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Obama Popular in Europe Despite Policy Differences


President Barack Obama heads to Europe this week for high-level talks on the financial crisis, trans-Atlantic cooperation and NATO. While Obama remains extremely popular among Europeans, differences over thorny international questions may cloud his welcome.

President Barack Obama still holds superstar status in Europe, where many ordinary Europeans were happy to see the Bush administration go. But that goodwill will be tested during three key summits Mr. Obama will be attending in London, on the French-German border, and in Prague.

Dominating the agenda on both sides of the Atlantic is the global financial crisis, the subject of talks Thursday in London among leaders of the Group of 20 developed and developing nations.

In particularly blunt criticism, Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek of the Czech Republic, which currently holds the EU presidency, blasted the Obama administration's stimulus plan as "a way to hell" and a threat to world financial markets.

Senior Czech officials say his remarks have been misinterpreted, but there is no doubt Europe and the United States do not see eye to eye on how to fight the financial meltdown.

European governments have resisted calls by Washington to spend more on their rescue packages.

International affairs director Robin Shepherd, of Britain's Henry Jackson Society research organization, says he doubts the G-20 summit will change matters.

"I think when it comes down to questions of hard cash and state budget, the European governments will feel they are doing what they can and it is not really up to the United States to tell them what to do," said Shepherd. "On the other hand, they recognize there is a need for transatlantic and wider global cooperation on the whole financial crisis. I think the real point is that because we are in uncharted waters, the argument can always be made back to the Obama administration there is not a clear blueprint. Nobody has the solution, so we will do it our way, you will do it yours and of course we will coordinate."

Europeans also want to hear more about America's plans to curb the insurgency in Afghanistan. They have largely resisted long-standing requests to send more troops to the war-torn country, particularly to more volatile areas.

European Council on Foreign Relations defense specialist Daniel Korski says Afghanistan is expected to dominate talks among leaders celebrating NATO's 60th anniversary April third and fourth on the French-German border.

"I think a lot of European allies, including France, are looking to the United States to roll out a new Afghan strategy that they can more comfortably buy into, and they will be looking at whether they can up their contribution, their military contribution, their economic contribution, after they have seen that particular strategy," said Korski.

But many European citizens oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan. French analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges doubts Mr. Obama will convince their governments otherwise.

"It is clear the Europeans and especially the French are not ready to send more troops to Afghanistan," he said. "It is clear that many of them consider the war in Afghanistan is lost. It is why they are wondering what kind of political solution [Obama] wants to propose and I think the debate will be how we can get out of Afghanistan without any kind of defeat."

There are other differences, some of them carried over from the previous Bush White House. Western Europeans are skeptical of Washington's support for fast-tracking Ukraine and Georgian membership in the NATO alliance.

And Poland and the Czech Republic want to know whether Mr. Obama will follow through on Bush administration plans to site a missile defense system in their countries.

But there is little doubt Mr. Obama remains widely popular. Europeans applaud Washington's shift on climate change and new overtures to Iran. They also hailed Mr. Obama's vow to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within a year, although they are more cautious about possibly accepting ex-detainees.

American University of Paris International Relations Professor Hall Gardner says generally Europeans like Obama's foreign policy.

"I think they are really hopeful that Obama is going to pursue a multilateral strategy as he seems to indicate," said Gardner. "That the American unilateralism and arrogance is over. That Obama will listen to his allies and act in cooperation with them, rather than listen to them and go ahead and do what he wants to do anyway."

Mr. Obama's presidency has also generated fresh hopes for Europe's minority politicians. The U.S. leader topped the list of most respected world leaders in a February poll by Harris Interactive.

Analyst Shepherd says Mr. Obama hopes to capitalize on that popularity during his European tour

"At the end of the day, this is still very much Barack Obama's honeymoon period," he said. "He is barely arrived in the White House and I do not think people are rushing to judgment. There is still a large amount of goodwill by the Europeans toward the new president and people are prepared to wait and see."

In addition to Europe. Mr. Obama's separate talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the summit sidelines could give him a chance to set the tone with two world powers known for sometimes testy relations with Washington.

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