- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 11, 2009

L’AQUILA, Italy | Wrapping up the three-day Group of Eight summit, President Obama said Friday that the world’s major powers are ready to act if Iran fails to show good-faith efforts and negotiate about its nuclear development program by a September deadline agreed to by the G-8 leaders.

Later in the day, the president met in Rome with Pope Benedict XVI in a 30-minute private audience in which the pontiff stressed the church’s opposition to abortion and stem-cell research and Mr. Obama said he was committed to reducing the number of abortions in the United States.

Mr. Obama pushed back at reports that U.S. officials had tried and failed to get a stronger G-8 response, including new sanctions, to head off Iran’s nuclear development program. Iran insists its nuclear efforts are for peaceful, civilian uses.

But he also raised expectations for the September meeting of major countries in Pittsburgh, saying the nations will take stock then of whether Iran has complied with international demands.

The joint G-8 statement on Iran “provides a time frame,” Mr. Obama said. “If Iran chooses not to walk through that door, then you have on record the G-8 to begin with, but I think potentially a lot of other countries, that are going to say we need to take further steps.”

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Over three days of meetings here, Mr. Obama called for new organizations to reflect the realities of the new international order, met with the pope, and won mostly rave reviews from his fellow leaders. Late in the evening, Mr. Obama and his family arrived in Ghana for a brief visit, the first to a sub-Saharan African country since Mr. Obama was elected.

“The new Obama administration has done everything absolutely right,” said Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the summit host.

The president said the U.S. and its partners are “not going to just wait indefinitely” while Iran works on a nuclear weapon.

Mr. Obama spent two days in Russia before traveling to Italy for three days of meetings surrounding the G-8, which represents the world’s leading economies and includes Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada and Russia.

But the president’s Russian overtures were rebuffed on another front Friday when President Dmitry Medvedev said he still opposes U.S. plans to put a missile-defense site in Eastern Europe despite Washington’s assurances. Mr. Medvedev said he stands by an earlier vow to place short-range missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the border with Poland if the U.S. missile shield is built.

“If we don’t manage to agree on the issues, you know the consequences. What I said during my state of the nation address has not been revoked,” he said, according to the Reuters news agency.

Mr. Obama and his advisers took great pains this week to ease Moscow’s concerns over the missile-defense plan, arguing it poses no threat to Russia and, instead, is designed to counter missile attacks from rogue nations, notably Iran.

Despite that hiccup, Mr. Obama’s presence dominated the meetings in Italy.

“I was impressed, but so were all our colleagues. I can tell you that we are all very favorably impressed with President Obama,” Mr. Berlusconi said in his wrap-up press conference.

In his own concluding press conference, Mr. Obama said gatherings such as the G-8 summit will have to change, and that he looks forward to doing away with so many international summits.

“There’s no sense that those institutions can adequately capture the enormous changes that have taken place during those intervening decades,” he said.

Mr. Obama said it’s “wrongheaded” to think nations such as Brazil, India and China can be left out of the big decisions being made at these meetings, and suggested some representation from Africa should be part of future summits as well.

Still, he acknowledged it will be tough to set a proper limit.

“What I’ve noticed is everybody wants the smallest possible group, smallest possible organization, that includes them,” he said. “So if they’re the 21st-largest nation in the world, then they want the G-21, and think it’s highly unfair if they’ve been cut out.”

Mr. Obama appeared to be deeply moved by the visit with the pope, acknowledging later that the meeting had touched in part on such difficult issues as abortion and bioethics. The pope at one point gave the president a copy of the Vatican’s official position on abortion and other issues, which Mr. Obama promised to read.

“Yes, this is what we talked about,” Mr. Obama said later.

First lady Michelle Obama, dressed in traditional black, and Mr. Obama’s two daughters joined the president for part of the meeting with Benedict.

The pontiff’s spokesman, the Rev. Georg Ganswein, told reporters later that the meeting was not “polemical” but did touch directly on abortion and other “sanctity of life” issues.

“In the course of their cordial exchanges, the conversation turned first of all to questions which are in the interest of all and which constitute a great challenge … such as the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience,” the Vatican said in its official summary of the meeting.

The two men also discussed immigration, the Middle East and global economics. Mr. Obama also delivered a letter from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, asking for the pope’s prayers. Mr. Kennedy, whose brother John was the nation’s first and only Catholic president, has been diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor.

Mr. Obama, who is pro-choice, supports stem-cell research. He pledged to seek to cut the number of abortions in the United States in his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in May. That address - and the school’s decision to award Mr. Obama an honorary degree - sparked a fierce debate among American Catholics, with some 70 U.S. bishops publicly criticizing the university’s action.

Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, said many actively pro-life Catholics were “scandalized” that the pope agreed to meet with the pro-choice president, but others downplayed the significance of the meeting.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which also protested the Notre Dame appearance, said, President Obama’s papal audience was a different situation than his commencement speech.

“The pope is a head of state, and he’s meeting with another head of state, or this couldn’t be happening,” he said. “It’s not a matter of honoring President Obama.”

Benedict and Mr. Obama exchanged gifts: Mr. Obama gave the pope a stole that had been placed on the remains of St. John Neumann, the first American bishop to be canonized. The president received from the pope a mosaic of St. Peter’s Square, an autographed, leather-bound copy of the pope’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” and a pontifical medal.

After a 24-hour stopover in Ghana, including a major speech set for Saturday, Mr. Obama is scheduled to return to Washington.

Julia Duin contributed to this story from Washington.

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