LISBON, Portugal — President Obama arrived here this morning for two days of meetings with NATO allies as they craft a new plan for the war in Afghanistan and seek a new mission statement that will keep them relevant in the 21st century.
After a lengthy trip to expand American trade opportunities in Asia last week, Obama turned around immediately for a trip to reassure friends in Europe that their shared security and economic concerns are also a top priority. The focus for the weekend is forming the NATO plan to begin turning security responsibility for Afghanistan over to local forces this year, a long-term process that Obama now acknowledges will probably last into 2014.
At the same time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will meet with the allies to talk about cooperating on a missile defense shield for Europe. The idea was previously too distasteful for Russia to discuss in such an international forum, but warming relations between Obama and Medvedev helped to pave the way.
The visit to Lisbon casts a spotlight on Obama's foreign policy, just as Republicans in Congress have made it clear how hard the president will have to fight to implement any of his priorities -- starting with the nuclear arms treaty he crafted with Medvedev. Senate Republicans are now threatening to push off approval of the treaty until next year.
Scheduled to last barely 24 hours, the president's trip to Portugal is his eighth trip to Europe since he took office in 2009. His visits to Asia have been fewer but far longer, with the most recent tour of four nations lasting 10 full days. The White House says the trip's goal is to underscore his commitment to the most important alliances in the world.
"Our relationship with our European partners is a vital cornerstone of our engagement with the world," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said. "We cooperate with Europe on a whole host of issues directly, and then also cooperate with them on a host of global issues."
Among those, he said, is NATO, which is "our core security alliance in the world" and a fundamental part of the approach to Afghanistan.
The president arrived at the Lisbon airport under a cloudy morning sky, greeted by 10 members of the Portuguese presidential guard in blue berets on a red carpet. He went immediately into a meeting at the U.S. Embassy, then was headed to meet with Portuguese President Cavaco Silva and Prime Minister Jose Socrates.