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Obama to UK Parliament: 'The time for our leadership is now'

President Barack Obama sought to reassure the world Wednesday that American and European influence remains dominant, while calling on the West to step up as leaders.
Image: Barack Obama
President Barack Obama addresses Britain's Parliament in London's historic Westminster Hall on Wednesday. Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: news services

President Barack Obama stood in the historic grandeur of Westminster Hall and served notice to England and the world that the growing influence of countries like China, India and Brazil does not mean a diminished global role for America and its European allies.

"The time for our leadership is now," Obama declared to members of Parliament, who for the first time gave an American president the honor of addressing them from the 900-year-old hall where great and gruesome moments in British history have played out.

"If we fail to meet that responsibility, who would take our place, and what kind of world would we pass on?" the president asked.

Tracing an arc from the allied soldiers who fought on the beaches of Normandy to the NATO-backed rebels now fighting in Benghazi, Libya, Obama argued that only the Western allies have the might and fortitude to promote and defend democracy around the globe.

"Even as more nations take on the responsibilities of global leadership," Obama said, "our alliance will remain indispensable to the goal of a century that is more peaceful, more prosperous and more just."

"After a difficult decade that began with war and ended in recession, our nations have arrived at a pivotal moment once more," he said.

Obama's speech came not long after he joined Prime Minister David Cameron in promising jointly to continue a relentless and punishing campaign against Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya, saying there "will not be a let-up" in pressure to force Gadhafi out.

In Westminster Hall, he noted that "democracy is not easy" and "power rarely gives up without a fight — particularly in places where there are divisions of tribe and sect." Obama cautioned that "populism can take dangerous turns" if extremism takes hold.

"But make no mistake: what we saw in Tehran, Tunis and Tahrir Square is a longing for the same freedoms that we take for granted at home. It was a rejection of the notion that people in certain parts of the world don't want to be free, or need to have democracy imposed upon them. It was a rebuke to the worldview of al-Qaida, which smothers the rights of individuals, and would thereby subject them to perpetual poverty and violence.

"So let there be no doubt: the United States and United Kingdom stand squarely on the side of those who long to be free."

Obama said it's time to show that the allies "will back up these words with deeds" by investing in nations in transition by strengthening economic ties and standing up for "universal rights."

'Path has never been perfect'
Obama was granted the honor of being the first U.S. president to speak from the grand setting of Westminster Hall, and he received a deeply friendly welcome. He recounted a history between two countries an ocean apart that began in war but grew into an indispensable global force for economic growth, security, democracy and peace.

Obama laced the beginning of the speech with humor, saying the most recent speakers in the hall were the pope, the queen and Nelson Mandela, "which is either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke." He referred to the two countries' early relations as "a small scrape about tea and taxes."

In his appearance before Parliament, Obama talked glowingly about a historically strong partnership with Great Britain.

"The path has never been perfect," he said. "But through the struggles of slaves and immigrants; women and ethnic minorities; former colonies and persecuted religions, we have learned better than most that the longing for freedom and human dignity is not English or American or Western — it is universal."

Obama spoke to both houses of Parliament and British leaders present and past who were gathered in the cavernous 11th century hall where generations of rulers have held coronation banquets and where many others lay in state while awaiting burial.

His address came midway through a four-country European tour during which he's connected with his unlikely Irish roots and enjoyed the hospitality of Queen Elizabeth II even while keeping an eye on events at home where casualties mount from a monster tornado in Missouri.

Wednesday's speech was billed as the centerpiece of the president's tour, and he addressed grave questions of war, peace and economic strain, calling on Britain and the U.S. to meet the challenges together, and more broadly on the world to move toward democracy and universal rights.

"Our idealism is rooted in the realities of history - that repression offers only the false promise of stability; that societies are more successful when their citizens are free; and that democracies are the closest allies we have," the president said.

