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Obama's unmacho diplomacy

WASHINGTON - A few decades on the planet confirm a certain consistency among males in their approach to love and war.

Suffice to say, there is usually much talk of sabers, missiles and such. "Speak softly and carry a big stick," was how Teddy Roosevelt framed his foreign policy.

Thus, in evaluating Barack Obama's first European tour as president, analysts have focused on whether he was quite manly enough. On their leadership blog, former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and columnist Steve Pearlstein asked whether Obama should have "grabbed an opportunity ... to demonstrate his toughness, showing his saber as well as his smile."

Verily, spoken like men.

What they're really asking is: Did Obama do justice to the fire hydrant?

Call me a mother of boys. Or call Freud, if you must. But would that life were really as complicated and confused as leaders insist it is. Unfortunately, most of world history seems to have pivoted on the balance or imbalance of hormones, with testosterone presenting the greatest challenge. (I note this as a fan.)

In what may prove to be an epochal development, Obama seems to have his under control. He doesn't strut, swagger or flex. He doesn't even notice the hydrant.

If George W. Bush was a cowboy, Obama is a group hug.

He says we should show leadership by listening. That we should work in partnership with others. That we should show humility. This is, of course, pure porn for women. But unfortunately, women don't rule the world. Men still do. And we have to worry whether Obama will be viewed as weak and the U.S., therefore, vulnerable.

And because the world is thus, we are also necessarily concerned whether Obama will respond aggressively enough when appropriate. This is because Americans still don't really know Obama yet. At each turn since taking office, he reveals new aspects of himself.

We now know that he is without qualm when he finds it necessary to fire corporate chiefs. But will he be as bold when rogue nations strap on their Speedos and display their missilery, as North Korea just did?

If life were a playground, one would have to infer that Kim Jong Il needs some attention. What he really wants is respect, according to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who met Kim in 2000. What he got from Obama was what the Chihuahua gets when the Great Dane shows up. Obama played it cool, in other words. He condemned Pyongyang for threatening stability and reiterated his commitment to reduce nuclear weaponry in the world - but was noncommittal about possible consequences.

For many, he was too cool by half. A Rasmussen poll reported that 57 percent of Americans want military action against North Korea. (Another war so soon?) John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the president's approach constituted "hand-wringing," which is a polite way of saying Obama is "girly."

But was Obama really too cool? Or are we not listening? Yes, Obama did say that the U.S. will lead the way toward a nuke-free world. But he also said that the U.S. "will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies."

Translation: We're going to be sensible and try to rid the world of nukes eventually. But if someone threatens us or our allies, we will hit delete.

Is that not a big enough stick? You can bring 'em on. Or you can calm 'em down.

Obama's outreach to Muslims via his visit to Turkey was similarly inspired. He delivered virtually the same message that Bush did countless times - that the U.S. is not at war with Islam - but without the reminder that either you're with us or against us.

It didn't hurt that Obama dusted off his middle name, Hussein, and mentioned having lived in a Muslim country. "I get you," he implied. "We are not enemies."

A man who listens may be perceived as weak by those who prefer to talk big. But playground wisdom holds that showoffs are usually overcompensating, and the strongest one has nothing to prove. To answer the original question: When you're the big dog, you can afford to smile. The saber is understood.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker at kparker@kparker.com.