It's no exaggeration to say that President Obama is unquestionably the most popular politician - if not person - in Europe. Last July, he hardly lifted a finger and some 100,000 people turned up to hear him speak in a Berlin park. January's historic inauguration underlined his European stardom - last month, Obama pulled an eye-popping 84 percent approval rate in Germany, not to mention 88 percent in France, and 87 percent in Italy.
The trick is turning the zenith of Obama's European popularity into something tangible. The Berlin speech was eight months ago, and Obama's stardom will almost certainly fade- the novelty of his encapsulating rhetoric will wear as certain governing decisions prove unpopular.
The biggest impact Obama could have is to make a pointed appeal for European support to NATO's Afghanistan mission. Those poll numbers are much more negative - according to January 2009 research, 60 percent of Germans, 57 percent of Britons, and 53 percent of Italians and French opposed sending more of troops to Afghanistan.
Obama has already made the hard-sell on more troops to European leaders, who likely acknowledge in private the strategic need to increase their mission contributions and who want to curry favor with the new president. But Obama's European counterparts are constrained by the mission's public unpopularity. The majority of Europeans stand ready to bruise their politicians at the ballot box for dead soldiers, alleged neo-imperialist instincts, and supposedly wasted resources that would accompany increased troop commitments.
Before his popularity wanes even a few points, Obama can move those Afghanistan poll numbers by convincing enough Europeans - perhaps just 10 percent - of that mission's vital strategic importance. By decreasing public opposition to sending more troops, Obama would give local leaders enough political breathing room to do just that.
Here's how: Obama has to take it to the street, Europe style. If Candidate Obama could draw 100,000 in Berlin - a city that doesn't even speak his native tongue - last summer, just think of how many the newly-minted President Obama could draw in London - a city that does - next week (weather permitting). Obama knows the importance of grassroots motivation (it got him elected, after all), which is why he's taken his economic stimulus message outside of DC to places like Elkhart IN, Ft Myers FL, and Denver. Now it's time to take this show on the road, too.
Just imagine an open-air speaking tour of London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Berlin where hundreds of thousands gather in places like Trafalgar Square and the Champs de Mars to hear America's new star explain why it's in Europe's strategic interest to contribute more. The 2005 London Tube bombers had connections to Afghanistan/Pakistan; so did the unsuccessful Heathrow plotters of 2006; the Madrid attackers of March 2004 were inspired by a vicious ideology that matured in Afghanistan, the same ideology that first spouted from the North African bombers of the Paris metro in 1995. It's a powerful case.
The visit would garner so much attention that higher public support for these missions would almost certainly soon follow, thus freeing local leaders just enough to commit sufficient soldiers and resources. The notion of true Afghan, European, and American joint security might stand a chance after all.
He's just got to make the case quickly.
A version of this post appeared on my national security blog, AllOurMight.com.