Obama returns from landmark Middle East, Europe trip

8th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Obama, who visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Germany and France during his weeklong trip, believes he has made clear what he expects from all leaders in the strife-torn Middle East as he cranks up a regional peace drive, aides said.

Washington -- President Barack Obama returned to Washington Sunday from a Middle East and Europe tour steeped in history and intense diplomacy where he sought to defuse centuries of tensions between Muslims and the West.

Obama, who visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Germany and France during his weeklong trip, believes he has made clear what he expects from all leaders in the strife-torn Middle East as he cranks up a regional peace drive, aides said.

Confidants also said the president was deeply moved by his visit to the former Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, Germany and his meetings with World War II veterans at celebrations of the 65th anniversary of D-Day.

"This was an extraordinary journey, one in which the president had an opportunity to look back in history, at the people who sacrificed and suffered to create the modern world and to look forward at the responsibilities that we all have in our times to forge a better future," senior political adviser David Axelrod said.

Obama on Sunday visited the Pompidou Center modern arts museum in Paris with his family, before returning to the United States.

On Monday, he will plunge back into the cauldron of domestic US politics beginning with a public appearance with Vice President Joe Biden on the implementation of his administration's massive economic recovery plan.

The White House said it carefully monitored the response to Obama's landmark speech in Cairo on Thursday in which he vowed to forge a "new beginning" with Muslims.

Officials cited an online poll by Maktoob Research for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) -- an agency that oversees all US-funded broadcast channels, including the Arabic-language Al-Hurra -- that showed over 75 percent of respondents in Muslim nations said they viewed the speech positively.

The speech had been viewed more than 777,000 times by midday Sunday on the White House YouTube website, while officials said translations of the speech got 10,000 hits for an Arabic version, 25,000 in Punjabi and 45,000 in other languages by late Saturday.

A further 200 million people in India watched the speech live, while a string of US embassies and diplomatic posts around the world held special events to boost viewership.

"We are pretty pleased with what we have seen so far," said Obama's deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, Denis McDonough.

Axelrod told reporters that Obama received favourable reactions to his speech at Cairo University from foreign leaders.

"The goal was to clear away the debris that stands in between us and the Muslim world," said Axelrod. "He did it by honestly and directly confronting the issues between us."

To critics who argued that Obama gave few details of how he plans to ease bitter rivalries in the Middle East, aides said they never expected one speech or one visit would do the trick.

Instead, they portrayed Obama's efforts as an investment that will pay off down the road, where his speech would be a key turning point should any progress on peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis materialize.

With German Chancellor Angela Merkel at his side, Obama argued Friday that his administration's flurry of contacts in recent weeks with Middle Eastern leaders had created the space for the parties to move towards negotiations.

After coming down hard on Israel on settlement expansion in the West Bank in an unusually public spat with the close US ally, Obama in recent days stepped up pressure on the Palestinians, saying President Mahmud Abbas had not done enough yet to halt incitement against Israel.

Obama also warned that Arab states needed to make gestures toward Israel in order to ease the path to talks and tough compromises.

So far, however, there is no public sign that Arab leaders are ready to move first, and they may find their room for manoeuvre constrained by hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's stand on settlements.

Tel Aviv is also pushing back against Obama's call for a complete freeze on Jewish settlements, including "natural growth," saying it contravenes a series of unofficial agreements president George W. Bush had with former Israeli leaders.

In a 2004 letter to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, Bush said any future peace deal would recognize "new realities on the ground" in the West Bank, which was widely understood to mean any settlement expansion.

The Obama administration's next opportunity to leverage the publicity his trip yielded will come this week when Middle East envoy George Mitchell returns to the region.


0 Comments To This Article