Obama's European Honeymoon

Washington Matters

Obama's European Honeymoon

Europeans appear ready to give Barack Obama a great big Christmas present and inaugural gift rolled into one: A place to send most of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. That would clear the way for Obama to deliver quickly on his promise to shut the prison, which has become a global symbol of American excesses in the name of its own security. It's both a sign of how weary the continent had grown of the Bush administration (Europe said no when President Bush asked) and a gesture that acknowledges the important role Europe will have to play to restore health to its traditional alliance with the United States.

Obama campaigned by promising to work closely with Europe and other allies on a host of issues, making clear that he expected European countries, especially, to back up their promises of cooperation with deeds. But beyond saying he expected their help in dealing with the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and in keeping the Middle East on an even keel as the United States tries to extract itself from Iraq, Obama has been vague about what, specifically, he'll be seeking from the European Union and individual countries. And while Europe is overjoyed about Obama's election and the new tack he wants to take in foreign policy, it is extremely nervous about what Obama expects and whether it can -- or has the political will -- to deliver.

Europe has, with good reason, groused for years about Bush playing lip service to the notions of collaboration and coalition-building while generally acting unilatterally.But it has also tended to ignore its own tendency to talk a good game but often come up short. It's been unable, for example, to play as full a role as possible in righting Afghanistan. It's unclear whether European Union countries will be able to work together to stabilize the economy. And for years it loved to chastise America for failing to sign a global warming pact, but most European countries never lived up to the terms of that agreement themselves.

That's what's encouraging about the push to accept Guantanamo detainees -- it marries Europe's responsibilities to the high hopes it has for Obama. "The time has come for the European Union to step forward. As a matter of principle and coherence, we should send a clear signal of our willingness to help the U.S. government" by accepting detainees, said a letter to European Union countries from the foreign minister of Portugal.
Frankly, it's impossible to see such a letter being written before Obama was elected, and it''s refreshing. American attitudes, too, have come a long way from the days of "Freedom Fries" and we can only hope that efforts on both sides of the Atlantic will be based on genuine collaboration -- not just talk of it.

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