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From messiah to mess: Europe turns on Obama

January 18, 2010

The problem with starting out as a messiah is that you usually end up being clobbered by your own fans.

Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the US a year ago was hailed with messianic fervour in Europe, where he was seen as the perfect antidote to the hated policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

“First, Obama was not Bush, and appreciation for him reflected not least how despised Bush was among Europeans. Second, Obama aroused expectations in all possible directions,” said Joerg Forbrig, senior researcher at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a trans-Atlantic think tank based in Berlin.

Experts said that the scale of expectations all but guaranteed that Obama would disappoint Europe sooner rather than later.

But surprisingly, after a year in which he has failed to make much headway on key issues such as climate change, terrorism and the war in Afghanistan, Obama’s halo still appears bright in Europe.

“My impression is that among the European publics, he still has quite a high reputation. The poll data seem to suggest that he is seen as an appealing figure and that Europeans are … sympathetic to his approach,” said Anthony Dworkin, senior policy fellow at the European Centre for Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank.

Obama’s election pledges rang like music in European ears, with their emphasis on peaceful diplomacy, the fight against climate change and the closure of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

By June, when the Marshall Fund organised a poll of European views of Obama, a staggering 77 percent of respondents in the European Union and Turkey approved of his foreign policy.

After that honeymoon period, questions began to surface over his ability to put his pledges into action.

First, Obama’s attempts to close the Guantanamo prison stalled.

“Obama has gone some way to dealing with the (Guantanamo) legacy, but quite a lot remains unresolved,” Dworkin pointed out.

Then European commentators complained that Obama’s focus on health-care reform had led him to sideline questions of climate change in the build-up to crucial UN talks in Copenhagen.

That anger intensified after Obama came to a deal in Copenhagen with China, Brazil, India and South Africa, leaving European leaders out of the key negotiations.

And further decisions to scrap a missile-defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic and send yet more troops to Afghanistan also tarnished his image among some, at least, of his European observers.

But despite those disappointments, Europeans still seem to see Obama as the trans-Atlantic messiah – at least for now. Evidence of this was the Nobel Peace Prize presented to him just days after he had escalated the Afghanistan commitment.

“In the face of these disappointments, I am rather surprised how long-lasting the advance credit for Obama has turned out to be, but there is an increasing likelihood of a bounce back as people see that their expectations cannot be met,” Forbrig said.

For now, however, analysts say that Obama is more likely to turn away from Europe than the reverse.

The Obama administration is reportedly disappointed by what it sees as a weak and incoherent European response to issues such as financial reform and the resettling of former Guantanamo detainees.

“Thus far, the Obama administration has seen European governments broadly living down to their expectations. It has found them weak and divided – ready to talk a good game but reluctant to get muddy,” ECFR experts Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney wrote in November.

That, in turn, has led to fears that Obama will look elsewhere for international allies.

“The big concern in the European political classes is that Obama seems to be sidelining Europe,” Dworkin said.

And with Europe’s politicians reluctant to commit themselves to US-led policies which might be unpopular with their own voters, it seems, for once, more likely that the US messiah will tire of his European followers than that they will get fed up with him.

“Popular admiration in Europe will only really count for Obama if it leads to material and political support from European governments. If that support is not forthcoming, the Obama administration will probably move on, along the lines of ‘be with us, or be irrelevant’,” Forbrig said.

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