Media Briefing: Obama in UK, Saudi Arabia, and Germany | Wilson Center

Media Briefing: Obama in UK, Saudi Arabia, and Germany

Podcast available

Podcast (Audio only)

Experts on UK-EU relations, EU migration, and US-Saudi relations available

Experts

David Ottaway
Senior Scholar, Middle East Program at the Wilson Center

Read his “Saudis Wield the Sword at Home as Abroad

James Hollifield

Wilson Center Fellow

Watch him in “Update on Europe’s Migration Crisis

Michelle Egan

Wilson Center Fellow

Watch her in “Will the UK leave the EU?”

Moderated by Drew Sample

Transcript of Media Briefing

 

Drew Sample: Well thanks everyone for calling in today for this media briefing on President Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia, the U.K. and Germany. We have experts here from the Wilson Center; David Ottaway, Senior Scholar of the Middle East Program who is an expert on Saudi Arabia and U.S.-Saudi relations; James Hollifield who is a fellow at the Wilson Center this year and is an expert on migration issues and has spent a lot of time in Europe specifically so can speak to migration issues in Europe as well; and Michelle Egan wil be joining us soon.– Hey Michelle, good to have you here!

Michelle Egan: Thank you Drew!

Drew Sample: Michelle is also a fellow at the Wilson Center this year and an expert on UK relations, U.K.-EU relations, U.K.-U.S. relations, and actually Michelle, if you’re comfortable speaking on T-Tip as well, and if people have T-Tip questions, let us know about that as well.

Michelle Egan: Absolutely.

Drew Sample: Great, thank you. So, I think let’s go ahead and get started. We’ll open up with some brief remarks from everyone just to sort of lay out the groundwork. David, I believe Saudi Arabia is the first stop if you want to start things off.

David Ottaway: Sure. Well, I’ll say there are general issues that Obama is going to deal with – the king and his entourage, and also some specific country ones. Generally speaking, I think this is kind of an awkward visit for Obama in the wake of his confessions in The Atlantic about how he feels about his Arab allies as free-riders, and then you know, urging the Saudis to share the neighborhood with Iran. These are fighting words back in Riyadh, so I’m sure they’re going to ask him about what he means by these comments and they will defend themselves. Particularly the relationship of Iran and Saudi Arabia which have really gotten worse since the signing of the agreement with Iran.

You might want to push, there have been talks about whether NATO might play some role in bucking up the security and defenses of the six countries of the Gulf Operation Council led by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have never been very excited about having a relationship with NATO. They’d rather stand up their own military, but there have been some discussions, so whether they discuss that issue, it’s possible NATO’s role in the security of the arms and the gulf might be something new and different.

On the country-by-country, clearly it’s Syria first and Yemen second. Saudis and their allies, the gap is growing with Assad. They are really in different oceans of how to resolve the conflict. Assad has become much more confident—he doesn’t even want to talk about his 18-month transition. He’s talking about a unity government, and that’s code-word for him continuing on in power pretty much forever with some elements of the opposition coming in under his authority. The Saudis and their allies are talking about he has to go at the beginning of the process, not even at the end of the transition process. Assad’s spokespeople have said “we’re not going to talk about a transition with Syria involved, we’re only going to talk about a national unity government,” so they’re really further apart now than ever before, and whether the Russians are going to put enough pressure on Assad and his delegation to have a fruitful discussion, I have my doubts.

On Yemen, there is a ceasefire in place, and they are going to have talks on the 18th between the so-called Iranian Houthis and the legal government coalition backing the legal government of President Hadi. Those are going to be long and difficult talks, but at least they are talking, and the Obama administration has been pushing hard to get a ceasefire and talks underway, so things are going the way the Obama administration would like to see them to go from ceasefire to talks about a compromise.

I think the real problem is going to be Syria and Obama pushing Saudi Arabia to open up some kind of relationship with Iran for the sharing of responsibility for the gulf. The Saudis, at this point, feel the Iranians have become more aggressive and more provocative since the signing of the Nuclear Agreement, and that the United States really doesn’t understand Iran’s intentions in the Arab World.

Drew Sample: Michelle, I believe the U.K. is the next stop. Do you want to say a thing or two about Obama’s trip there and plans?

