Published on
The Toronto Star

Obama Girds for Global Test

Aides try to lower expectations ahead of U.S. president's debut on world political stage

Mitch Potter

President Barack Obama makes remarks about the American automotive industry, Monday, March 30, 2009, in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

WASHINGTON - As a massive entourage assembles to escort U.S. President Barack Obama on his first overseas journey tomorrow, White House aides are moving to lower the bar of expectations for what is expected to be his first crucial test of global leadership.

Upwards of 500 officials - from senior cabinet colleagues, aides and security details to teams of doctors and personal chefs - are involved in Obama's seven-day whirlwind, which includes summits of the G20, NATO and European Union, plus meetings with the leaders of Russia and China, and ends with two days in Turkey.

The White House mantra on the goals of the journey is "to listen and to lead by example" - a phrase intended to maximize Obama's bridge-building credentials in resetting the tone of American foreign relations.

But the prospects of him returning with much more than reciprocal goodwill are far from assured. Europe, for its part, remains bitterly divided on the merits of the Obama administration's formula of debt-expanding stimulus strategies for economic revival. And the political appetite for a serious expansion of the NATO-led effort in Afghanistan, as outlined by Obama last week, appears even smaller.

"I don't think he will come away with much. Yes, this is his moment of honeymoon, he should be able to do things - but getting more deeply mired in Afghanistan doesn't work for Europe," said Richard Ned Lebow, a foreign policy expert at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College.

"You can say that Obama inherited such an awful problem that he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. But the fact is, Obama has made Afghanistan his problem now - he owns it.

"And if he uses his leverage to twist arms and have states extend their commitments in Afghanistan, that means they will be less likely to be forthcoming on other issues."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs jokingly referred to the trip as "our European vacation." But there will be barely a moment of leisure after Obama arrives in London tomorrow night.


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On Wednesday, he is to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Chinese President Hu Jintao, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, British opposition leader David Cameron and the Queen.

Thursday, on the sidelines of the G20 summit, he is to meet with the leaders of India, Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Proceeding to the 60th anniversary NATO summit Friday and Saturday - co-hosted by border towns Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, Germany - Obama will have his first formal encounters since winning the presidency with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The U.S. delegation then proceeds to Prague on Sunday, where Obama will meet more European Union leaders to discuss energy and climate issues and deliver what White House offices say will be a "major address" on nuclear proliferation.

Obama moves to Turkey late Sunday for a visit to Ankara and Istanbul, where, in addition to meeting leaders, the president is expected to host an "online roundtable," reaching out to discuss American foreign policy with students in Asia and Europe.

In a briefing on the goals of the trip, White House aides urged reporters to see the next week not as a test of Obama's aptitude on the world stage but rather "as an opportunity to consolidate much of the work that we've done" during the first two months in power.

"The president recognizes that ... we don't get to choose when the test comes," said deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough.

"He's ready any day of the week - every day of the week - for just that."

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