North Africa, Middle East Top Priority At G8 Summit

The president is attending the G-8 summit in France Thursday, where the agenda is dominated by discussions about shoring up the new democracies in the Arab world. President Obama is asking his allies among the major industrial nations to be generous in the aid to Egypt, Tunisia and the rebels in Libya.

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President Obama is attending the G8 summit in France today. He's encouraging his fellow G8 leaders to provide financial support to newly emerging democracies in North Africa and the Middle East.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, Mr. Obama is also using the summit to meet one on one with some of the other G8 leaders, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama spent much of his day in closed-door meetings. The White House has lost count of the number of times Mr. Obama and his Russian counterpart have sat down together.

Mike McFaul, who oversees Russian affairs on the National Security Council, says talks which once focused almost exclusively on arms control now cover a wide range of issues, from the popular uprisings in the Middle East to Russia's goal of entering the World Trade Organization.

Mr. MICHAEL McFAUL (Senior Director of Russian Affairs, National Security Council): And one way to think about it is we're developing a kind of normal relationship with Russia, something that one could not have said two and a half years ago.

HORSLEY: Aides consider it a significant accomplishment for that new U.S.-Russian relationship that Russia did not veto the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of military force in Libya.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes says the two presidents, who are both lawyers and about the same age, have also developed a comfortable personal rapport.

Mr. BEN RHODES (Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication): They had a conversation, and frankly, they also joke around a lot. The reason that they can talk about the issues they're talking about now is because the amount of time they've invested in that personal relationship.

HORSLEY: The diciest issue on the two men's plate today was missile defense. Russia has long worried that a planned U.S. defense system in Europe could render Russia's nuclear arsenal less effective.

McFaul says Mr. Obama has tried repeatedly to reassure Medvedev that America's missile defense is aimed elsewhere, that it's stopping attacks from rouge states like Iran, for example. McFaul says Mr. Obama wants to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, not set off another arms race.

Mr. McFAUL: Both presidents firmly stated nobody has an interest in that. Neither side has an interest in returning to those dark days.

HORSLEY: The highlight of this G8 summit from the U.S. perspective will be a discussion of how to support fledgling democracies in the Middle East, like Egypt and Tunisia.

David Lipton, who's one of the president's advisers on international economics, says Middle Eastern countries don't just need political reform, they also need more jobs.

Mr. DAVID LIPTON (White House International Economic Adviser): We believe that these two pillars go hand in hand. Without economic modernization, it will be hard for governments trying to democratize to show people that democracy delivers.

HORSLEY: In his Middle East speech last week, Mr. Obama pledged several billion dollars worth of debt relief and loan guarantees to Egypt and Tunisia.

Lipton says the European Commission has also volunteered to pop more money into the region, and leaders at the G8 summit will be asked to do their part as well.

Mr. LIPTON: We feel as though our efforts are being echoed now by our European partners, and all of this will help strengthen the stability of Egypt and Tunisia.

HORSLEY: In the short run, the new democracies need economic stabilization, but over the longer term, Mr. Obama hopes to encourage more trade and investment with the Middle East along with reform, so wealth of the region is shared more widely.

British Prime Minister David Cameron says G8 countries have not only an economic stake in the success of the new democracies but a security interest as well.

Prime Minister DAVID CAMERON (United Kingdom): If they succeed, there is new hope for those living there, and there is the hope of a better and safer world for all of us. But if they fail, if that hunger is denied, then some young people in that region will continue to listen to the poisonous narrative of extremism.

HORSLEY: Aides say Mr. Obama's push for more economic aid is based on history. They say successful transitions to democracy are almost always accompanied by broader-based prosperity.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, at the G8 summit, Deauville, France.

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