Michelle Egan: Yes. This will be I believe the fifth stop of Obama to Britain, and it’s not unusual for a president in his last year to visit the U.K. Bush also did that so we don’t take this as anything unusual. What we will find is that there’s going to be interest whether Obama will talk about domestic British issues and domestic politics, and also they will have discussions on foreign policy. Now the obvious domestic issue and what we have been told that Obama may speak about, if not will be asked about, the upcoming British referendum on June 23rd. He said on a BBC interview last year that he wanted to make sure that Britain was part of the Transatlantic Union, it was important, its international allies were concerned about the upcoming British referendum and the prospect that Britain might leave the EU. Especially as the polls, whether it is the Financial Times, U-Gov, are showing about 43 for, 42 against, so we don’t know how that will actually pan out. So what we’re seeing here is a ratcheting up of the campaign, and there are some questions about what he should say at the time, and whether he should intervene into that debate. There has been a lot of pushback from a lot of Eurosceptics, members of parliament, Boris Johnson, and others who say “outrageous hypocrisy, stay out. Our debate is about sovereignty and you should stay out of it,” so it will be interesting to see how his comments are received domestically. That’s going to be I think the headline issue in terms of British politics, but it masks some other issues that might be interesting to consider. The British will be debating the trident Nuclear issue and that is quite controversial in Britain. It is a defense contribution, people are talking about the retrenchment of Europe in terms of defense spending, but we’re looking at the new generation of nuclear missiles which are based in Scotland. The cost overruns, the decision that was taken under the Blair Government to renew them, and that’s not talked about much in terms of the long-term costs on British defense expenditure. Obama has been quite critical on others about the allies not meeting their 2% quota, but I don’t think Trident comes into that discussion. So trident is an issue that is in the background.

The second issue that not many people are talking about is the situation in Northern Ireland. Everybody talks about 1995 and the Good Friday Agreement, but the situation has deteriorated significantly to the point being that Bill Clinton has made comments about it recently. There are issues within British domestic politics, and then added to that – which I’m sure Jim will talk about – will be the broader refugee issue, and then finally in terms of foreign policy perhaps it will be the fact that the British Parliament did have a significant vote about British airstrikes and participation in terms of Syria in December with an overwhelming majority in support. There was some labor opposition, the labor split on this issue, but I do think thank this was in some ways, given Cameron’s previous intervention and participation vis-à-vis Libya and Iraq that this was an important vindication after an earlier defeat. So those are some of the issues to think about, those are all going to be potentially on the table. The British press is going to focus on what Obama may say about the upcoming British referendum, but there are broader foreign policy issues to talk about especially vis-à-vis the middle east.

And T-Tip, that will certainly be an issue for Britain to talk about T-Tip and BFTA (Bilateral Free Trade Agreement).  Froman has been very clear in that if Britain does decide to withdraw from the EU that they are not much interested in a bilateral free trade agreement directly with Britain. That could be just a veiled threat, it could be just “don’t do this” given the prominence of the city of London, given foreign direct investments of the Americans in Britain, but I think it might be also tapping into that uncertainty debate in Britain. There are deep concerns that Britain not being a part of the EU, which would be a long process if it did happen, would create some volatility and market instability right after the vote. And of course the Americans are watching that very closely as well.

Drew Sample: Thanks Michelle. So speaking of T-Tip, that is a central reason for his travel to Germany. However, Jim Hollifield is also on the line to talk to us about EU migration issues which will also be a big topic I imagine. So Jim, is there something you’d like to say about the current status of the EU migration crisis?

Jim Hollifield: I would segway from what Michelle was just talking about, I think first of all we have to make one general comment here which is that we’re going into an incredibly intense electoral season in Europe and in the United States, we’re already into it obviously in this country. I think the elections are going to dominate a lot of the thinking and discussion. Elections are coming up in Germany fairly quickly, there is going to be a presidential election next year in France, we already know what’s going on in the United States, and Michelle has mentioned the Brexit vote that’s coming up very quickly in Britain. So I think there’s going to be an electoral dynamic behind these discussions and the leaders are going to be focusing on things that are going to affect their political futures. Obviously for Obama that’s not an issue because he’s going out of office now, but I would say that there is a lot of concern in Europe I think about the direction of the American elections. Especially in the very populist, anti-globalization rhetoric that seems to be quite dominant not only in the United States but also in Europe.

