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Obama Reveals His Inner European

Thursday, July 8, 2010

President Barack Obama used an interview with the Milan daily Corriere della Sera to counter his reputation for being indifferent toward Europe, and even anti-European. Relations between the Obama White House and Europe are worse than those of any recent American administration. But from what Obama told Paolo Valentino, the paper's respected Washington correspondent, it's nothing personal:

In terms of influences on my life, Europe is probably stronger than anything else. I feel very comfortable in Europe. Everything feels familiar in a way that I cannot say when I travel in Japan or China, despite having been born and grown up in Hawaii, where Asian influence is very strong.

Who knew?

Many Italians -- who regard Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as a national embarrassment and a bit of a con man, while continuing to vote for him -- will certainly disagree with Obama's assessment that they are "fortunate to have an excellent prime minister." But Obama's kind words reflect the fact that, whatever his faults, Berlusconi has for years been America's most consistent European ally, anteing up troops for Iraq and Afghanistan undeterred by strong domestic opposition to both wars.

Perhaps because it was so short -- 15 minutes -- the interview raises and leaves unanswered some nagging questions. Obama says the current Afghan situation will be "reviewed at the end of the year to establish whether the strategy has been effective. By the middle of next year we will start the drawdown . . . " The obvious -- but unasked -- follow-up: How will the drawdown be impacted if the strategy is deemed not to have worked? His reply would have been interesting, because the administration does not speak with one voice on that eventuality, as shown in this report by the Center for Defense Studies.

The president also makes the usual U.S. pitch for Turkey's entry into the European Union, which he calls "wise," even though he realizes that "it raises strong feelings in Europe." But, he argues, "if [the Turks] do not feel part of the European family, then obviously they're going to look elsewhere for alliances and affiliations."

By contrast, Obama is dismissive of the joint Turkish-Brazilian attempt to mediate an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue. "Muscle-flexing comes into it," he says, "as it does with Brazil, which sees itself [my italics] as an emerging power." Tempting question: Does Obama not see Brazil as an emerging power?

The interview also has a cultural component: Obama expressed a special preference among Italian writers for Dante. The unasked question here was whether the president sees the Italian Renaissance poet's description of Hell as an analogy for the Afghan conflict, given the inscription over the gates of Dante's underworld: "Abandon Hope All You Who Enter Here."