Essential to 'cause of human dignity'
On foreign soil, Obama also sprinkled his speech with promotions for his political agenda at home. He called for spending on education and science even during austere times; for more international progress on reducing the carbon emissions that cause global warming; and for a government assurance that people can get health care.

Here, too, he said the United States and Britain can serve as models for emerging giants such as China, India and Brazil.

"The successes and failures of our own past can serve as an example for emerging economies — that it's possible to grow without polluting; that lasting prosperity comes not from what a nation consumes, but from what it produces, and from the investments it makes in its people and infrastructure," he said.

The president received a sustained, standing ovation for his defense of the American-British alliance and how the two "enduring allies" will be a defining force for good in the future, as well.

"As two of the most powerful nations in history, we must always remember that the true source of our influence hasn't just been the size of our economy, the reach of our military, or the land that we've claimed," the president said. "It has been the values that we must never waver in defending around the world — the idea that all human beings are endowed with certain rights that cannot be denied."

As revolutions sweep the Middle East and North Africa and NATO forces bombard Libya, Obama gave a robust defense of the need for the U.S. and Britain to put their military might at the service of people around the world seeking freedom.

He defended the war in Afghanistan, where Britain has 10,000 troops committed and there's keen interest in U.S. plans for the withdrawal of forces, and the action in Libya, where he said intervention prevented a massacre.

"If we fail to meet that responsibility, who would take our place?" the president asked.

'We must act — and lead'
"Our action — our leadership — is essential to the cause of human dignity. And so we must act — and lead — with confidence in our ideals, and an abiding faith in the character of our people, who sent us here today."

Obama's vision of a relevant and revitalized U.S.-European partnership was a welcome message for Western allies who at times have displayed nervousness that the president has focused on the growing influence of Asia at their expense.

"It was wonderful to have the president here offering such a clear and unambiguous reaffirmation of our relationship," said British Education Secretary Michael Gove, a key ally of Cameron.

Obama's message that U.S. and Europe remain vital on the world stage is one he is sure to carry with him as he heads next to Deauville, France, for a two-day summit of the world's top industrial nations. In addition to pressing economic matters, leaders will focus there, too, on how to support democracy in the Middle East and North Africa in a time of upheaval and economic strains.

In a move rarely deployed in British politics, Obama worked the audience at Westminster Hall for almost 10 minutes after his speech, surprising lawmakers as he stopped for a series of brief chats. He spoke with Oscar-winning actress-turned-lawmaker Glenda Jackson, and won a peck on the cheek from Floella Benjamin, a much loved children's TV presenter and now member of the House of Lords.

Obama began his day in closed-door meetings with Cameron that were all about the practical realities of the U.S.-U.K. partnership in trouble spots such as Libya and Afghanistan.

The two leaders then took a break before their joint news conference to grill burgers for U.S. and British troops and spouses at a barbeque in the garden of Cameron's 10 Downing Street residence. The two briefly manned the grills, and then joined their wives, Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron, in serving up plates of food.

Cameron joked in advance that his daughter was calling it the "Obama-cue."

And there was one more bit of ceremonial business to be taken care of before Obama heads off to France: The Obamas were hosting a reciprocal dinner for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at the U.S. ambassador's residence in return for the lavish state banquet that the royals threw for the Americans on Tuesday.

The guest list had a significant celebrity quotient, including actors Colin Firth and Tom Hanks, soccer star David Beckham, author J.K. Rowling and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The three-course menu included lobster ravioli, griddled filet of aged Highlands beef, crushed jersey royals with rosemary, asparagus and minted broad beans, topped off with classic pecan pie and brandy ice cream for dessert. Tony Award-winning singer and actress Kristin Chenoweth was providing the after-dinner entertainment.

Obama began his week with a feel-good visit to Ireland, where he visited the tiny village from which a great-great-great grandfather on his mother's side emigrated to the United States. He will end his four-nation tour of Europe in Poland, which he had hoped to visit last year before an ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano forced him to cancel.