Having said that, there are some issues that will be on top of the agenda when Obama visits Germany in particular, and they will be some of the same ones that will be there when he visits Britain. I will just stress and build on what Michelle said that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is a very, very popular agreement. It has a lot of provisions in it that make the Europeans very nervous. Opening public services, for example, to foreign investments, issues of food and environmental safety, banking regulations, but the two things that the Germans are very concerned about. One is the privacy issues that are involved here: is T-Tip going to allow companies to monitor people’s online activities? Because the Germans are very sensitive, as are most Europeans, about these privacy issues. I think there is an overall concern, and this goes back to the electoral question, there is a concern about how secretive these negotiations have been, what the implications are for democracy. The concern about the investor-state dispute settlements which could allow companies to sue governments if government policies cause them problems, so I think there is a great resistance to more openness with respect to trade and investment.

If you look at the migration question, this is obviously a very big issue for Germany and for Europe, and I think we have to put it at the top of this issue, the need and desire to reestablish control of borders in Europe, the desire to get a handle on the massive exodus that is coming from the Middle East. Everyone knows that the EU has struck a deal with Turkey that specifically tried to keep the refugees bottled up in Turkey and the Middle East. That deal, I doubt if it will come into discussions here, I don’t think Obama or Merkel will raise that. The issue of the role the United State should play in helping to alleviate this crisis, you know NATO is taking a role for example in trying to help police the Mediterranean and other areas where the migrants are crossing, and of course the overarching issue, which has been so sensitive in American elections and which is a big, big concern for the Europeans is terrorism – the danger that there will be infiltration, the danger that some radical terrorist might be able to get on an airplane for example and come to the United States. That is something that is the dominant political, and I would say psychological concern even though the risks of that I would say are very, very small. But how are the Europeans cooperating to combat the terrorism and the Jihadi network in Europe? I’m sure that will come up. Are the European security services working together? Do they have the right to no-fly lists in place, and what kind of cooperation do they have with American intelligence agencies? You can bet that this is going to be part of the very secret, private discussions that will go on between Obama and these European leaders.

So, the migration question is a big one. I would just conclude by going back to David Ottaway. Obviously the problems in the Middle East are enormous, but not just for the United Stated but especially for the Europeans, because until we get some kind of political settlement in Syria, the pressure for people to flee in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, is going to continue. This is going to be destabilizing for the Middle East and Europe as you know, the Middle East is on Europe’s doorstep, the Europeans do not have the luxury of turning and walking away from these conflicts, the U.S. can perhaps take its distance, but Europe doesn’t have the luxury of doing this. I think there will be some discussions, especially with the Germans, about what we’re doing in the Middle East, what we’re doing in Syria, and of course that also involves the Russians. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ukrainian issue was on the agenda too, quietly. What is going to be the strategy for the United States and Europe for dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, not only in Ukraine but in the Middle East. I think these are the things that are likely to dominate the discussions with the Germans and the British in particular.

Drew Sample: Thank you Jim, Thanks for bringing it all full-circle there back to David Ottaway. With that, I think we’ll just go ahead and take some questions then, I want to get to those. Colleen do you have anything to lead us off?

Colleen Nelson, Wall Street Journal: Sure, thank you. I wanted to ask Michelle, if you could talk a little bit more just about what you think President Obama might be able to say about the referendum and Brexit. It seems like kind of perilous political territory for him to wade into this and the White House has kind of signaled that perhaps he’ll go a little further than he has in the past, and I’m interested in what you think the possibilities are for what he might say.

