WASHINGTON — Weaving together strands of pomp, policy and summitry, President Barack Obama's weeklong European tour is all about tending to old friends in the Western alliance and securing their help with daunting challenges, from the political upheaval in the Mideast and North Africa to the protracted war in Afghanistan.
Obama's eighth trip to Europe as president, with a quick-moving itinerary that dips into four countries in six days, unfolds against the backdrop of the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya and stubborn economic weakness on both sides of the Atlantic.
A priority for the president and his allies will be to more clearly define the West's role in promoting stability and democracy in the Arab world without being overly meddlesome and within tight financial limitations.
Obama, who departs late today, will visit Ireland, England, France and Poland. Each is weathering an economic downturn that has forced European nations to adopt strict austerity measures.
A highlight of Obama's opening stop in Ireland will be a feel-good pilgrimage to the hamlet of Moneygall, where America's first black president will explore his Irish roots, and most likely raise a pint.
It turns out that Falmouth Kearney, who immigrated to the United States in 1850 at the age of 19, is the great-great-great grandfather of Obama on his white, Kansas-born mother's side. Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, will connect in Moneygall with distant relatives from the Irish branch of his family tree.
After his day in Ireland, Obama spends two in England, where he and first lady Michelle Obama will be treated to all the pomp and pageantry that the monarchy can muster for the president's first European state visit. The Obamas even get a Buckingham Palace sleepover, and on Wednesday, the president will become the first American president to speak to members of Parliament from the historic Palace of Westminster.
Though the United States and Britain remain the closest of allies, the relationship has been strained by recent events, including last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico triggered by the explosion of an oil rig owned by British-based BP. Britain's unilateral announcement of a timetable for withdrawal of its 10,000 troops from Afghanistan also rankled the United States.
Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Obama's stop in Britain could help "put the 'special' back into the special relationship" between the two countries.
In private, Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron will plunge into the details of international challenges on which the United States and Britain have worked together: Afghanistan, Libya, counterterrorism, the global economy and more.
Both leaders then travel to a French summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, where the president hopes to build on momentum from his speech days ago about how best to promote stability and democracy in the Middle East. Obama has called on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to present the G-8 with an ambitious plan to help Egypt and Tunisia, in particular, recover from the disruptions caused by their democratic revolutions and prepare for elections this year.
Obama's visit to Europe comes a little more than a month before the United States is scheduled to start its gradual troop withdrawal in Afghanistan. Britain and France, in particular, are looking for details on the U.S. withdrawal timetable for signs of how NATO will move from combat missions to a training role by the end of 2014. The Afghan mission is deeply unpopular in many European countries, and political pressure has led some leaders to set timetables for their withdrawal.