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Obama pledges new US-Europe relations

April 3, 2009 7:33:35 AM PDT
Welcomed with thunderous cheers, President Barack Obama pledged on Friday to repair damaged relations with Europe, saying the world came together following the 2001 terrorist attacks but then "we got sidetracked by Iraq." "We must be honest with ourselves," Obama said. "In recent years, we've allowed our alliance to drift."

The new U.S. president said that despite the bitter feelings that were generated by Iraq, the United States and its allies must stand together because "al-Qaida is still a threat."

Speaking before a French and German audience at a town-hall style gathering, Obama also encouraged a skeptical Europe to support his revamped strategy for rooting out terrorism suspects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and said Europe should not expect America to should the burden of sending in combat troops by itself.

"This is a joint problem," Obama said on the cusp of the NATO summit. "And it requires a joint effort."

He opened his appearance with a 25-minute prepared speech in which he set a dramatic, long-term goal of "a world without nuclear weapons." He said he would outline details of his nonproliferation proposal in a speech in Prague on Sunday, near the end of a European trip that is spanning five countries in eight days.

"Even with the Cold War now over, the spread of nuclear weapons or the theft of nuclear material could lead to the extermination of any city on the planet," Obama said.

He held the campaign-like event in the midst of his first European trip as president as he sought to strengthen the United States' standing in the world while working with foreign counterparts to right the troubled global economy.

Obama said the United States shares blame for the crisis, but that "every nation bears responsibility for what lies ahead - especially now."

Back home, his administration was trying to weather the fallout of another dismal monthly jobs report that was announced as Obama spoke in France. The jobless rate jumped to 8.5 percent, the highest since late 1983, as a wide range of employers eliminated a net total of 663,000 jobs in March.

Overseas, Obama invited questions from his French and German audience heavily made up of students in a sports arena. Even though Obama talked about the event as a way to interact with young foreigners, he did most of the talking and took only a handful of questions.

He acknowledged "my French and German are terrible" but noted that translators were on hand. Much like during his presidential campaign, Obama paced the stage with a microphone, like a talk show host.

In his opening remarks, he underscored European and American ties and appeared intent on improving the U.S. image abroad, which suffered under George W. Bush. "I've come to Europe this week to renew our partnership," Obama said, bluntly claiming that the relationship between the United States and Europe had gone adrift, with blame on both sides.

"In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world," Obama said.

Instead of celebrating Europe's dynamic union and seeking to work with you, Obama said, "there have been times where America's shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive."

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

He added: "On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise. They do not represent the truth."

Obama also encouraged Europe to support his new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.

"I understand this war has been long. Our allies have already contributed greatly to this endeavor," Obama said. "Understand we would not deploy our own troops if this mission was not indispensable to our common security ... I understand there's doubt about his war in Europe. There's doubt even in the United States."

But he said the United States and its allies must continue to work to defeat the "terrorists who threaten all of us." And, he said Europeans and Americans had to look past disagreements over Iraq.

Obama opposed the Iraq war, which divided America from many of its traditional allies and was the source of bitter relations between the U.S. and Europe.

"We got sidetracked by Iraq and we have not fully recovered that initial insight that we have a mutual interest in ensuring that organizations like al-Qaida cannot operate," he said. "I think it is important for Europe to understand that even though I am president and George Bush is not president, al-Qaida is still a threat."

Obama also sounded an upbeat message of globalization, saying history shows why nations must work together.

"We are most vulnerable to war and conflict when people are desperate economically," Obama said. "Nobody knows that history more than Europe."

The president said he wants to look back at his tenure and know his work drastically lessened the threat of terrorism, particularly nuclear terrorism.

"We can't reduce the threat of a nuclear weapon going off unless those that possess the most nuclear weapons - the United States and Russia - take serious steps to reduce our stockpiles," Obama said. "So we want to pursue that vigorously in the years ahead."

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this week pledged a new effort to both nations' nuclear arsenals.

Touching on topics controversial in Europe, Obama also promoted his decision to close the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay within a year, and said "without equivocation that the United States does not and will not torture."

Earlier, in a symbolic gesture, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Obama that France would accept a prisoner from the controversial detention center where terrorist suspects are held if that would facilitate its closing.

Saying that he was determined to "speak the truth," Sarkozy said that Guantanamo "was not in keeping with U.S. values." He said democratic states have a responsibility to speak honestly and do what they say, and that Guantanamo was a contradiction in that standard.

Obama said the U.S. would need help in finding a place to send those held at the center. He thanked Sarkozy for "being good to his word."

About 250 detainees are still held - some without charge - at the Guantanamo Bay prison, which was set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hold so-called "enemy combatants" accused of links to the al-Qaida terror network or the Taliban. Spain and Portugal have already said they could accept prisoners, while Germany and others remain tightlipped whether they will accept non-nationals.

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