Michelle Egan: I think you’re right. He is stepping into a political minefield. It’s very difficult. You know, there has been prior occasions where the Americans have sort of politely told the British “this is part of a transatlantic union, you’re stronger in terms of being part of the EU, both in terms of economics but more sort of politically in terms of cooperation. Especially given the cooperation Jim pointed out on things like intelligence, on what we would call homeland security in Europe and the apparatus that has been built up in that area. It’s gone from the hints and the comments that say Obama and say Philip Morton when he was Under Secretary for Europe, has said a few years ago to now, that’s when Britain was thinking about this and there was talk about this. Now it’s a reality, so now the American president is going to be asked and it’s much more significant because we’re two, three months away from the election. So I think the climate has changed from what he has said in the past to now. I think that he’s going to say something about the uncertainty, the risk-factors, the concerns they have in all the areas Jim pointed out, whether its cooperation on terrorism, whether its cooperation on intelligence sharing, whether its concerns also about the domino-effect. Once Britain thinks about a possible exit, what will be the domino effect in countries like France, so they’re concerned about the overall impact given the rise of populism and Eurosceptic parties. What can he really, really say?

The tableau press is going to have a field day with it regardless, but I think he will come out and talk about it. If he could do anything and if he could take a playbook from David Cameron, I suggest he look at Cameron’s Bloomberg speech of 2013. It’s masterful about what Europe’s impact has been on Britain to focus more on the peace and security on the continent itself with the exception of the Balkans obviously in the 1990s. To use some of the rhetoric from that speech would be probably the best way to go. But yeah, they’re going to say something, the question is, you know, he’s not going to be criticized by the Labor Party, he’s not going to be criticized by David Cameron and parts of his cabinet, but you will have it seized upon by the Britain Out of Europe group. But the other issue too is in our lingo, unfortunately, we’re starting to use the term Brexit and that, to my less Eurosceptic colleagues implies we’re already on our way out, and they don’t like that. But, he’s probably going to make some form of speech, the question is where and what he will say. He’s got to go beyond what he said in the past.

Drew Sample: Thanks. George, do you have any questions for us?

George Condon, National Journal: Yes, absolutely. I have two questions actually, the first I wanted to follow on: David mentioned the reaction to Jeffery Goldberg’s piece in The Atlantic. Can you elaborate on that? How much anger is there to that? How much is the President going to be on the defensive? And beyond that, you were just talking about Saudi, can you talk about the reaction in Britain and Germany? Because he talked about the free-riders, and he talked about Cameron, and I assume that was noted.

David Ottaway: Well, the Saudis generally are pretty polite with their guests. I doubt, I don’t know whether the king is going to say “I’m no free-rider and here’s why”, I think it’s more the Saudis will say “Look, we’re doing this, we’re involved in three different coalitions, one in the war in Yemen, the other one against ISIL with you, the United States. We’ve already offered to send troops to fight in Syria if you up your ante in Syria,” and they just formed a 20-member anti-terrorist coalition and those 20 members just held military maneuvers in Saudi Arabia that are like 150,000 troops involved. So, Saudis don’t feel at all that they’re free-riders, but I think they’ll more say “This is what we’re doing, and please be aware of us”. I think the issue is going to be these talks in Geneva and Syria are going nowhere and the Saudis and the U.A.E. and others have been putting pressure on the United States to do more militarily in Syria, and if these talks get nowhere, the pressure is going to grow on the Obama administration to put more pressure militarily on the Assad government. The United Arab Emirates position both on Jeffrey Goldberg’s comments and their feeling about whether they’re free-riders or not, I mean the U.A.E. has sent troops to Afghanistan and they’ve been involved everywhere we’ve been involved around the world, so you know, they don’t feel at all free-riders. On the other two are Britain and Germany and the European free-riders I leave to my colleagues.

Michelle Egan: Jim, do you want to go first?

Jim Hollifield: Go ahead, Michelle.

Michelle Egan: You know I had the same reaction to the piece. The British would be a little surprised at the free-riding. I think it goes back to the first debate, the first parliamentary vote when Cameron did not get support for intervention and of course subsequently they would argue that they have been in multiple coalitions in Iraq, in Afghanistan, so we don’t hear much – but you know what free-riding is an old term. We’ve been hearing that since Mike Mansfield since the 1960s, so I’m not surprised. But the British have been active in most places, so they would not see themselves as free-riding. Being distracted by domestic politics and domestic internal issues would not be surprising. One of Cameron’s issues here is party management and he’s looking a lot closer to the Republican Party than anything else because he’s got to deal with his own internal fractious political party. Plus, he was also in a coalition, and he had an electoral campaign, so he has had enough on his plate as well in his own internal domestic politics. The one issue that I didn’t say that may come up is the recent UN report regarding the contested territory in the Falkland Islands and Malvina. The extension of territorial waters. That’s something the British have over time expected a bit stronger support from the U.S. and they’re not getting it.

