Diplomacy suddenly got a whole lot friendlier. Leaders of nations and leaders of faiths, instead of shaking hands, are kissing each other on the lips.

Global warming, indeed.

All this intimacy is courtesy of Benetton, the Italian clothing company, whose new ad campaign features unlikely duos smooching.

In one image, President Obama kisses Chinese leader Hu Jintao. In another, Obama busses Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Needless to say, the pictures are fakes. So, it’s no use wondering whether Obama considered the Chinese or the Venezuelan a better kisser.

The photos were expertly doctored. The men have their eyes closed, their lips meet meaningfully and noses stay out of the way.

Above their heads is the word — if it is a word — ”Unhate.” Clearly by pairing the leaders of countries that have tense relations, the ad sends a message about world peace.

Clearly by pairing heterosexual men, the ad sends a message that at Benetton they know, when it comes to shock value, it’s hard to beat a gay twist. This is their variation on “Gay is Good.”

During past ad campaigns, Benetton earned a reputation for shocking. Previous images included parents grieving over a man dying of AIDS, a priest and a nun kissing and a black woman breastfeeding a white baby.

In recent years, various Obama-haters have depicted him as a Muslim, a chimpanzee, a zombie and the devil. That was to sell a philosophy, not Christmas bras.

It’s unknown whether this queer depiction irritates Obama any more than the others did; the White House expressed displeasure on a different score. Deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said in a statement, “The White House has a long-standing policy disapproving of the use of the president’s name and likeness for commercial purposes.”

Presidents who died long ago, however, are available to sell cars in February.

Obama, Hu and Chavez aren’t the only ones to get the Benetton treatment. In a momentary display of heterosexuality, French President Nicolas Sarkozy kisses German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu plants one on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

In the image that has created the biggest uproar so far, Pope Benedict XVI locks lips with Egyptian imam Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb. The two haven’t been on the best of terms all year, but to see this “Unhate” ad is to assume one of them said, “Let’s kiss and make up.”

The Guardian reported that after posters of this image went up around Italy, the Vatican responded unusually quickly, condemning such provocative advertising and promising legal action to stop the use of a photo “in which the Holy Father appears in a way considered to be harmful, not only to the dignity of the pope and the Catholic church, but also to the sensibility of believers.”

Who don’t want to see their pit bull of homophobia kissing another fella.

Benetton immediately withdrew the image from everywhere. “We reiterate that the meaning of this campaign is exclusively to combat the culture of hatred in all its forms,” said the company. “We are therefore sorry that the use of the image of the pope and the imam has so offended the sentiments of the faithful.”

Naturally they’re sorry. So, so sorry. So, so, so, terribly down-to-their-socks sorry. It never occurred to them that giant posters of the pope smooching a man might offend their fellow Italian Catholics. They’re surprised that the Vatican raised a stink. It never dawned on them that the uproar would generate free worldwide publicity.

And, Julius Caesar founded Versace and Sophia Loren is in line to be the next pope. : :

info: lesarobinson@gmail.com . generalgayety.com