Guinness Diplomacy: 'O'bama' Goes Back to His Roots at Start of European Visit
Three-percent Irishman "Barack O'Bama" began his European visit at his ancestral home in Ireland on Monday. The US president is using the tour to generate important photos for his re-election campaign. But his meetings with the leaders of Britain and France are also aimed at boosting the Atlantic alliance.
US President Barack Obama (right) and First Lady Michelle Obama drink Guinness beer as they meet with locals at the Ollie Hayes pub in Moneygall, Ireland.
It was like a home game. Barack Obama smiled and joked as he strolled down the closed-off main street of Moneygall, shaking countless hands to the delight of locals before taking large gulps from a pint of Guinness in Ollie Hayes' Pub. Obama then offered the barkeeper a few coins, saying, "The president always pays his bar tab."
It was just a brief excursion to the tiny village in the middle of Ireland, population 300, by the United States president, who is on a six-day trip to Europe, but Moneygall will be talking about this Monday afternoon for years to come. Spectators on the streets, who had waited for up to six hours to get tickets, were clearly thrilled as they waved American flags and shouted "Welcome Home." Thousands from the surrounding region had traveled to Moneygall to experience the president's visit.
The tiny hamlet, which doesn't even have a restaurant, had spent months preparing to host the most important guest in its history. Buildings were painted in the colors of the Stars and Stripes and signs put up explaining Obama's "Moneygall connection."
His great-great-great grandfather on his maternal side, a shoemaker named Falmouth Kearney, emigrated from Moneygall to America in 1850 at the age of 19. That makes Obama 3 percent Irish, hobby genealogists have have calculated.
Since the connection became public in 2007, it was only a question of time before Obama would make an appearance. Like many of his predecessors, he did not pass up the opportunity to score points with the 37 million Americans who have Irish roots.
The photos of Moneygall are of inestimable value in the coming presidential election. Americans love genealogy -- and the fact that their black president has Irish roots alongside his Kenyan ancestry underlines America's founding myth of the melting pot.
Guests in Buckingham Palace
The domestic policy detour in the Irish countryside was a successful start to Obama's six-day Europe trip. There will be further pleasing photos on Tuesday when Barack and Michelle Obama visit Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in London.
They already met in 2009 when Obama was in the city for the G-20 summit -- that time he brought the aging queen an iPod. But this is the first state visit, and the first time that the Obamas will spend the night in the palace.
The memory of Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding is still fresh in the minds of the royal-crazed American people, and Obama can hope that a bit of kingly radiance will rub off on him -- especially since he wasn't invited to the nuptials.
In addition to the photos for the people back home, Obama also has a political message for the Europeans. Since his first big European trip just after he took office in 2009, times have changed on both sides of the Atlantic. The initial excitement over the new president has faded to disillusionment in Europe, and Obama himself has grown skeptical of his difficult partners.
After the first year when he jetted to Europe a half-dozen times -- once to receive the Nobel Peace Prize -- he has been back just twice in the last year. This trip, it seems, is aimed at strengthening the trans-Atlantic relationship. In his central speech of the journey, scheduled for Wednesday evening before both houses of British parliament in London, Obama will focus on the importance of NATO in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Libya.
The 'Special Relationship'
According to the Guardian newspaper, Obama will also announce plans for the US National Security Council to share information with its British counterparts. A new joint committee will also reportedly focus on long-term security strategies -- extending the already close cooperation between the two countries' intelligence agencies to the very top.
On such occasions, leaders of the US and Britain always stress the "special relationship" between the two countries. Among other things, Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron will host a barbeque with war veterans -- a symbol of the close alliance between the two biggest providers of troops in Afghanistan.
After a two-day visit to London, Obama will continue on to Deauville, France, on Thursday to attend the G-8 summit and then to the Polish capital Warsaw on Saturday. In addition to meeting with the Polish president, he also plans to dine with the leaders of other eastern European nations.
Bilateral talks with Cameron and Sarkozy are expected to focus on the military deployments in Afghanistan and Libya. The US wants to closely coordinate its planned partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, set to begin in July, with its partners.
Last week, Cameron also announced that he plans to withdraw 400 British troops from Kandahar by the end of the year. That would reduce the British contingent back to around 9,500 soldiers. The US still hasn't provided a timeframe for its withdrawal.
On the Libyan issue, both France and Britain and pushing for the US to again assume a greater role in the conflict. Both countries are groaning under the strain of more or less having to conduct the air strikes against Gadhafi's troops on their own. But few expect Obama to oblige the Europeans on the question.
The US president won't be visiting Germany this time around, prompting some trans-Atlantic observers to interpret this as criticism over Germany's zig-zag response to the issue of Libya. But there may be another explanation for this, as well: On June 7, Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor, in Washington. She will also be fêted at an official state dinner in the White House.
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