Jim Hollfield: Well, just quickly on Germany, I think the Germans, obviously because of their history and concern about deploying forces anywhere in the world, I think they want to remain a little bit in the background on this. The Germans are de facto the leaders of Europe politically, economically, if not militarily, so the Germans will play a critical role in any decisions concerning NATO, NATO deployments, you’ve still got the situation in Ukraine, the concern about protecting the Baltic states in particular. So I think this is a very sensitive question in Germany, I think the Germans are generally skeptical of too much military involvement or too much military intervention, and they’re certainly not going to deploy troops unless there is a dramatic reason for them to do that.

Having said that, the French are clearly in many ways our strongest military allies and willing to intervene in difficult places in Africa and the Middle East because of the attacks in Paris. We know the French have stepped up their role in Syria in particular, and the British are obviously playing a role as well. But, I do think there will be some discussion about where NATO is going, what role NATO is going to be playing, both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Drew Sample: Thank you. Alright, Kathleen, do you have any questions for any of our folks?

Kathleen Hennessey, AP: I wanted to ask: you mentioned the electoral landscape and I’m wondering how much you imagine the president to be having to talk about and explain what’s happening in the U.S. particularly with regard to Donald Trump’s candidacy and whether or not you think he’ll spend some time to make some reassurances there if he can. And then, secondly and particularly on the British leg, how do you think that some of the fallout from the Panama Papers may impact the trip and if you expect the president to come to Cameron’s defense in a way and what he may be able to say on that front without getting into trouble back at home.

Jim Hollfield: Well let me jump in quickly on the electoral issue. I think that a lot of the leaders in the western world who are in the mainstream politically, who are, I would describe them as liberal internationalists who are in favor of a more open, globalized world whether it’s through trade or migration or investment, these politicians are under siege right now domestically. There is a lot of backlash going on, sort of radical, mosty right-wing populism but also left-wing populism out there, that has really turned on this more open, globalized world that we live in. So I think there will be discussion on how to counter that privately. I think Obama will be very, very careful about what he says in public. It’s never helpful I think for politicians anywhere in the world if an American president weighed into their domestic politics so I suspect he will be very, very careful about what he says in public with respect to American politics or European politics. I think privately there will be some discussion, some strategizing about how to build stronger electoral coalitions to counter some of the anti-globalization, anti-migration forces that are at work. Germany as you know has seen the rise of Alternative für Deutschland, the AFD party, which had some big gains in the recent lander elections there. So Merkel obviously is feeling somewhat besieged in Germany. Of course these issues are equally fractious for the British and especially for the French with the surge of the French National Front, so I think the electoral question is going to be an overarching issue. We’re in a cycle right now that I think is pretty bad for a mainstream political leader on these issues, and I’m curious to hear what Michelle says again about Obama’s statements about British politics. We know how difficult the situation is right now for David Cameron with a very divided party, and always I think a wary eye on UKIP and the right-wing populist movements, anti-EU movements in Britain.

Michelle Egan: Building up on what Jim was saying, what was interesting was the revealing of Corbyn’s tax issue and sort of the full transparency. He seemed to have gotten a lot of attack and flack and sort of commentary which was quite surprising really. Will Cameron get a pass on this? Probably not, but he’s handled it badly but he’ll probably recover, so I don’t think he’s going to go there with the Panama Papers. I think it’s too political. I think he’ll be much more likely to say something on British politics. Cameron’s party is divided, but one thing to realize as well is that the electoral commission in Britain has just chosen both sides for who can be sort of the main lobby group for the two pros and cons for the referendum. They did not choose the UKIP dominated group, they chose the one that is part of the Boris Johnson, Michael Grove group. I don’t want to say it’s more moderate, but I think it’s more establishment. That’s significant, and I think he will want to say something, but he’s going to have to be very careful. The one thing that we don’t talk about, and it’s probably something privately, but given Jim what was saying about populism in Europe, there are deep concerns within the EU itself about the situation that has happened in Poland and Hungary in terms of the media suppression, the constitutional crises that we’ve had in terms of both countries, and while that’s an EU issue and the European parliament has raised some concerns, it does signify some broader trends in Europe and some backsliding of democracy as we might say, and it’s been happening in a number of countries. That would be a concern. And perhaps that’s something Obama might think about, that without Britain’s leadership in the EU and Europe, this raises some real concerns long-term.

