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Obama in France for NATO summit

Difficult talks involving U.S. wars and expansion of the alliance are expected.

April 04, 2009|Christi Parsons

STRASBOURG, FRANCE — In a variation on his unfolding message to Europe, President Obama said Friday that the U.S. has at times displayed arrogance but appealed to Europeans to set aside their own "insidious" anti-American biases in favor of transatlantic friendship.

Still, as leaders of NATO gathered for today's summit marking the 60th anniversary of the alliance, Obama's campaign did not seem to be producing the concrete results that he sought -- in particular, new commitments for help in Afghanistan.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who together are hosting the summit along the border between their countries, expressed support Friday for the Obama administration's new strategy of sending extra American troops and strengthening Afghan forces. But they offered no new troops of their own.

Obama arrived in Strasbourg from the Group of 20 summit in London, which focused on the global economic crisis.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit could be more difficult for Obama, in part because of Afghanistan. Other touchy issues include strains over the alliance's future in the face of growing Russian irritation. And members this week confronted differences over choosing a new NATO leader.

Turkish officials object to the selection of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who spoke out in favor of press freedom after a Danish newspaper in 2005 published a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, enraging Muslims.

During his European trip, Obama has employed a strategy well honed at home: interspersing high-level meetings with leaders with pep rallies catering directly to their bases of support.

On Friday, the president held a town hall meeting in a sports arena where hundreds of screaming teenagers lavished Obama with a public display of approval. Televised images could easily be viewed by the NATO summit hosts.

In the U.S., Obama told the crowd, there has been a failure to appreciate the "leading role" Europe plays in the world.

"Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive," he said.

Obama did not explicitly refer to former President George W. Bush, frequently accused of a unilateral approach to foreign relations that angered allies. But Obama did not lay all the blame on U.S. attitudes.

"In Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious," he said. "Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what's bad."

Such attitudes are unwise and misplaced, he said.

"They fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth that America cannot confront the challenges of this century alone, but that Europe cannot confront them without America," he said.

It was a new twist on the conciliatory approach Obama has taken over the last four days. The Obama strategy is powered in part by the popularity of the United States' new first couple, evident in both the meetings with world leaders and in interactions with the public.

The Obamas were greeted like celebrities when they arrived in this city in the Alsace-Lorraine region. When they went to join Sarkozy and his wife, the singer and model Carla Bruni, at the Palais Rohan, they were thronged by crowds who waved, calling out to them and taking pictures.

At the town hall, several teenagers said they had traveled overnight for the chance to see Obama in person.

Linda Strecker, 16, traveled to attend the forum from her hometown near Heidelberg, Germany, because she wanted to meet the man she calls "the great American president."

Marie Meyer, 16, from Colmar, France, said she had been impatient to see Obama because of the potential for change that he represents.

"He has shown that America can change its image in the world," Meyer said. "It shows that, in our time, people aren't judged by the color of their skin."

The crowd cheered when Obama spoke of closing the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Sarkozy said earlier that France would accept one of the detainees held there to aid the process of shuttering the prison.

Obama last week unveiled his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, pledging to use 21,000 additional troops to help stabilize Afghanistan against insurgents and to train the nation's security forces. The plan also called for a threefold increase in nonmilitary aid to Pakistan as part of a new push to get the government in Islamabad to crack down on militants in the country's tribal belt.

NATO has backed the Afghan mission with about 30,000 combat troops and support units.

Despite Obama's popularity, the Afghan war is widely disliked, and thousands of protesters gathered for the summit. Police used tear gas and water cannons to control them, arresting dozens.

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