Afghanistan, economy top the agenda as Obama hosts world leaders

President Barack Obama on Friday kicks off a frenetic four days of guns-and-butter diplomacy, including a pair of high-stakes international summits focused on reviving the sputtering global economy and winding down the unpopular war in Afghanistan.

Both issues will shape Obama's legacy — not to mention his hopes for re-election in November.  And the back-to-back gatherings of the Group of Eight rich countries at Camp David and the NATO summit in Chicago offer vital opportunities to get the United States and its closest allies in closer harmony.

White House officials have worriedly watched Europe's debt crisis, concerned that a recession there could infect the already-weak American economy. And the president has made a successful handover of security responsibility from NATO-led forces to their Afghan counterparts by the end of 2014 one of his signature foreign policy goals.

Obama's diplomatic dash opens Friday with a visit from France's new president, François Hollande, who is the first Socialist to hold the post in 17 years.  The White House is officially neutral on the specifics of Hollande's campaign pledge to seek government action to stimulate the economy, a break from predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's austerity agenda. But they plainly like the principle.

"The United States has an extraordinarily significant stake in the outcome of the economic discussions in Europe and the steps that are taken in Europe," Tom Donilon, Obama's national security adviser, told reporters Thursday.

The president favors "a comprehensive approach to manage the crisis and get on a sustainable path towards recovery in Europe," he added, saying the strategy "has to be to preserve the foundations of the eurozone, to address the current crisis facing Europe, particularly as a result of the political events in Greece."

But Hollande's campaign pledge to pull France's 3,400 combat troops from Afghanistan by year's end — an accelerated timetable -- poses a headache for the Obama administration. Donilon said the two presidents would "work through" the issue but predicted that "the stances that President Hollande took during the course of his campaign obviously he intends to keep as president." But he urged France to do so in keeping with NATO's plan to give Afghan security forces control of their war-torn country next year before withdrawing the alliance's combat troops by the end of 2014.

"You can make all kinds of contributions. You can make combat troop contributions. You can make train-and-assist kinds of contributions. You can make other kinds of contributions, right? And we'll have a discussion with the French about where they want to go on this," Donilon said.

After his tête-à-tête with Hollande — their first — Obama will host him and leaders from Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia at Camp David (aka "Naval Support Facility Thurmont") for the annual Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations. Newly re-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin opted to skip the gathering, sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instead.

Efforts to force Iran to freeze its nuclear program will be a major topic of discussion, as the leaders discuss the tightening economic sanctions on Tehran, Donilon said.

One key issue before the leaders: With Europe closing in on a July 1 embargo on oil imports from Iran, can other global supply keep up, or will developed nations have to tap strategic reserves?

"We have been engaged in an ongoing way and monitoring the global oil situation, particularly in light of the respective sanctions that we've had on Iran and its effect on oil markets.  We'll continue that monitoring.  I'm sure that the leaders will discuss the range of options that they might have before them," Donilon said.

"They'll also be pressing the Iranians to take advantage of the diplomatic efforts that we're putting forward," notably May 23 talks in Baghdad between Iran, on the one hand, and the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany (the so-called "P5+!") on the other.

The leaders will also discuss North Korea, Myanmar and efforts to end Syria's bloody crackdown on opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

On Saturday, the summit shifts to the worrisome state of the global economy, amid tensions in Europe over whether to pursue austerity to bring down soaring national debts or couple it with stimulus efforts to boost job growth, and over how to respond to the crisis in Greece.

The spotlight then turns to Chicago for the NATO summit; there, the focus will chiefly be on Afghanistan, America's longest war. Obama will meet Sunday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. (Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari is expected to attend the summit, but he will not get a separate sit-down with Obama, Donilon said.)

NATO is expected to agree on a path for taking on a supporting role in the war-torn country next year while handing off the bulk of the fighting to Afghan forces. It is also expected to discuss who will cover the costs of the conflict after 2014, expected to run $4 billion per year, though an actual agreement is not expected until a conference in July in Tokyo. And it is expected to take up what sort of presence the alliance will have in Afghanistan after 2014.

"So Chicago is a critical milestone in the next step towards a responsible ending of this war," Donilon said.

NATO invited Zardari after Pakistani officials signaled that country was prepared to reopen supply lines to alliance forces in Afghanistan, which were shut down after a NATO air strike into Pakistani territory in November killed 24 Pakistani troops.  Islamabad had said it wanted a formal apology from the United States and pushed for an end to drone strikes on its soil.

"We have made real progress, I think, towards resolving the issue around opening up the ground supply lines," Donilon said. "Whether that will be done in the next few days or not, I can't judge at this point. But there's been a decision, on both sides, to reach a conclusion of this."

And Donilon played down the absence of an Obama-Zardari meeting on the schedule. "There are 61 countries going to be present there, and the president is not going to have bilaterals with all them…but he will see him, obviously."

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