David Ottaway: Yeah, I would just add on to what Michelle said, Obama lies at a very difficult time in Europe, I mean Europe is, I won’t say fragmenting, but certainly the European project is under great stress on many fronts, whether it’s politically, economically, and also in terms of its foreign policy. And the divisions between Eastern and Western Europe as Michelle just pointed out are particularly acute. So I suspect there will be discussion carrying concerns on the part of Obama in terms of American foreign policy and where the European project is going, how we can support Europe.

Drew Sample: I want to give an opportunity to some of the others who I think are on the line to ask questions as well, and we can do some follow-ups. Greg are you on the line, and do you have any questions for us?

Greg Jaffe, Washington Post: Sure, I guess I’ll ask David. If the peace talks, with regard to Syria, aren’t going anywhere, to what extent does the U.S. come forward with some of its thinking on what a plan B might look like, either to the GCC folks or to the Europeans, and what does a plan B look like to the GCC right now?

David Ottaway: Well, they’re different plan B’s. I think Obama is sort of giving up trying to get rid of Assad while he’s still in office. Even the transition plan where he would allow or conceive of Assad staying in office until the end of the transition period, which is 18 months and that’s well beyond when Obama’s in office, but the B plan for Obama is you know, leave it to the Russians and let Assad stay even though we’ll protest that. For the Saudis and the Emiratis and the GCC generally the B plan is to up the military pressure on Assad and that’s where they come into conflict with Obama, because I don’t think Obama is interested in a major escalation of fighting for the purpose of overturning Assad. So, B plan makes more evident the conflict between our Arab allies and the Obama administration. They’re going to go in different direction, I don’t know whether the Turks and the Saudis together with the – actually all the GCC states want to get rid of Assad, and ironically, more willing to take a more aggressive military posture than the Obama administration. So, two different B plans going in different directions.

Greg Jaffe, Washington Post: Do the Europeans have a different sense of what a Plan B might look like from their perspective?

Jim Hollifield: I think the Europeans want a political settlement, I’m not sure if they are going to be able to articulate the direction that that will take. I think they’re just basically desperate for the situation to settle down and stabilize. I’m not sure what they would say if pressed on the issue of Assad. Generally speaking, I think they all would like to see him go and they understand how important it is to have a transition in Syria. This may be one issue where there’s more agreement perhaps with the Turks, although we know the Turks are heavily, heavily engaged in this conflict. Inviting the Kurds for example who are presumably helping us against our battle with ISIS, so this is a very, very complicated game, political situation, and I imagine the Europeans are going to be careful with the exception of the French and some extent the British who are clearly determined to combat ISIS. If you have to make a pact with Assad to battle ISIS and the jihadis, I think some might be willing to do that.

Drew Sample: Does anyone have any follow-up questions? Any other burning issues?

George Jaffe, Washington Post: I kind of have one. It’s sort of an overarching question. I’ve covered a lot of presidential foreign trips, and I’ve never had a problem saying what the reason for the trip was, whether it was attending a summit or a specific agenda item. I’m having a problem on this trip. Is there really a reason for this trip? Why is he taking this?

Jim Hollfield: Let me take a quick stab at answering that. I mean, if you look at the Obama foreign policy, to the extent if there is an Obama doctrine out there, one of the main items in this foreign policy is the so-called “Pivot to Asia”. So I think there are probably parts of the world that feel like this was premature or perhaps was not a good strategic move to try to pivot to Asia. Europe is still incredibly important as a strategic ally, Obama has not paid enough attention to Europe, and I would add that there is a lot of anger and ill-will and ill feeling in the Middle East also that Obama has sort of not given enough attention to what’s happening in the Middle East even though there may be good reasons for that. So I think what he’s doing here is ingesting a little bit at the end of his administration the balance, if you will, of U.S. foreign policy by going to regions that may feel slighted by his foreign policy.

