Blog Posts by Olivier Knox

  • Obama, Hollande talk turkey with cheeseburgers

    Ahhh, cheeseburgers. Diplomacy's comfort food.

    President Barack Obama's nod on Friday to visiting French President François Hollande's youthful fondness for the fast-food sandwich was not the first time that leaders from both countries have turned to cheeseburgers at a potentially tense moment.

    The June 2004 Group of Eight Summit brought together President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac a little more than one year after the invasion of Iraq, which deeply divided the two allies. American lawmakers angry, that Paris had opposed the war, voted to rename "French fries" as "Freedom fries" in their cafeteria. Air Force One pointedly served "Freedom Toast." (Neither food is known as "French" in France).

    At a joint press conference, Bush thanked Chirac for his warm welcome on a recent visit to France. "The food was superb, the hospitality warm." Chirac more than returned the favor: "I'd like to thank once again the President for the hospitality here. The President was kind enough to mention French cuisine, but I can tell you that over the last few days, this cuisine here in America was certainly on a par with French cuisine and I ask the President to convey my thanks to the chef."

    "He particularly liked the cheeseburger he had yesterday," Bush said with a broad grin.

    "It was excellent," Chirac said appreciatively, drawing laughter from assembled reporters.

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  • Obama, France’s Hollande hunt for Afghanistan compromise

    Visiting French President François Hollande told President Barack Obama on Friday that France's combat troops would leave Afghanistan by year's end and pledged to find a way "for our allies to pursue their mission" in talks at a looming NATO summit. The two leaders also bonded over jokes about fast food, a move that recalled ugly Franco-American tensions ahead of the war in Iraq.

    France will support Afghanistan "in another way, another form" Hollande told Obama as they met for the first time in the Oval Office. But "the date of the end of 2012 is, for (French) combat troops, the final date."

    Obama's NATO-backed strategy for ending the deeply unpopular war calls for shifting the burden of security to Afghan forces next year (a step the NATO summit in Chicago this weekend is expected to detail) on the way to a full withdrawal of alliance combat troops by the end of 2014. At the same time, he recently signed an accord with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that may keep American military trainers and counterterrorism troops in the war-torn country to 2024. U.S. officials have expressed hope that France will consider a similar compromise, which could avert a possible rush to the exits by other war-weary allies.

    "We'll discuss this again at the summit in Chicago, and I think that we'll be able to find a way to make it possible for our allies to pursue their mission and for France to keep the promise I made to the French people," said Hollande, who campaigned on a pledge to pull France's combat troops out by the end of the year.

    "We agreed that even as we transition out of a combat phase in Afghanistan that it's important that we sustain our commitment to helping Afghans build security and continue down the path of development," said Obama.

    Obama and his guest, the first Socialist French president in 17 years, seemed far closer on other issues: Both cited the need to stimulate the sputtering global economy.

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  • Obama and Camp David, by Mark Knoller’s numbers

    When President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, set out Thursday to give reporters a bit of history about Camp David, he knew there was one person in the room he had to name-check: CBS News reporter Mark Knoller.

    "It's always risky to do this with the presidential historian, Mark Knoller, in the room, but I'll do this anyway—at the risk of being corrected immediately," Donilon joked in the White House briefing room as he opened a briefing on the G8 Summit.

    That's because one of Knoller's standout traits in the White House press corps is his role providing the unofficial institutional memory: He keeps track of reams of presidential data. How many times has Obama met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin? How much money has Obama raised in this election cycle? What state has Obama visited the most? Knoller Knows—and Knoller Shares.

    In that spirit, here is Knoller's online piece describing Camp David, why it's not called "Shangri-La" anymore, and what amenities world

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  • Obama ‘saddened’ by Donna Summer’s death

    President Barack Obama said Thursday that he and first lady Michelle Obama were "saddened" to hear of the death of "Disco Queen" Donna Summer.

    "Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Donna's family and her dedicated fans," the president said in a written statement.

    The big-voiced star had '70s hits with "I Feel Love" and "Last Dance" and scored a 1983 smash with "She Works Hard for the Money." In December 2009, she performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, honoring Obama.

    The president also mourned the passing of Dick Clark back in April. But he kept mum about the deaths of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Beastie Boy MCA (Adam Yauch), a fervent activist on behalf of people in Tibet.

