euro-American relations, frayed by the Iraq war and a kind of mutual contempt.

BARACK OBAMA: In recent years, we’ve allowed our alliance to drift. I know that there have been honest disagreements over policy, but we also know that there’s something more that has crept into our relationship.

In America, there’s a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world. But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual, but can also be insidious.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. So let me say this as clearly as I can: America is changing, but it cannot be America alone that changes.

RAY SUAREZ: The president pressed the crowd to support the American-led war in Afghanistan. That war, now in its eighth year, is a NATO effort. The U.S. is adding another 20,000 troops to the fight this year.

BARACK OBAMA: So I understand that there’s doubt about this war in Europe. There’s doubt at times even in the United States. But…

… this is a mission that tests whether nations can come together in common purpose on behalf of our common security.

RAY SUAREZ: Amid all the grave talk, there were also moments of levity, as when the president opened the floor to questions.

QUESTIONER: And first of all, I wanted to tell you that your name in Hungarian means “peach,” if you…

BARACK OBAMA: Peach?

QUESTIONER: Yes.

BARACK OBAMA: Oh, OK. Well, how about that? I did not know that.

Appeal for unity

RAY SUAREZ: But Mr. Obama also used the questions to repeat his appeal for unity, especially in the face of terrorism.

BARACK OBAMA: And I think that it is important for Europe to understand that, even though I'm now president and George Bush is no longer president, al-Qaida is still a threat and that we cannot pretend somehow that, because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president, suddenly everything's going to be OK.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla, received the Obamas at the Palais Rohan in Strasbourg. The president said France has shown its commitment to NATO in Afghanistan.

BARACK OBAMA: I've not had to drag France kicking and screaming into Afghanistan, because France recognizes that having al-Qaida operate safe havens that can be used to launch attacks is a threat not just to the United States, but to Europe.

NICOLAS SARKOZY, president of France (through translator): We totally endorse and support America's new strategy in Afghanistan. We are prepared to do more in terms of police, of the Gendarmes, the military police, in terms of economic aid, in order to train Afghans and Afghanize Afghanistan. We are not waging a war against Afghanistan; we are helping Afghanistan rebuild.

RAY SUAREZ: Sarkozy also said France would take in an Algerian detainee from Guantanamo Bay. The announcement was a response to Mr. Obama's pledge to close the American military prison in Cuba, long an international sore spot.

From France, it was on to Baden-Baden, Germany, in the afternoon, and talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel that included NATO's future.

BARACK OBAMA: I don't come bearing grand designs. I'm here to listen, to share ideas, and to jointly, as one of many NATO allies, to help shape our vision for the future. If NATO becomes everything, then it's nothing.

RAY SUAREZ: As President Sarkozy had done, Chancellor Merkel reaffirmed the German pledge to strengthen Afghanistan, but she also looked to that country's western neighbor, Iran.

ANGELA MERKEL, chancellor, Germany (through translator): We want to shape relations with Iran in such a way that a nuclear rearmament of Iran is simply made not possible, but that at the same time we make it possible for the Iranian people to have a hopeful and prosperous future. We are very gratified to that, that the United States wants to have a fresh beginning, a fresh start in this relationship.

BARACK OBAMA: All right? Thank you, everybody.

ANGELA MERKEL: Danke schoen.

BARACK OBAMA: Danke schoen. My German is not as good as Chancellor Merkel's.

RAY SUAREZ: Tomorrow, the NATO heads of state and government will meet to take stock of the alliance's past, its present, and chart its future. And on Sunday in Prague, the president plans to announce a far-reaching goal: creating a world without nuclear weapons.

Afghanistan strategy

RAY SUAREZ: And Margaret Warner joins us now from Strasbourg, France. Margaret, along with bringing the pitch to European politicians, was President Obama also bringing that strong message on Afghanistan to the European public, as well?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Ray. In fact, that was a big part of today, this town hall meeting he held just in the next building over. President Obama's on a campaign to get the Europeans to buy into, to buy back into the Afghan mission, which NATO took on, as you know, after 9/11, under the common defense pact. And an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all.

And since then it as, as he put it, drifted. So today his target audience were these young people, combined French and Germans, a lot of students and young adults. And he really tried to make a generational pitch to them. This was very deliberate on the Obama White House's part.

And he essentially said, you know, every generation has to step up to challenges. And it may be very tempting to sit things out or to withdraw or to just tend to your own life, but we cannot do that. And he made a very strong case that al-Qaida terrorism was a threat, not only to the U.S., but even more to Europe, because Europe is closer.