Michelle Egan: I think that I hear the question, “Why now?”. We could argue and say Bush did travel at the end of his presidency to Britain in his final year, but I would say that there are a number of issues in European politics that are just not getting the attention. Everybody is focusing on the British referendum within the British context but I would say that the sheer scale of the refugee crisis and what Europe is facing, and it’s going to get worse given the weather and the Spring, and the fact that other political leaders, such as the Pope, have been prioritizing it.

I’m not thinking that there’s a broader rationale for it, but I do think there are some deep concerns. You have this situation in Turkey and the suppression of the media and certain rights. You have got concerns coming out of Croatia with Serbia, you have the backsliding of Democracy in Poland and Hungary on certain issues. And then, you’ve got, instability is too heavy a word for what’s going on in Northern Ireland, but we’ve got a lot going on within Europe that is, and Jim pointed out the populists and so forth. The level of discontent in Europe is quite high, and of course right on the front as David pointed out on the refugee crisis, and the internal domestic threats themselves that they are seeing, we shouldn’t ignore that. There has been a compounding of problems and so what he will actually say and do? Will it be expressions of sympathy? And then you can ask yourself why he didn’t go to Belgium. I’m sort of also struggling for the broader context, but I think there’s a lot of unresolved issues across Europe that just aren’t getting any attention.

David Ottaway: To me, he wants to show that the United States still stands by its allies. There are a lot of doubts out in the Gulf about “is Obama and his administration, is the United States there to stay or in the process of fading out as the key power-providing security in the area?” After the pivot to Asia, talk about we don’t need the oil from that part of the world anymore, the general feeling in the Gulf area is that Americans are slowly leaving. So I think his trip is to reassure America’s Arab allies that the United States is there for the long-run and we’re not cutting and running. And you have to remember that he had the six GCC countries here at Camp David about a year ago, and now he’s going over there to meet with them. One of the themes of Obama’s administration towards this group is that they have to stand up and provide for their own defense, and the United States will stand behind that effort. He’s going there to push that theme— “if you stand up for your own defense, we will stand behind you.”  So it’s really hand-holding and reassurance with our Arab allies in that part of the world.

Jim Hollifield: I would just quickly add that Obama, in a lot of corners in Europe, is still quite popular. He has been a very popular American president, especially in Europe. He might be able to bask a little bit in the light of some of that adulation and popularity even though it has faded over time.

David Ottaway: You know, if you’re looking for themes, think of Obama when he first came into office. His first thing he did was to stretch out his hand to the Arab world, “we want a new relationship” etc. etc. and compare it to where he is today in that relationship. He started out trying to solve the Palestinian issue and it was the number-one theme of his early months in office, and now he’s saying in his interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg, “No, I’m tired of this part of the world, I want to get out, why don’t they stop arguing and share power with the Iranians”. It’s a totally different theme.

Kathleen Hennessey, AP: Could I follow up on that question? On another theme that seems to be lost from then to now is this pushing for a moderate Arab awakening, or sort of comparing the message of Cairo with this kind of a trip. I mean this may be his last trip to the Middle East, and I’m wondering what you think about how it compares to how he started out?

David Ottaway: I think it’s quite a contrast, I think he was very optimistic. At the beginning of his administration he had high hopes for trying to solve the Palestinian issue. Now 8 years later he’s sort of trying to get out of all this mess in the Middle East and sort of throwing up his hands and saying “there’s nothing I can do about it”, or “solve our own problems, take care of our own defense”, “I don’t want to get deeper involved in your war in Syria to overthrow Assad”. You know, it’s almost polar opposite attitudes from the start of his administration to now as regards to the Middle East.

 

Speakers

  • David Ottaway

    David Ottaway

    Middle East Fellow
    Middle East Specialist and Former Washington Post Correspondent
  • James Hollifield

    Global Fellow
    Professor of Political Science, Arnold Chair in International Political Economy, and Director, Tower Center, SMU
  • Michelle Egan

    Global Fellow
    Professor and Jean Monnet Chair ad personam, School of International Service, American University