Obama with foreign leaders: All business, all the time

McClatchy NewspapersJune 7, 2009 

PARIS — Speaking before crowds, President Barack Obama has displayed a gift for bonding personally with his listeners. One-on-one with foreign leaders, it seems to be all business all the time.

The contrast between his public oratory and his determination to project an appearance of professionalism with his counterparts was visible during the four-nation trip that ended Sunday. It puts Obama in a different class of statesmen from his immediate two predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who spoke often of their trust or affection for other world leaders.

It's winning plaudits, not only with foreign audiences and world leaders, but also at home, where his presidential rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and fellow Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) both have praised his style as right for the times.

His speech in Cairo to the Muslim world, some 1.5 billion people, not only reached one of the biggest audiences ever sought but may open doors after decades of misunderstanding, to judge from the first opinion polls cited by the White House. But in meetings with four heads of government or state Obama went out of his way to avoid effusiveness.

Obama called French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel each a "friend" and defended spending less than an hour talking business with Merkel and only two hours with Sarkozy by saying that he's in frequent touch with them from Washington.

Merkel is a friend "who I always seek out for intelligent analysis and straight talk," he told reporters in Dresden. Merkel responded: "It's fun to work together with the American president because very serious, very thorough analytical discussions very often lead us to draw the same conclusions."

Obama downplayed a German reporter's question about whether the brief visit reflected anything about his relationship with Merkel, whom Bush had fawned over. "There are only 24 hours in the day," Obama said, declaring there was "nothing to any of that speculation beyond us just trying to fit in what we could do on such a short trip." And he chided the press to "stop it, all of you. I know you have to find something to report on, but we have more than enough problems out there without manufacturing problems."

But it was Obama's joint appearance in Caen, France, with Sarkozy Saturday, which put a new twist on his dynamic — and provided perhaps the most insight thus far into his calibrations.

"When I take these foreign trips, it's to get business done, because I also have an economy where the unemployment rate is 9.4 percent," Obama said. One day, Obama said, he'd be an ex-president, "and then you will find me in France, I'm sure, quite a bit, having fun."

Then, Obama opted for a date-night in Paris with his own wife instead of a formal dinner with the Sarkozys. In the press availability, Obama also was blunt over his disagreement with France's policies preventing Muslim women from wearing headscarves or veils in certain public circumstances.

Sarkozy, a brilliant but flamboyant politician for whom politics appears intensely personal, is the one foreign leader who has come closest among foreign leaders, at least in the public eye, to cultivating a friendship with Obama.

But Obama said in Caen: "good friends don't worry about the symbols and the conventions and the protocols. The United States is a critical friend and ally of France, and vice versa. I personally consider Nicolas Sarkozy a friend. I think he feels the same way. And so since I know I can always pick up the phone and talk to him, that it's not necessary for me to spend huge amounts of time other than just getting business done when I'm here."

Sarkozy seemed intensely irritated that his own press corps viewed him as short-changed by Obama. "Frankly, do you think people are just waiting to see us hand-in-hand sitting here looking into one another's eyes?" he asked. "They want us to achieve results."

Well before Obama left Washington for the Mideast-Europe trip, his style with foreign leaders was drawing the attention of foreign policy experts who have studied or worked with his predecessors.

They noted Obama's calculated smile and handshake with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, an avowed U.S. critic, at a hemisphere summit in April, could make it harder for Chavez to play the anti-American card with his own people in the future.

In contrast, when the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. allies, emerged with Obama from a recent White House meeting, Obama kept his physical distance. After a private session in which he told them to crack down more on corruption and extremists, he had them stand on either side of him and did not invite either to speak.

Obama did ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sit with him for joint remarks after their recent White House meeting. But while Netanyahu thanked Obama "for your friendship to Israel and your friendship to me," Obama kept it professional: "I have great confidence in Prime Minister Netanyahu's political skills, but also his historical vision." That's given Obama the personal distance to speak critically in public about Israel's treatment of Palestinians and its obligation to stop expanding Jewish West Bank settlements.

Aaron David Miller, a Mideast expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center and adviser to past secretaries of state, said that "personal relationships are critical in diplomacy and Obama has the capacity to develop them." But he said Obama's style is cooler than that of Bush, who early in his presidency said that he'd looked into then-Russian President Vladimir Putin's eyes and gotten a sense of his soul, only to be disappointed later; or Clinton, who expressed his fondness for Israel's Yitzhak Rabin and Russia's Boris Yeltsin.

"His view of personal relationships, in my judgment, is much more instrumental," Miller said of Obama. "It's not emotional when it comes to his statesmanship."

After Bush's meeting with Putin in June 2001, "he ended up looking quite foolish later," said James M. Goldgeier, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, who worked for the State Department and National Security Council under Clinton.

"This is often a criticism of presidents, later, that they end up putting so much stock in a personal relationship that they neglect the broader issues at stake or get blinded to what the real issues are," he said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Obama's home state of Illinois, said Obama is friendly but "pragmatic about this, and that's the way he's dealt with people in the Senate and in domestic politics as well."

McCain, Obama's general election opponent last year, summed up Obama's approach as "the nature of his personality, but it's also good. National interests override personal interests."

"One thing I think he understands, too, is that leaders change," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, who serves as a sounding board for the administration on some military and legal issues.

"You don't want to tie yourself to a personality; tie yourself to a policy," Graham said, praising Obama's cautious approach so far. "The idea of being everybody's best friend has a certain falseness to it. These are politicians. And most people see it for that. I'd rather have a healthy, respectful relationship than some personal friendship that's being oversold."

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