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Obama - The Listener in Chief Needs to Lead

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, April 5, 2009

Only in America, did you murmur? Or was it my own thought on hearing that, on the very day Queen Elizabeth welcomed Barack and Michelle Obama to Buckingham Palace for tea, the president's impecunious Kenyan aunt had to plead with a Boston immigration judge not to be deported immediately?

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That juxtaposition will tell Europeans more about this country and our new leader than all the massaged speeches, competing news conferences and carefully filigreed communiques that blossomed on Obama's first official trip to their continent -- if they pay attention.

First, though, an aside: Enough already with this embarrassing deportation case against Zeituni Onyango, who won a reprieve last week to stay in Boston until next February for a full hearing on her asylum request. Her case is so unusual and so public, and her vulnerability now so high, that only the most rabid immigraphobes would take the chance of putting this 56-year-old woman in harm's way.

Obama says he has not lifted a finger to help the aunt who guided him around Kenya 20 years ago. The careful image of keeping his distance from a relative embroiled in political as well as legal controversy is consistent with the discipline and unsentimental calculation that guided Obama's hopscotch through three big diplomatic summits in four days.

For Obama, friendly behavior toward other politicians is a policymaking tool, especially when magnified by the 21st-century power of instant global imagery. Where George W. Bush may have glowered to get his way, Obama gripped and grinned and moved on to his talking points. Neither naivete (his critics' suspicion) nor innate goodness (his supporters' hope) spurred the president's visible guffawing with Russia's Dmitry Medvedev, China's Hu Jintao or France's Nicolas Sarkozy at the G-20 summit in London. Self-interest did.

"The truth is Bush wanted to be liked. And he took it personally when he wasn't," said a European official who has dealt with both presidents. "Obama doesn't seem to really care if he is liked. He has an almost royal reserve." And, he suggested, the self-confidence to base political relations on utility and need.

When I asked a senior diplomat from another major European nation about the "chemistry" between his leader and Obama, he shot back: "What chemistry? It's nothing personal, it's just business when they talk."

That presents a welcome change. Bush's pals played on the personal connection to make end runs around the diplomatic processes that his secretaries of state and national security advisers dreamed up. Ehud Olmert, Israel's former prime minister, used a weekly phone call with Bush to particularly damaging effect -- so much so that Jim Jones, the current national security adviser, reportedly told Obama that he would take the job only if he were not similarly bypassed in communications.

Obama immediately agreed -- perhaps because it would make little difference anyway if Dmitry or Nicolas did plead their cases with him personally.

In London, Obama did not look into Medvedev's soul but into the future. The White House is working on an elaborate plan to restore U.S. leadership on global nonproliferation and disarmament, which Bush disdained. Obama needs Medvedev's help on that -- and on devising a fallback plan of more painful sanctions for Iran if Obama's engagement effort fails. (Obama's intent to be a "full partner" in the Iran negotiations and the need for commitment on a Plan B for tough sanctions will be spelled out to Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China on April 8 by Undersecretary of State William Burns.)

Obama can be forgiven for using his first grand tour abroad to establish for foreign audiences how different he and Bush are -- the heavy-breathing message contained in his nonstop promises to listen rather than lecture. Fair enough. But with this trip, the president reaches the point of diminishing returns for that slogan -- and for his team's frequent assertions that all the problems they confront were caused by Bush. Americans and foreigners alike now expect Obama to define what he learned by all that listening, and to show how he intends to apply it. Listening is not a policy.

Just as his recent decisions on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan make that conflict Obama's war, this extended burst of summitry in Europe makes this Obama's world, for better or for worse. He approaches it with a lack of Bushian sentimentality and emotion that we can all applaud -- except perhaps for his poor aunt in Boston, and any leaders who had hoped to become Obama's Olmert.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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