Obama Returns Home to Pile of Problems

"There is still a lot of work to do here," President Barack Obama declared in Baghdad.

He could have been talking about every stop of his jam-packed, eight-day, six-country overseas trip. Or his to-do list now that he's back in the United States.

In London, Obama joined other world leaders in trying to tackle the spiraling global economic crisis. In France, he sought help from NATO allies in dealing with the deteriorating war in Afghanistan. In the Czech Republic, Obama pledged to end the threat of nuclear weapons. In Turkey, he sought to start repairing America's dismal standing in the Muslim world. And in Iraq, he pushed for Iraqis to "take responsibility for their own country."

The pile of problems on Obama's desk was high before he left, and remains so now that he's home.

The president returned to Washington in the early hours of Wednesday morning, bringing his lengthy debut on the world stage — including his first stop in a war zone as commander in chief — to a close.

Aides said he brought home achievements both large and small, evidence, they said, of the benefits of the extended travel that turned attention away from all the pressing matters at home for the first time in his less-than-three-month-old presidency.

"It's tangible and intangible," White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said of the trip's value.

For a nation gripped with worry about its economic future, among the concrete things Obama achieved was an agreement out of the Group of 20 summit in London. The wealthy and developing nations promised to get a handle on risky financial transactions, to act to further stimulate their economies if growth doesn't improve, and to help poorer nations feeling more effects from the global financial meltdown than they can mitigate on their own.

Obama didn't get European nations to step up with the kind of immediate stimulus spending that might quickly jump-start their economies and in turn boost America's, but he billed the meetings as a success nonetheless.

Emanuel also cited the commitments from NATO allies "to do their part" in Afghanistan, even though nations agreed only to make modest new contributions to short-term security and training efforts, and not to join the heavy fighting in the volatile south and east of the country. Obama also made some strides toward addressing the international nuclear threat by launching talks with Russia toward a new arms-control pact.

There was a less quantifiable side of the ledger, as well.

Between Obama's outreach to local students at town halls in France and Turkey, as well as speeches and well over a dozen private meetings with individual foreign leaders, aides felt the president established a new-sheriff-in-town vibe.

Obama said over and over that he was in Europe to listen, not dictate. The subtext was that his leadership would be a sharp U-turn from that of President George W. Bush, and that he hoped that putting a new stamp on U.S. foreign policy would pay dividends from more cooperative allies.

The two-day stay in Turkey, a Muslim-majority nation that straddles Europe and Asia, was a key part of that strategy. Obama hoped to refresh relations with a Muslim-world partner with whom relations became strained over the Iraq war.

"America is back," was how Emanuel put it.

There's no doubting that Obama was well-received.

The question is whether the world's problems will get any better as a result, and the answer won't be known for a while. Diplomacy is a slow process and so is changing the policy of any one nation, much less several — "moving the ship of state," as Obama likes to put it.

Also unclear: where the line will fall with the fickle American public, between excitement at having a leader who makes a big splash overseas and annoyance that that same leader is lavishing attention on the pet priorities of other parts of the world.

The previously unannounced Iraq trip was confined to the main U.S. military base there, Camp Victory. Attention from the new commander in chief proved a huge morale booster, judging from the wildly cheering audience that greeted the president at a former palace of the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"I love you," shouted one of the hundreds of soldiers gathered in a marble-covered atrium. "I love you back," yelled Obama, positioned before a massive U.S. flag.

Although violence is down overall in Iraq from its peak, it has surged lately with a string of deadly bombings, including one in Baghdad just hours before Obama's arrival. The White House scrapped plans for the president to helicopter into Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone to see Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders, citing not security fears but a sand and dust storm that reduced visibility. Instead, the leaders traveled to see him at Camp Victory.

Obama publicly noted the bombings, expressing concern that recent security gains could deteriorate around the upcoming national elections. He said his administration would "use all of our influence" to keep that from happening. He also urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make quicker strides in reconciling the country's still-divided factions — for instance, by integrating minority Sunnis into government and security forces, something the Iraqis have repeatedly promised and had trouble delivering.

Obama had a message for Americans, too. With over 4,260 lives lost and $600 billion spent, he paid heartfelt tribute to the "enormous sacrifice" made by the U.S. in Iraq.

"It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis," he said, earning the loudest applause line of his five-minute address to troops. "They need to take responsibility for their country."

And now Obama is back home, focused on his own.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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