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  • Afghanistan, economy top the agenda as Obama hosts world leaders

    President Barack Obama on Friday kicks off a frenetic four days of guns-and-butter diplomacy, including a pair of high-stakes international summits focused on reviving the sputtering global economy and winding down the unpopular war in Afghanistan.

    Both issues will shape Obama's legacy — not to mention his hopes for re-election in November.  And the back-to-back gatherings of the Group of Eight rich countries at Camp David and the NATO summit in Chicago offer vital opportunities to get the United States and its closest allies in closer harmony.

    White House officials have worriedly watched Europe's debt crisis, concerned that a recession there could infect the already-weak American economy. And the president has made a successful handover of security responsibility from NATO-led forces to their Afghan counterparts by the end of 2014 one of his signature foreign policy goals.

    Obama's diplomatic dash opens Friday with a visit from France's new president, François Hollande, who is the first Socialist to hold the post in 17 years.  The White House is officially neutral on the specifics of Hollande's campaign pledge to seek government action to stimulate the economy, a break from predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's austerity agenda. But they plainly like the principle.

    "The United States has an extraordinarily significant stake in the outcome of the economic discussions in Europe and the steps that are taken in Europe," Tom Donilon, Obama's national security adviser, told reporters Thursday.

    The president favors "a comprehensive approach to manage the crisis and get on a sustainable path towards recovery in Europe," he added, saying the strategy "has to be to preserve the foundations of the eurozone, to address the current crisis facing Europe, particularly as a result of the political events in Greece."

    But Hollande's campaign pledge to pull France's 3,400 combat troops from Afghanistan by year's end — an accelerated timetable -- poses a headache for the Obama administration.

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  • G8 summit sleeping arrangements? That’s classified, White House says

    World leaders attending the Group of Eight summit at Camp David this weekend will find a "small and intimate" setting for talks on Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and the sputtering global economy — but at least they won't have to bunk together, said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon on Thursday.

    Still, not all of the bungalows at the secluded presidential retreat are the same size. So with a group of status-conscious politicians, who's sleeping where?

    "The allocation system, of course, is classified. I really can't go into that," Donilon told reporters at a briefing on the eve of the summit.

    "There are adequate facilities out there for each delegation — each head of state — to have his or her cabin, and for each to be accompanied by a key staff person, and in some cases two or three staff people," he explained.

    Obama expects leaders from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia at Camp David, a military installation whose formal name is "Naval Support Facility Thurmont." Newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin opted to skip the gathering, sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instead. The gathering's newest member -- recently elected French President François Hollande -- however, is making the trip.

    Obama announced in early March that he was moving the G8 summit, which tends to draw thousands of protestors, from his hometown of Chicago to Camp David, which is nestled in Catoctin Mountain Park, about 90 minutes outside Washington.

    "Is it rustic for heads of state?" Donilon said during his exchange with reporters. "You know, I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, right? I never had a lawn bigger than three feet in front of my house. So, yeah. I'm not really the one to comment on rustic."

    Obama doesn't seem to be a huge fan of Camp David, according to statistics compiled by CBS Radio's Mark Knoller, whose figures are typically more reliable than the official numbers.

    Obama has been to Camp David 22 times since taking office in January 2009, spending all or part of 54 days there, according to Knoller.

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  • Super PAC plan denounced as ‘divisive’ by Obama spokesman

    President Barack Obama's chief spokesman on Thursday denounced as "divisive" a reported plan by a conservative super PAC to assail President Barack Obama with ads featuring his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Press secretary Jay Carney also stressed that the president's focus remained the struggling economy.

    "To launch a multi-million-dollar, divisive attack campaign is not what the American people want. And I think there are moments when you have to stand up and say that that's not the right way to go," Carney told reporters at his daily briefing, adding that it was "somewhat reassuring" to see denunciations coming from Democrats and from Republicans alike.

    Carney noted that Obama had addressed questions about his controversial former pastor and about race generally in the 2008 campaign, notably in a "very memorable, detailed speech" in Philadelphia.

    "Right now, in 2012, we're focused on what the American people are focused on: Jobs, the economy, issues of national security," the spokesman said. Obama's "focus is not on that issue or those issues. His focus is on the work he needs to do to help this economy grow."

