Obama in call for transatlantic renewal
US President Barack Obama delivered a powerful exaltation on the past and the future of the transatlantic alliance Wednesday, anchoring a European tour by decrying the notion of inevitable Western decline.
But the gap between soaring oratory and the intractable nature of modern challenges was laid bare as Obama admitted the current NATO operation in Libya had "limitations" and was able to offer little new hope for Middle East peace.
Obama, on the second day of his state visit to Britain, held talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron and delivered a sweeping speech on transatlantic ties below the oaken roof of 900-year-old Westminster Hall.
"Countries like China, India and Brazil are growing by leaps and bounds," Obama told members of the two houses of parliament united in a rare joint address by an American president who was greeted by a peal of trumpets.
"As this rapid change has taken place, it has become fashionable in some quarters to question whether the rise of these nations will accompany the decline of American and European influence around the world," Obama said.
"Perhaps, the argument goes, these nations represent the future, and the time for our leadership has passed.
"That argument is wrong. The time for our leadership is now."
Obama argued that while the transatlantic alliance had been forged in the desperate days of World War II and the Cold War, it now needed to lead by the power of its ideas and be refashioned for emerging economic challenges.
He challenged the West to see Arab uprisings against autocratic rulers as in its interests and said Europe and America were essential to defending bedrock values of free expression and democracy.
Obama's speech came less than a month after his global leadership credentials were bolstered by the US killing of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, and as he sets course for a re-election bid next year.
It appeared almost as a campaign-style mission statement for somewhat demoralised Western nations which have slowly watched their relative power decline as they slowly emerge from punishing years of recession and war.
With Obama facing criticism in Europe over his decision to limit US forces to a support role in Libya, as his hosts Britain and France apply the muscle, the president earlier said the operation remained on track.
But he admitted during an open-air news conference with Cameron that "once you rule out ground forces, then there are going to be some inherent limitations to our air strike operations."
"Ultimately, this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we are able to wear down the regime forces and change the political calculations of the Kadhafi regime, where they realise they are not going to control this country."
Cameron added that he and the president agreed that "we should be turning up the heat in Libya. I believe the pressure is on that regime."
The British prime minister, one of the most vocal supporters of the foreign intervention to protect Libyan civilians, also called for patience, as both leaders kept perceived differences over the pace of operations out of the public eye.
Obama also made his most explicit remarks yet on a possible Palestinian bid for recognition at the UN General Assembly in September, following a sharp intervention on the issue by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
"The only way we are going to see a Palestinian state is if Israelis and Palestinians agree on a just peace," Obama said.
"I strongly believe for the Palestinians to take the United Nations route rather than the path of sitting down and talking with the Israelis is a mistake."
After a week of public acrimony between Israel, the United States and the Palestinians, hopes for Obama's drive for Middle East peace remained as dim as ever, despite his call Wednesday for "wrenching compromise" between the foes.
Obama and Cameron said they had agreed a joint push for a "major programme of economic and political support" at the G8 summit starting in Deauville, France, on Thursday, for countries caught up in the whirlwind of political change sweeping across north Africa and the Arab world.
Wrapping up his visit, the second stage of a European tour that also took in Ireland, Obama will host a return dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, after she laid on a white-tie affair at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday.
After the G8 summit, Obama will head to Poland, before returning to the United States on Saturday.
© 2011 AFP