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Obama to Europe: No More Excuses

By Dan Froomkin
1:30 PM ET, 04/ 3/2009


Obama at town hall in Strasbourg, France, today. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Implicitly recognizing that many Europeans were disgusted with America's conduct during the Bush era, President Obama said today that now that the U.S. no longer tortures detainees, Europe has no excuse anymore to sit out his expanded military campaign in Afghanistan.

Heading into NATO summit meetings tomorrow, Obama told a French town-hall audience what was wrong with his predecessor's approach to fighting terror. "In dealing with terrorism, we can't lose sight of our values and who we are. That's why I closed Guantanamo. That's why I made very clear that we will not engage in certain interrogation practices," he said.

"I don't believe that there is a contradiction between our security and our values. And when you start sacrificing your values, when you lose yourself, then over the long term that will make you less secure. When we saw what happened in Abu Ghraib, that wasn't good for our security -- that was a recruitment tool for terrorism. Humiliating people is never a good strategy to battle terrorism.

"So we are going to conduct our operations in a way that reflect our best selves and make sure that we are proud. And that, in turn, will allow the Europeans, I think, to feel good about our joint efforts, and also not to have excuses not to participate in those joint efforts. All right?"

The audience, mostly made up of students from France and Germany, burst into applause.

But even as we've changed, the threat hasn't, Obama insisted. Calling attention to his Muslim middle name, he told the audience: "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 Qaeda is still a threat, and that we cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as President, suddenly everything is going to be okay."

And he said that even though he is invested in "showing the Muslim world greater respect" and working "very hard for Israeli-Palestinian peace," al-Qaeda remains "willing to kill innocent people because of a twisted, distorted ideology."

After a generally successful G-20 summit, Obama now faces an even steeper climb trying to get NATO countries to pony up troops for the benighted campaign in Afghanistan.

Michael D. Shear and Debbi Wilgoren write for The Washington Post that Obama also stepped up his pitch in a meeting with the president of France.

"'We're not looking to be the patron of Europe, we're looking to be partners with Europe,' Obama said. 'The more capable they are defensively, the more we can act in concert on the shared challenges we face.'...

"After a closed-door meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama said the two discussed the 'reengagement' of European nations in the Afghanistan war, adding that the French leader was receptive to that message.

"'I've not had to drag France kicking and screaming into Afghanistan because France recognizes that having al Quaeda operate safe havens that can be used to launch attacks is not just a threat to the United States but to Europe,' Obama told reporters."

Helene Cooper and Alan Cowell write in the New York Times: "The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 soured relations between the United States and some European countries, particularly Germany and France, which bitterly opposed the war. Other nations, like Britain, joined the effort to topple Saddam Hussein.

"Offering a new tone, President Obama lavished praise on his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, and, in a symbolic gesture, France agreed to accept a single prisoner from the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba to assist Washington with shutting down the facility....

"Mr. Obama has pledged a major increase in American troops in Afghanistan and has sought new commitments from NATO allies. 'We asked our NATO partners for more civilians and military assistance,' he said at the town hall meeting.

"He urged a shift in attitudes. In America, he said, there had been 'a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world,' and there had been 'times when America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive,' Mr. Obama said."

Edward Cody writes in The Washington Post that "European leaders have proved reluctant to follow Obama in his first major foreign policy initiative, which in effect seeks to make Afghanistan NATO's main mission of the moment. With a few exceptions, European analysts said, the leaders are ready to heed the U.S. call for more military help in Afghanistan only to the extent necessary to stay friendly with the new administration....

"European officials said Obama is likely to come away from the summit Saturday with a broad endorsement of his idea that stabilizing Afghanistan is a strategic goal for NATO and support for his decision to devote more civilian as well as military resources to eliminating al-Qaeda havens there and in Pakistan. But they also said that summit pleasantries are unlikely to mask Europe's refusal to commit to major new troop deployments."

Obama also revealed something about his inner working at the French town-hall meeting. Asked if he ever regretted his decision to run for president, he spoke of missing his family during the campaign and as president missing his "autonomy -- or anonymity" as he corrected himself. "[I]t used to be when I came to Europe, that I could just wander down to a café and sit and have some wine and watch people go by, and go into a little shop, and watch the sun go down," he said.

But then, he said: "[H]aving said all that, I truly believe that there's nothing more noble than public service....

"[W]hat I found at a very young age was that if you only think about yourself -- how much money can I make, what can I buy, how nice is my house, what kind of fancy car do I have -- that over the long term I think you get bored. (Applause.) I think your life becomes -- I think if you're only thinking about yourself, your life becomes diminished; and that the way to live a full life is to think about, what can I do for others? How can I be a part of this larger project of making a better world?

"Now, that could be something as simple as making -- as the joy of taking care of your family and watching your children grow and succeed. But I think especially for the young people here, I hope you also consider other ways that you can serve, because the world has so many challenges right now, there's so many opportunities to make a difference, and it would be a tragedy if all of you who are so talented and energetic, if you let that go to waste; if you just stood back and watched the world pass you by.

"Better to jump in, get involved. And it does mean that sometimes you'll get criticized and sometimes you'll fail and sometimes you'll be disappointed, but you'll have a great adventure, and at the end of your life hopefully you'll be able to look back and say, I made a difference."

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