So he did say, look, we've reshaped our policy. It's no longer just military. It's going to have a big civilian reconstruction, diplomatic component. We want to partner with Europe on all of that. But he said there is a military component, and Europe cannot expect the United States to shoulder that alone.

RAY SUAREZ: You had a chance to talk to members of the audience after that town hall meeting. Did the plea for help on Afghanistan find a receptive audience?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, yes and no. I mean, as it started out, it was really like a campaign manager's dream. In fact, it looks, Ray, like a campaign, like hundreds of rallies he's held in this huge sports arena, the bleacher seats all filled with kids, the whole, you know, floor. When President Obama and Michelle Obama came in, the crowd went wild. All the kids were snapping photos.

And they certainly, as he spoke, they cheered when he talked about things that he's done, like ordering the closing of Guantanamo, declaring that the U.S. won't torture, declaring his commitment to fight climate change.

But the reaction to the Afghanistan message, I would say, is more mixed. And I'll give you a couple of examples.

There are two young men who were French, 19 and 20, students, friends. And they were ecstatic. And they said, "You know, this is so different from the Bush era. We're going to revive the U.S.-European relationship. And, you know, yes, he has a point about terrorism. And I think it's reasonable to ask for more help."

But then another student, also a male student, about the same age, on the one hand, he was totally gaga over Michelle Obama. In fact, he had managed to get in the rope line. She worked the rope line separately from her husband. And, you know, flip around so he got a great photo on his camera of himself and Michelle Obama. And he just said, you know, he was inspired by President Obama.

But then, when I asked him about committing more to Afghanistan, he said, well, he was troubled by the inference from President Obama, when President Obama said, you know, the U.S. can't shoulder militarily alone, the inference that Europe had to do more. And he said, "We have French soldiers there. When one French soldier dies, it is big news here. And we want to help, but not by fighting, but in other ways."

Europeans' views of President Obama

RAY SUAREZ: Has this trip to Europe highlighted an attempt by the Obama administration to distance themselves both in style and in substance from the European relationship of the Bush years?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, absolutely, Ray. I mean, the policy differences are stark, everything from being willing to talk to Iran to closing Guantanamo. At the G-20 meeting in London, President Obama's willingness to accept at least international regulatory standards for the whole financial sector, all of that is a big departure from the Bush administration.

That said, I would say the difference in tone and approach is even more significant and is more profound here. And that is that he's portraying himself as, in fact, we know he actually is, as consultative. He's not laying down markers and saying, "This is the U.S. position," and challenging the Europeans to match it. He's saying, "We need to evolve a common policy."

Now, there's a reason behind this, which is, as I said, he wants them all to buy in. If they're in on the takeoff, then they're going to be in on the landing.

But it is a big difference. For instance, today he said, "We don't want to be a patron of Europe; we want to be a partner of Europe." At the same time, after he did this litany of things that his administration's changed policy was, he said, "So America is changing, but we can't be the only ones who change."

RAY SUAREZ: As you've watched the reception President Obama has gotten in Europe, has this also been a week where Michelle Obama's been a potent presence in Europe?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, certainly in the newspapers and certainly in the media. I mean, there's huge fascination with her, with her outfits. There have been all kinds of articles, you know, comparing and contrasting her outfits with other people's outfits, and just her youth and sort of vigor and naturalness.

There was a great photo in one of the London papers of -- you know, she went in to meet the queen. And President Obama had said at a press conference we had earlier that morning that, you know, she was giving a lot of thought to this meeting, because meeting the queen is kind of a big deal.

And so -- and she wore -- the papers commented on the fact that she wore a very demur dress in this case, but then they did a back shot and she -- you know, you're never supposed to touch the queen. You're not even supposed to put out your hand to shake hands unless the queen does first.

And Michelle Obama put her arm around the queen, who's about this tall compared to Michelle Obama. But there seems to be, actually, great fascination and kind of affection for her here. And she's obviously been a huge asset for him.

RAY SUAREZ: And quickly, before we go, Margaret, what's on tap for the president this coming weekend?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, tomorrow is the official opening of the NATO summit. They're at a dinner right now talking about some of the ways they're going to try to reshape NATO. So that's tomorrow.

They're going to talk about Afghanistan. They're also going to talk about how to reshape NATO. They're going to talk about trying to resume some sort of relationship, NATO and Russia.

And then he is going to Prague to meet with the E.U. Again, it's part -- on the next day. It's all part of this continuing conversation that he is having with his European allies about a new approach to sharing the responsibilities of the 21st century.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner in Strasbourg, thanks a lot, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Ray.