US mailed fist gets velvet during Obama’s European trip

Barack Obama in Prague (AFP Photo / Stringer)
With natural flair and charisma, US President Barack Obama was the personification of soft power as he appealed to the historic sensibilities of his European hosts in an attempt to underwrite US military missions abroad.

It’s rather uncanny how American presidents, whenever they pay a visit to the enchanted, Old World, can stir up so much public enthusiasm on the cobbled town squares simply by uttering a phrase or two in the native tongue.

John F. Kennedy pulled off this linguistic trick with resounding success on June 26, 1963 during a visit to West Germany when he pronounced before a 30-thousand strong throng, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (some of the more pedantic historians insist that JFK actually proclaimed that he was a chocolate-covered donut). But in Kennedy’s heyday, with the newly unveiled Iron Curtain slicing through East and West Berlin, the existence and perseverance of a very real enemy was never in doubt.

Today, with the Soviet Union relegated to the history books, the United States must work overtime convincing its European peers that NATO, not to mention Uncle Sam, is not the anachronistic organization so many fear it has become today.

President Obama recycled Kennedy’s oratorical strategy on Sunday in Prague when he made direct allusions to the Czech Republic’s famed ‘Velvet Revolution’ (he pronounced “Sametova Revoluce” to great applause), those heroic weeks at the end of 1989 when the Czech Republic threw off the rotten Soviet yoke. To drive those increasingly distant memories home to the home crowd, a private meeting was arranged between America’s wunderkind and Vaclav Havel, the playwright-slash-revolutionary who led the peaceful Czech revolt against Communism with nothing more intimidating than a ballpoint pen.

George W. Bush could never have stitched the rhetorical seams of the Velvet Revolution together with America’s desire to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic as Obama did. The new and untested American president, proving to more than one political pundit that he is not really so different from his neoconservative predecessor, said he would continue with US plans to construct the missile shield, unless Iran – one of the “rogue states” that the American system is designed to protect Europe from – proves that it is not threatening to build nuclear weapons.

Obama’s tough conditions bring to mind the Bush administration’s practically impossible demands that the Taliban turn over all of its homegrown terrorists, and that Iraq prove that it had no weapons of mass destruction otherwise they would face military invasion, which is precisely what occurred in their respective countries. It will be remembered that not even the UN inspection team, on the ground in Iraq turning over every rock, could convince the Bush administration that Iraq was for all intent and purposes unarmed.


Barack Obama and Czech president Václav Havel (AFP Photo / Mandel Ngan)

Constructing a missile shield in Eastern Europe may sound like a harmless, even magnanimous venture. But every shield carries a sword, and this is where the proponents of the system fail to heed Moscow’s grievances about the plans. After all, Europe may be mesmerized by Obama’s velvety articulation and deliberate delivery, but the Russians, while outwardly impressed with the promising US leader, will never allow its long flanks to be exposed to military technology that threatens to compromise its own security.

In other words, not everybody in Europe was infected with “Obamania,” and this has less to do with Barack Obama than the damaged American legacy left behind by the geopolitical blundering of the Bush administration (Just a few scary words should suffice to serve this point: Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, water boarding torture and Dick Cheney).

Even (or especially) NATO, which celebrated its 60th birthday during the weekend summit, responded to the American president’s pleas for help in Afghanistan with halfhearted camaraderie: out of the military organization’s 28 members, Obama went home with a promise of just 5,000 extra NATO troops from the European member states. France, which formally ended its 43-year boycott of NATO over the weekend, lived up to its party-pooper credentials once again by refusing to commit any of its troops to direct military operations.

More discouraging is that the new NATO recruits will only get on board as basic trainers and traffic police; they will not participate in the predictably bloody combat that is expected to premier in the summer. Obama naturally painted this disappointing troop “down payment” as a victory in his first foray into European politics, but what the trip really proved is that Afghanistan is for the most part an American war.

NATO’s real enemy

NATO is suffering from a lack of purpose as the deepening economic crisis begins to trump perennial fears about al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and Iran. Even regional pest North Korea thumbed its communist nose at Obama in the middle of NATO's gala celebrations, testing a missile despite a stern warning not to.

Barack Obama went so far as to employ “gallows humor” about his presidential predicament during an interview on 60 Minutes, the US political show, when he said: “If you had said to us a year ago that the least of my problems would be Iraq, which is still a pretty serious problem, I don’t think anybody would have believed it.” In other words, Obama is not the 'war president' that his predecessor believed he was.


Anti-NATO activists walk past riot police officers during an anti-NATO protest in Kehl on April 4, 2009 (AFP Photo / John Macdougall)

The general lack of enthusiasm for NATO, and perhaps even America’s vision of a New World Order, is not only visible at the highest levels of power. On the street during the G20 and NATO meeting, huge protests were a common sight everywhere that the political leaders put down their shoes. Although these ongoing ‘disturbances’ remain a nagging footnote to these global gatherings of the elite, there may come a time when all of the disparate and disgruntled movements (environmentalists, unionists, anarchists, etc) find a way to forge their message into a viable political voice.

Even selecting a new NATO leader for the 58,000-strong pact proved a burdensome task. As police battled with the protesters on the streets of Strasbourg, France, NATO stirred up ill feelings among Muslims by giving the post of secretary-general to Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen.

Turkey, a NATO member, strongly objected to the Danish leader because it was Rasmussen who had defended a Danish newspaper in 2005 that had published twelve cartoons showing the image of the Prophet Muhammad.

Islam forbids any portrayal of Muhammad, no less in a disparaging series of tactless cartoons.

With the almost provocative selection of Rasmussen, some are accusing western leaders of intentionally stoking dissent and possible violence between NATO and its perceived enemies in order to bond the members together in the fires of shared experience.

In other words, in the absence of a truly threatening enemy the existence of NATO becomes more and more difficult to justify. If nothing else, the global economy has found its enemy in the form of a recession, thus offering America a real opportunity to lead something besides a regiment of soldiers to the next distant battlefield.

Through the non-military challenge of global economic meltdown, the United States, under the leadership of its talented young leader, may once again shine on the global stage. Without firing a shot. Now that would be something to see.

Robert Bridge, RT, RT