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After Obama’s triumphant week abroad, voters get to assess trip’s impact on candidate, foreign policy

Sen. Barack Obama met acclaim in Europe this week, won key allies in Baghdad, engaged in talks in the Middle East and argued for stepping up force in Afghanistan. Now American voters get to decide the value of his ambitious foreign tour.

Sen. Barack Obama arrives Thursday to deliver a speech at the Victory Column in Tiergarten Park in Berlin.
Sen. Barack Obama arrives Thursday to deliver a speech at the Victory Column in Tiergarten Park in Berlin.

Sen. Barack Obama met acclaim in Europe this week, won key allies in Baghdad, scored some diplomatic talk in the Middle East and argued for stepping up force in Afghanistan.

Now it is up to American voters to decide what, if any, value there was in this ambitious foreign tour by the presumed Democratic presidential nominee.

Obama told reporters en route to Germany that the world is “hungry for a sense of where America is going.” Americans may very well share that hunger — and, taking it further, wonder where Obama’s foreign policy would go if he won the election.

Europe: Time to make up with old friends
Obama’s choice of Berlin for his major foreign policy speech is telling in itself. It signaled an interest in making up with old friends in Europe after a nasty fallout during this decade.

In Berlin on Thursday, Obama introduced himself to a massive crowd as “a proud citizen of the United States and a fellow citizen of the world,” CNN reported. And he declared that “there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.”

It was a different note from the one former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounded in 2003, when he dismissed France and Germany as “Old Europe,” after they opposed the invasion of Iraq. “Old Europe” came under ridicule from conservative commentators and activists. Remember “Freedom Fries”? Other slurs included “the axis of weasel” and “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”

The last Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, drew jeers during his 2004 campaign because he spoke fluent French and actually gave interviews in French with European reporters.

Europe gave back as bad as it got, expressing utter contempt for President Bush and his policies. Even as France and Germany chose more conservative leaders than those who had adamantly opposed the invasion of Iraq, it was common for Americans walking the streets of Berlin, Paris and London to hear anti-Bush rants.

Now many American voters are deeply troubled by disdain for their country, not only from old European friends but from around the world, too, said Barbara Crosby, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute whose specialty is leadership in a trans-national context.

“I don’t think people worried about it so much in 2004 as today,” Crosby said. “Americans like to be liked. We don’t like to think that when we travel abroad people are seeing us as the stereotypical ‘ugly American.’ We want to be respected.”

Poll findings reported in June by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press support her observation. Seven in 10 of the Americans polled said that the United States is less respected by other countries these days. And for the first time since Pew began asking the question in 2004, a majority saw the loss of international respect as a major problem — 56 percent this year, compared with 43 percent in 2005.

A fascinating finding was that the greatest shift on the issue had occurred among Republicans. Forty-three percent of them said the loss of global respect represents a major problem, up from just 26 percent two years ago.

Given his warm reception abroad, Obama’s tour showed that he has a chance of turning foreign policy in a positive direction, Crosby said. Part of his appeal, especially to young people, she said, is that he strikes voters as “somebody who wants to open a new chapter in the way we are in the world, the way we deal with various policy issues.”

Obama impact still a puzzle

To Europeans, Obama symbolizes a reinvigoration of support for multilateral institutions, a change of direction in Iraq, and a greater commitment to addressing such problems as climate change, said Jane Gingrich, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in European politics.

Even before the trip, Obama’s victory in this year’s primaries “gives Europeans hope that America’s foreign policy stance may be undergoing more fundamental change,” Gingrich said.

“Many Europeans, including European leaders, though, are likely still trying to figure out what Obama would mean in more precise terms on NATO, Afghanistan, Iraq,” and other pressing issues, she said.

One rub was apparent even as Obama arrived in Germany. He wants more support for fighting terrorists in Afghanistan. Germany has resisted deeper involvement in hostilities there.

While Europe greeted Obama as a veritable rock star, the press there is trying to tamp down sky-high expectations, Gingrich said, warning that Obama may “not deliver a dramatic change in foreign policy.”

Was Minnesota watching?
First, of course, Obama would need to win the election. And his popularity in Europe is not likely to sway many votes here, said Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College.

“The people who are impressed by European public opinion have already decided Obama is their candidate,” Schier said.

Even within that group, too much courting of European favor could backfire, Schier said, “if he is perceived as campaigning overseas and trying to win American votes through European endorsement.”

Voters who have yet to make up their minds in Minnesota are paying scant attention to presidential politics at this point, Schier said. Given that reality, the overseas trip best serves Obama and his foreign policy agenda as part of a gradual effort, not as a signal of any dramatic shift in America’s dealings around the world.

Iraq: Good timing for Obama

Obama declared in advance that this would be a listening trip, not a policy-shaping one. But a major policy shift rocked his stop in Baghdad.

After Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki, an Iraqi spokesman announced that the government wants to see foreign combat troops withdraw at the end of 2010, only eight months after Obama’s withdrawal target. Obama’s Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, has consistently opposed setting timelines for drawing down the troops.

Call it luck. Or call it good timing. Whatever it is, Obama arrived in Baghdad at precisely the time when Iraqis decided to openly assert their desire for the day when foreign boots will leave their soil.

Still, Obama’s plan faces a critical test: Can the Iraqi government hold onto its fragile stability and pull together the factions that threaten to plunge the country back into bloodshed?

Abbas Mehdi says it can. The St. Cloud State University professor was born in Iraq, and he returned to his homeland in spring 2006 to work for 16 months as a strategy and policy adviser to the Iraqi government. Before he left in 2007, he went on to work as chairman of the board of the Iraq National Investment Commission, a cabinet-level position in al-Malaki’s office.

Even while many Iraqis are grateful for liberation from their former dictator, they are immensely weary of war. And they are fed up over a drip-drip-drip of cultural clashes with the foreign troops that have patrolled the country for five years, said Mehdi, whose family still lives in Iraq.

While headlines focused on major American gaffes, such as abuse of Iraqis held at Abu Ghraib prison, Mehdi said, ordinary Iraqis chafed over relatively smaller insults, like searches of homes with dogs that were offensive to devout Muslims.

So intense is Iraqi’s desire to be free of foreign troops that it is a unifying force for competing factions in the country, he said.

“Almost every tribal, community, religious and political leader would like to see the foreign forces out of the country,” he said.

And while the Bush administration emphasized that Iraq has its own sovereign government, the reality in government offices where Mehdi worked was that American officials often were calling the shots, he said.

“There is a lot of frustration over this,” he said. “Sometimes Iraqi officials sitting in their offices would hear from the TV that some person was arrested or some town was attacked, and they hadn’t known anything about it. … It happened while I was there, and it’s happening now.”

Obama’s trip, in and of itself, added almost nothing of substance, Mehdi said. Instead, it reinforced a policy Obama has touted all along: It’s time for the Iraqis to run their own affairs.

“That’s what the Iraqi government wants, and that’s what Obama has been saying for a long time,” Mehdi said.

Iran: Cryptic stands still unclarified

Looming over Obama’s stops in Iraq and all of the Middle East are questions about he would handle tension with Iran.

In Israel, Obama told the Jerusalem Post that he would do “everything in my power” to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Obama has said he would engage in discussions with Iran; however, he also reminded the Post, “I would not take any options off the table, including military.”

Professor William Beeman wishes he knew how Obama’s tough campaign talk would translate into policy if the Democrat took office. Beeman chairs the Anthropology Department at the University of Minnesota. He has worked extensively in Iran. His latest book about the country is “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.”

“The plain truth is that any politician in the United States, whether Democrat or Republican, who talks about trying to improve relations with Iran through some kind of relaxation of the really hard line that the United States has taken are setting themselves up as a target for their opponents,” Beeman said. “No politician has ever lost a vote by attacking Iran.”

So Beeman discounts some of Obama’s tough talk.

Recent Bush administration moves to at least open the door to meeting with Iranian officials were hard fought, Beeman said, because they were opposed by hardliners inside and outside government offices.

“Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to jawbone and fight and cajole over more than a period of a year,” he said.

If Obama became president, though, he would be in position to take the talks much further, “because diplomacy is made in the White House,” Beeman said.

While Obama has consistently advocated a more open dialog, he has been cryptic about how far he would go in any direction on the politically treacherous issue. And his trip didn’t clarify his intentions.

Pakistan: Perhaps the most urgent issue

Also unclear, Beeman said, is how Obama would deal with Pakistan. Arguably, that is the most urgent issue facing the next administration because the Taliban and al-Qaida have moved to regroup in Pakistan’s rugged mountain regions.

Everywhere he stopped on the trip, Obama called for stepping up military efforts in neighboring Afghanistan. And he leaned hard on Europe to do its part in that NATO-led effort.

But much of the problem is in Pakistan where the government has been in turmoil all year.

“It is very clear that the United States needs to have a complete re-evaluation of our relationships with the government of Pakistan,” Beeman said. “Right now there is no incentive for the Pakistani government to aid the United States in trying to curtail the Taliban or al Qaida.”

The havens for those groups are in Pakistan’s remote and rugged regions, “where the urbanized and educated Pakistanis don’t ever go and they don’t care much about,” Beeman said.

So there is little internal political pressure to confront the menacing groups. Meanwhile, as long as the groups remain a problem, the United States channels money to the Pakistani government. So there is no real economic incentive either.

Beeman worries that Obama “is very thin on the ground” in terms of foreign policy advisers regarding Pakistan as well as Iran. And he saw nothing in Obama’s trip to reassure him on that count.

“I’m really quite worried about this, because I think he is not particularly well informed,” Beeman said. “And this is potentially his biggest trouble in the long run.”

Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.