What European insiders think

By August 6, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

BUDAPEST, Hungary, Aug. 6 (UPI) — It has been two weeks since Sen. Barack Obama’s visit to Germany, France and the United Kingdom. The senator had nearly completely favorable media coverage. I wondered what those behind the scenes feel about his visit.

I interviewed some members of Parliament, a few folks from the security establishment and advisers to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. I consulted other ranking officials in and out of these three countries. A synopsis follows.

In Germany, with some exceptions, the officials felt the discussions were successful and open. In most cases, Obama showed knowledge beyond their expectations. He was well briefed and in listening mode. One official in Germany described his preparation as “impressive.”

Some German media described his speech as “Kumbaya.” The right-of-center media were more critical of his visit. The lead-up to his Berlin meetings and the discussions surrounding his proposed public speech at the Brandenburg gate caused serious consternation in these circles. “Why did his staff not send a brief note on the QT to Merkel to ensure that they would take a positive posture to the speech?” I was asked.

“Strangely,” a reporter friend of mine noted, “the Siegessaule (Victory Column) was moved to its present location by (Adolf Hitler’s chief architect) Albert Speer as part of the grand plans for Germania. That went virtually uncommented in the press. I find it bizarre!”

Obama’s visit to France was much less in public display. The French press barely covered his trip to Berlin, and the senator’s speech was hardly a blip on news shows. While his meeting with Sarkozy did appear in the media, the French coverage was less effusive and more pragmatic. Much was made of the new relationship between the United States and France. Sarkozy’s praise for Obama was considered over the top and beyond the usual praise a French president would heap upon a visitor — especially a non-head of state.

In the United Kingdom, the security establishment was very concerned about anti-American demonstrations, more so than in Germany and France. A few minor skirmishes notwithstanding, even the U.K. visit was quite calm. With the exception of a not-intended discussion with Conservative Party leader David Cameron, which was not for public consumption but also no big deal, the U.K. trip went off without a hitch. The press was mostly gracious to Obama, but was severely critical of Gordon Brown — whose administration is in a tailspin and who is having serious bouts with the British labor unions.

Several persons I interviewed were surprised that this was Obama’s first visit to Europe at all. I was reminded by a leading political adviser how the press and political establishment had abused candidate George W. Bush about his lack of travel. “Even here,” a prominent conservative adviser said to me, “Sen. Obama gets better treatment despite the fact that he has visited nowhere and has a severe international deficit. A one-week trip for the first time in his life hardly adds up to extensive international experience.”

There is still lingering consternation in Central Europe as to why Obama did not add Bratislava, Budapest, Prague or Warsaw to his agenda. Prague is only a one-hour flight from Berlin. From Prague it is only one hour by plane to Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest. It is only a little longer to Warsaw. From Bratislava to Vienna is only 45 minutes by car. Said a senior adviser to a prime minister, “In fact, all Central European capitals could have been handily managed within a day-and-a-half. I do it regularly.”

Having established a strong rapport with the United States and having supported the war on terror, the Central Europeans feel there should have been a pit stop in one of the capitals. It is nearly 20 years since the fall of communism. It would have provided a good occasion to comment on states of affairs — especially those with Russia.

A former Central European prime minister heavily criticized Obama’s Berlin speech for its lack of approach to Russia. “Relations between the United States and Russia are at an all-time low. I was surprised that the senator did not feel it necessary to address current relations with the Russians. I find it unfathomable. Does this mean he does not see it as a priority?”

While my left-leaning European political friends generally support Obama — some were initially Clinton supporters — many of my conservative political friends are on the fence with him. They were most annoyed with his “non-support” when Gen. Wesley Clark critiqued Sen. John McCain’s lack of executive experience. While they see Obama as bright, they are very concerned about his international portfolio.

I remember when Jimmy Carter was running for president and a conservative political friend of our family in Heidelberg said to me, “I cannot support the governor of Georgia; I am afraid he will turn the Rose Garden into a peanut patch.” While tongue-in-cheek, it was a critique of Carter’s stature.

The political classes are enamored by Obama’s intelligence and charisma. They like John McCain’s forthrightness and experience.

Some doubt remains over Obama’s credentials for president. Even so, most are still prepared to give him the chance.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society for International Cooperation. He is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)