- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2012

As President Obama prepares to play host to a doubleheader of global diplomacy at the Group of Eight and NATO summits this weekend, there are increasing signs that the world is tuning out his message.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is skipping the G-8 meeting that begins Friday at Camp David, Md., a startling display of disrespect for Mr. Obama, foreign policy analysts say. The just-elected Mr. Putin has said he needs time to put his Cabinet of advisers together, dispatching Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the U.S. as his surrogate.

French voters gave the bum’s rush this month to Mr. Obama’s ally, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in favor of socialist Francois Hollande, who campaigned in part on a pledge to withdraw France’s 3,400 troops from Afghanistan sooner than Mr. Obama desires.

Then there’s the European debt crisis, which only has deepened since Mr. Obama urged the Continent’s leaders to solve their problems last November at a conference in France. But U.S. officials have been largely sidelined in the European debate, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of the eurozone’s most powerful economy, embracing a policy of economic austerity largely opposed in Washington.

At the Camp David summit, observers say, Mr. Obama will have little leverage over Europe’s fiscal emergency, while the economic slowdown across the Atlantic still could engulf the United States before the November elections.

“We’re not in this game,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington. “We’re sitting on the bleachers a bit.”

Some observers even question the need for the G-8 anymore, given that the Group of 20 industrialized nations has taken a more prominent role in addressing global economic issues.

Bruce Jones, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that the G-8, which includes traditional industrial powers plus Russia, doesn’t include such “important voices” as China, South Korea, Australia, Turkey, Brazil or India. He called the G-8 “a body that’s a little bit betwixt and between.”

But Michael Froman, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama, said the group’s “intimacy” is useful for handling a broad range of economic and security concerns.

“Rumors of the G-8’s demise have been greatly exaggerated,” Mr. Froman said.

A focus of the G-8 and the NATO summit in Chicago, which begins Sunday, will be the troubled mission in Afghanistan and the timetable for turning over security to Afghanistan’s own forces. In addition to grappling with allies who are eager to rush for the exits of that military theater, Mr. Obama is facing international partners reluctant to contribute up to $1.3 billion of the estimated $4 billion annual cost of providing support to Afghan forces beyond 2014.

Another factor working against Mr. Obama at these meetings is his status as a potential lame duck, given his tight race against presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Ms. Conley said the pending election means the president’s “role is somewhat limited,” but he “can play a role of listening, helping leaders find common ground.”

Whatever the outcome of these summits, the bar isn’t set very high for Mr. Obama to do better than at his last two international conferences.

In April, his attendance at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, was completely overshadowed by the news that some of his Secret Service agents and other security personnel hired prostitutes.

And in March, Mr. Obama stole his own thunder at a nuclear security summit in Seoul by engaging in a “hot mic” gaffe with Mr. Medvedev, then the president of Russia preparing to cede the top job in Moscow back to Mr. Putin. Mr. Obama was caught asking the Russian leader for more breathing room on missile-defense talks until after the November elections, when he would have more “flexibility.”

“Certainly the White House is trying to keep expectations low,” said Matthew Goodman, chairman of the political economy program at CSIS. “There will not be any big, new initiatives.”

Mr. Medvedev will attend the G-8 meeting instead of Mr. Putin, who was inaugurated for a new six-year term as president of Russia last week. Mr. Putin, who has led Russia for a dozen years, told Mr. Obama that he needs more time to reorganize his government - an excuse that is the foreign-policy equivalent of claiming he has a headache. Without him, analysts say, there’s little chance of progress on issues such as the Syrian government’s bloody crackdown on protesters, or on Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program.

A senior Russian lawmaker told Bloomberg news service that Mr. Putin is showing his displeasure with Mr. Obama over U.S. criticism of Russian elections and the lack of progress on a proposed missile shield. But Mr. Froman downplayed the suggestion that Mr. Putin is trying to send a message to the Obama administration.

“I wouldn’t overinterpret President Putin’s decision,” Mr. Froman said. “We are in very close touch.”

But Ms. Conley said the Russian leader’s message was unmistakable.

“It was an extraordinary event,” she said. “I don’t believe it bodes well in the near term for working constructively with Moscow on some of these more significant issues.”