    "I'm not just saying that because that's the preferred answer, I'm saying it because I know it for a fact," Carney said. "I know that that's the issue —- that the economy and jobs is the issue that he spends the vast majority of his time on. And that's what he's going to be talking about going forward."

    Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney renounced the blueprint in an interview released earlier.

    "I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they've described," he told Townhall.com. "I would like to see this campaign focus on the economy, on getting people back to work, on seeing rising incomes and growing prosperity—particularly for those in the middle class of America," the former Massachusetts governor said.

    According to a copy of the plan obtained by The New York Times, the group hopes to highlight ties between Obama—who is referred to as a "metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln"—and his controversial former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's "black liberation theology."

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  • Obama camp scolds Romney on ‘hate-filled’ conservative super PAC war plan

    President Barack Obama's re-election campaign manager on Thursday accused Mitt Romney of expressing insufficient outrage at a reported plan for a "hate-filled, divisive campaign of character assassination" to be waged by an independent conservative super PAC against the incumbent. Romney repudiated the blueprint in an interview released a short time later.

    According to a copy of the plan obtained by The New York Times, the group hopes to highlight ties between Obama—who is referred to as a "metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln"—and his controversial former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's "black liberation theology."

    "This morning's story revealed the appalling lengths to which Republican operatives and SuperPacs apparently are willing to go to tear down the President and elect Mitt Romney," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement.

    "The blueprint for a hate-filled, divisive campaign of character assassination speaks for itself. It also reflects how far the party has drifted

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  • Obama administration denies role in arming Syrian rebels

    President Barack Obama's administration has repeatedly said over the past few months that it won't ship arms to Syria's outgunned opposition, warning that doing so will only escalate the bloody conflict there. But the Washington Post reported Wednesday that the U.S. has been helping to coordinate shipments of "more and better weapons" to the rebels, with Persian Gulf nations picking up the tab.

    State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied that Washington was playing any role in arming the rebels.

    "With regard to any assertions with regard to lethal (aid), we are not involved in that," she said at her daily briefing.

    "The United States has made a decision to provide nonlethal support to civilian members of the opposition.  This is things like medical equipment.  This is communications, things to help them, first of all, deal with the humanitarian aspects but also to help them to communicate better so that they can plan and be ready for the period of transition that we expect and want to see in Syria," she said.

    So is Washington helping to coordinate arms shipments?

    "We are obviously consulting with various states about the decisions that we've made, that they've made," Nuland said, declining repeated opportunities to explicitly criticize countries that have opted to help arm the opposition. "This is a loose coordination mechanism."

    The Washington Post said that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other gulf states were providing "millions of dollars in funding each month" to arm the opposition.

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  • Obama tries ‘hoagie diplomacy’ with congressional leaders

    President Obama holds up the hoagie sandwich he purchased in Washington, May 16, 2012. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

    President Barack Obama on Wednesday took a novel approach to courting congressional leaders due at the White House for lunch—he got takeout.

    Obama made the brief trek from the White House to a nearby Taylor Gourmet sandwich shop, where he held a round table with small-business owners, including Taylor Gourmet co-owners Casey Patten and David Mazza. He then headed back to the presidential mansion with an armload of sandwiches.

    "My message to Congress—and I'm going to have a chance to see the congressional leadership when I get back to the White House; I'm going to offer them some hoagies while they're there—is 'Let's go ahead and act to help build and sustain momentum for our economy,'" Obama said at the shop.

    "There will be more than enough time for us to campaign and politick, but let's make sure that we don't lose steam at a time when a lot of folks like these are feeling pretty optimistic and are ready to go," the president said.

    Obama paid cash—$62.70, according to a photograph of his receipt—for the lunch. The president ordered a 12-inch "Spruce Street Hoagie," which has roast turkey, prosciutto, roasted red peppers and sharp provolone. But neither a Taylor employee nor a White House aide could say what he picked up for his guests—Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

    The president's policy proposals for steadying the still-weak economy haven't received much of a welcome from congressional Republicans, but his choice of sandwich shop added a little bipartisan air to Washington.

    "I stand with the President in favor of Taylor Gourmet," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said on Twitter.

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