Obama shifts focus from foreign populations to leaders

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010

President Obama traveled halfway around the world last weekend to lecture his mercurial Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, about the need to fight corruption in his government.

It was a brief, unhappy encounter in which Obama conveyed concerns that corruption is undermining Karzai's government at the very time that the United States is attempting to strengthen it. But the meeting revealed a shift in Obama's foreign policy: a growing emphasis on one-on-one encounters with foreign leaders.

For many world leaders, supporting Obama has been less a personal decision than one based on domestic politics. The president broke with the personality-based foreign policy of George W. Bush in favor of a more populist diplomacy, which seeks to leverage his appeal in other nations to further the national interests he is pursuing with their leaders. His conservative critics have said he has no friends abroad to turn to for help in promoting American interests overseas.

But after 14 months in office, Obama is turning his attention from the global audience to heads of state, hoping to develop a rapport that will help him reap the benefits of his effort to repair America's image abroad. The shift is a recognition that he must appeal more directly and frequently to the people who set policy, as well as to their constituents.

"Presidents are politicians, after all, and politics is based on the ability to forge personal relationships," said former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is now president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The change from a year ago is stark. In his widely broadcast address in Cairo last June, Obama called Israeli settlements in the occupied territories "illegitimate." By contrast, he met last week at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for two hours, urging him privately to freeze Jewish settlement construction.

A year ago, Obama was in France, where he held one of his first foreign town hall forums, before hundreds of exuberant citizens. On Tuesday night, he and first lady Michelle Obama will have a private dinner for French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni -- the first such dinner with a visiting head of state of his presidency.

And in April 2009, Obama called for a world free of nuclear weapons before thousands of cheering Czechs gathered in a Prague square. Next month, he will host more than 40 heads of state in Washington for a meeting on securing nuclear materials. It will be the first time, White House officials say, that a U.S. president has held a single-issue summit with so many foreign leaders.

Bush put enormous stock in personal chemistry and cultivated a jocular informality with many world leaders, once calling out to then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair at an international forum by just his last name.

He rode horses with fellow cowboy-boot-clad President Vicente Fox of Mexico and, as a farewell gift, he gave the Elvis-loving Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a personal tour of Graceland. Most famously, Bush said after his first meeting with then-Russian President Vladimir Putin that he was "able to get a sense of his soul," a statement that haunted him as Putin grew increasingly authoritarian.

But Bush's policies, rooted in his "global war on terrorism," proved highly unpopular in much of the world. He left office with few friends among the leaders he had reached out to for years.

"Obama is not the sort of guy who looks for a best buddy, and that's very different than Bush," said a European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about perceptions of U.S. leaders abroad. "Sometimes being too personal is not a good thing. You can make mistakes."

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