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Obama isn't winning many foreign friends

After 14 months in office, President Obama is looking at a cold and friendless world.

That doesn't seem to bother him one bit, because he's the one who's acting chilly.

His relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are almost sub-zero. Obama didn't mind hurting Spanish feelings when he canceled a summit in Madrid.

Even French President Nicolas Sarkozy — dubbed "l'Americain" by his compatriots — was put on hold for a home-cooked dinner until a week ago. Other Europeans can't decide whether he's dissing them.

It's gotten to the point where there is a debate in British Parliament on whether to call off the so-called special relationship. The British took offense at Obama's decision to move Winston Churchill's bust out of the Oval Office. The more dramatic slight was his pitiful gift of a boxed set of 25 old American movies to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who can't even view them on a British DVD player.

Obama has always been cool, aloof as well as hip. That quality is now making its mark on his diplomacy, as he dispenses with the kind of personal relationships that make history such a good read.

Where would the U.S.-British special relationship have been without the wartime rapport struck between Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt? Obama doesn't have that kind of partnership with anyone, and maybe that's a good thing. It makes him a free agent.

This isn't just about his character. It also has to do with the historical moment. As Obama said in a speech to the United Nations last September, the United States can no longer "solve the world's problems alone." His message seems to be: If it takes a dose of tough love to make others do their share, so be it. No hugs here.

As soon as he moved into the White House, Obama made it clear he wasn't looking for best friends. He isn't a natural chum, the way Ronald Reagan was with Margaret Thatcher. He has none of President George W. Bush's back-rubbing, nicknaming bonhomie. He did call Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva "my man," though it's not obvious that he's pals with him either.

This isn't the kind of guy who's going to yell out "Yo, Sarko" in a crowded room. He's made some protocol blunders — like bowing too deeply before the Japanese emperor — but these are faults of excessive courtesy, not fun-loving spontaneity.

Of course, in some cases, the slow-spreading chill is dictated by policy, not personality. The lack of chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu has everything to do with the impasse in U.S.-Israeli relations; rampant corruption in Afghanistan has sapped almost everyone's patience with Karzai, not just Obama's.

What's striking is Obama's cold-blooded handling of these spats. They're out there in plain view: Netanyahu's recent visit to the White House was downgraded to near-invisibility without even a fireside photo opportunity. Karzai was told last month that his invitation to Washington was revoked. Those kinds of slights are hard to miss.

There are risks to such public rebukes. Karzai, for instance, retaliated, inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidential palace in Kabul where he launched into an anti-American tirade. Netanyahu took his hurt pride back to Israel, where he continued with his defiant construction of settlements in East Jerusalem.

Nobody should be surprised by Obama's different approach. He took office on a promise of change and started off with a calculated reshuffling of his diplomatic cards. One of his first foreign outings was to Cairo, where he made an address to the Muslim world. That's something no other president has done, though so far Obama has little to show for it.

Obama's public approval ratings are still high in Europe, where he's seen as a welcome change from the unpopular Bush administration. That's one reason why Sarkozy — whose own poll ratings have been plummeting — was so eager to accept Obama's belated invitation to a private dinner at the White House.

But Sarkozy left the United States without pledging more troops to Afghanistan, at a time when the Obama administration has openly expressed its frustration with Europe's reluctance to make military commitments. If Obama was disappointed, he didn't show it during the visit, but the French president may have to wait a while before he gets another invitation.

In its recent review of the "special relationship," the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee advised the British government, in its dealings with the United States, to "adopt a hardheaded political approach to the relationship."

It sounds like they took a page out of Obama's book.

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