Obama's influence, limitations on display at G-8

June 18, 2013 - 4:35 PM
Germany US Obama

US President Barack Obama waves after disembarking from Air Force One at the Tegel airport in Berlin Tuesday, June 18, 2013. Obama arrived for a two-day official visit to Germany. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

BERLIN (AP) — Now a veteran of the international summit scene, President Barack Obama wielded significant influence over the agenda at this week's Group of Eight meetings, but had only modest success in achieving the results he sought.

It was Obama's recent move to arm Syria's rebel fighters that catapulted the two-year civil war to the top of the agenda as leaders gathered at a lakeside resort in Northern Ireland. But the president made little progress in pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin to drop his support for the Syrian government, resulting in a final statement from the leaders that endorsed a political solution to the violence but stopped short of calling for President Bashar Assad to leave power.

The president also was at the center of a breakthrough with European Union leaders on starting negotiations on a sweeping free trade pact eagerly sought by the White House. But the U.S. was unable to convince France to drop its demands that its film industry be off limits in an eventual deal, a hurdle that could prove problematic when negotiations begin next month.

Obama's mixed results underscore both the broad reach and the limitations of American power at a time when the president is grappling with an array of foreign policy problems, all with implications for U.S. national security. Among them: winding down the war in Afghanistan, combating alleged Chinese cyberhacking, and nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea.

The Syrian conflict, which has resulted in at least 93,000 deaths, has garnered the most attention, both in Washington and at the summit. Despite Obama's failure to break new ground with Putin, U.S. officials said the summit's final statement on Syria was the best that could be expected given the entrenched differences between Russia and a U.S.-Western European coalition.

"Given the various ways the G-8 could have gone, we believe that on the key issues of political transition, humanitarian support and chemical weapons investigation, it's very helpful to have this type of signal sent by these eight countries," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with Obama from Northern Ireland to Berlin following the summit's conclusion.

Political transitions — and sometimes political turmoil — have lifted Obama to veteran status among the G-8 leaders. The Northern Ireland summit marked his fifth appearance at the annual meeting of leading industrial nations and his first since winning re-election.

Obama's counterpart in the G-8, in both longevity and stature, is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has held power since 2005. The U.S. and German leaders are scheduled to meet in Berlin on Wednesday, with the global economy, the Afghan war and counterterrorism all on the agenda.

The centerpiece of Obama's 24-hour stop in Berlin will be a speech at the iconic Brandenburg Gate, which once divided East and West Germany. In a nod to the site's history, Obama is expected to extoll the deep ties between the U.S. and Europe, while also seeking to recast the relationship for modern times.

"He's seeking to summon the energy and legacy of what's been done in the past and apply it to the issues that we face today," said Rhodes, identifying nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and conflict resolution as some of those issues.

Obama's remarks in Berlin will inevitably draw comparisons to two previous speeches in the once-divided city: John F. Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" Cold War address almost exactly 50 years ago, and Obama's speech as a presidential candidate in 2008 before a sprawling crowd of 200,000 at the city's Victory Column.

Security concerns, combined with an overall dimming of enthusiasm for Obama in Europe, will result in a far smaller crowd for the president's address this time around. About 6,000 people have been invited to attend, including German political officials and students.

Obama's three days in Europe marked something of a respite from a flurry of controversies that have consumed Washington, including the Justice Department's seizure of journalists' phone records and the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative political groups. Most recently Obama has faced questions about sweeping data-mining programs run by the National Security Agency that have resulted in broad collections of U.S. phone and Internet records.

The president escaped public criticism of the programs during the G-8 summit. Merkel, however, says she plans to raise the issue with Obama in Germany, which like most of Western Europe has stricter privacy laws than the U.S.

Merkel said she was "surprised" by the scope of the U.S. surveillance programs, but acknowledged that her country is "dependent" on cooperating with American spy services. She also credited U.S. intelligence with foiling a large-sale terror plot in Germany in 2007.

Ahead of Obama's arrival, a few dozen demonstrators gathered in the center of Berlin to protest the NSA's eavesdropping. The crowd waved placards reading "Yes, we scan" — a mocking reference to Obama's "Yes, we can" campaign slogan — during a demonstration at Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point between the American and Soviet sectors during the Cold War.

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Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn in Enneskillen, Northern Ireland and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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