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Obama hopes summit meetings can quiet overseas questions

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Eager to avoid any setbacks that would distract the president’s attention from the U.S. economy in an election year, the Obama administration hopes to use a pair of summits with foreign leaders this weekend to develop some consensus around an international response to both the European debt crisis and the war in Afghanistan.

The back-to-back gatherings bring together the leaders of eight of the world’s richest economies at the Group of Eight summit at the presidential country retreat at Camp David, followed by a larger meeting of 61 NATO members and other allies in his home town of Chicago.

The twin summits offer a test of President Obama’s leadership at a time of great uncertainty in several of his administration’s core foreign policy challenges.

White House officials said Thursday that Obama, at Camp David, will share his vision of a comprehensive approach to containing the fallout from Greece’s ongoing financial meltdown, which gained urgency amid renewed fears this week that the country would pull out of the euro currency zone.

The administration has offered advice and technical assistance as European leaders tried to respond to the crisis with hefty infusions of bailout funds and inexpensive loans to struggling banks. But fresh political turmoil in Greece, along with the election of a new French president, Francois Hollande, has reignited the debate over whether Europe should pursue a different course — and put pressure on the White House to consider a more aggressive U.S. intervention.

Before heading to Camp David late Friday, Obama will meet at the White House with Hollande, whose campaign for economic stimulus to help contain the financial fallout by sparking growth has contrasted sharply with the views of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led the push for stricter austerity measures.

Although Hollande’s message has echoed the economic argument Obama has advanced in the United States, White House advisers said the president does not intend to exploit the differences between Hollande and Merkel, both of whom will participate at the Camp David summit.

Obama intends to lead a discussion about “specific steps” to move forward, national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon said in a briefing for reporters Thursday. “But I don’t think that the nature of these conversations are going to be anything like taking one side or the other and trying to exploit. The nature of these conversations will be about a coherent and common goal of having . . . the current crisis managed well and getting on a path towards sustainable recovery.”

Administration officials touted the Camp David summit as the largest gathering of world leaders ever at the presidential retreat. Only twice before have foreign leaders been invited there — Jimmy Carter played host to Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1978, and Bill Clinton met with Israel’s Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2000.

But the absence of Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, who sent Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place, has put a damper on this weekend’s event, complicating the Obama administration’s effort to achieve a “reset” in relations with the Russian leadership.

The Group of Eight leaders also are expected to discuss a series of security issues, including political unrest in Syria, the suspected nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea, and the Afghan war.

During two days of NATO meetings, which begin Sunday in Chicago, the chief topic will be the timeline for NATO’s hand-over of security responsibility to Afghanistan’s forces. NATO agreed at its November 2010 summit in Lisbon that the Afghans would assume control at the end of 2014, the exit deadline for coalition combat forces.

Since then, as public disapproval of the war has risen and the coalition has become increasingly anxious to test Afghan force capabilities, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and others have indicated that the “transition” outlined in Lisbon would be accelerated, and that all of Afghanistan will be under Afghan security control by the end of 2013, while the coalition continues to provide assistance and backup for another year until the withdrawal of NATO troops.

One administration official said the hope was that the NATO meetings would produce “a comprehensible statement that doesn’t confuse everybody” on the gradual transition to Afghan security force responsibility.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said that “NATO is going to want to signal that it’s being a little bit more patient than it tends to get credit for, in terms of how it executes the drawdown path. And that there will be no radical change to this, despite what any one member, like France, may decide in the next few months, [and] despite the electoral and political pressures Obama’s feeling in the United States.”

On his way home from Chicago on Monday evening, Obama will return to domestic matters, stopping in Joplin, Mo., to deliver a high school commencement address in a community ravaged by a tornado in the spring of 2011.

Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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