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Obama’s foreign trip offers benefits and risks aplenty

By Sharon SchmickleMonday, July 21, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama needs the tour to overcome his lack of military and deep foreign-policy experience, but any stumble along the way could prove disastrous with American voters.

Sen. Barack Obama speaks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right, in Baghdad.
REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Sen. Barack Obama speaks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right, in Baghdad.

Sen. Barack Obama’s foreign tour dominated the news on Sunday, but it had started in security-driven shadows that were at odds with the look-at-me nature of a presidential campaign.

Because the Illinois Democrat’s trip is one part congressional policy tour, much about the itinerary remained secret until the travelers were beyond major danger zones. Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., are with him.

But it also is many parts campaign swing by the Democrats’ presumed presidential nominee. And as such, the secrecy is awkward.

Those disparate missions incorporated in Obama’s trip highlight the delicate balance he is trying to maintain in this crucial phase of his campaign.

One president at a time
Obama needs the tour to overcome his lack of military and deep foreign-policy experience. He is making something close to a presidential tour — meeting with heads of state in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, France, Britain and Germany. Yet, of course, he is not the president. To presume in advance that he will win the role could be political suicide.

In policy terms, the trip’s main value is the experience Obama will gain. The military commanders must be guarded in anything they say as long as they answer to their current commander in chief. As heads of state graciously receive him, they cannot engage as if he were president.

Indeed, Obama stressed as he left the United States on Thursday that he had no intention of lecturing Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on their future options should he take the Oval Office. He insisted that this was a listening tour and that he was going as a senator.

“We have one president at a time, so it’s the president’s job to deliver those messages,” he told reporters as he departed from the United States.

Decisive test

Politically, though, the trip is Obama’s “Ich bin ein Commander” test, Newsweek said.

“It may well be the decisive one of his candidacy, especially with so many media stars — including three network anchors — along for the ride,” Newsweek said.

A major reason Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, has managed to rise above the public’s grim assessment of the Republican Party is that, for many voters, he has already passed this test, as a former Vietnam prisoner of war and a four-term senator.

Americans think by a two-to-one margin Obama would do more to improve the country’s image abroad than McCain, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey. But here’s the catch: Only 48 percent said the Democrat would make a good commander in chief,  compared to 72 percent for McCain. And McCain was judged as the one with greater knowledge of the world by more than 2 to 1.

“Despite survey numbers that consistently show Americans more concerned about the economy and domestic issues than Iraq and other international issues, the commander-in-chief test is often the decisive one when it’s time to enter the voting booth,” Newsweek said.

In other words, a brilliant foreign policy may not push Obama over the top. But a view that he would be a naive or weak leader in a dangerous world would almost surely cost him the election.

And, even though Obama’s staunch opposition to the Iraq War helped him secure the nomination, McCain has hammered on the fact that Obama’s only previous visit to that country was in January 2006. He had never been to Afghanistan before this trip.

In his Saturday radio address, McCain cast Obama’s tour as an illustration of the Democrat’s inexperience: “In a time of war, the commander-in-chief’s job doesn’t get a learning curve,” he said.

Major risk
Because President Bush is unpopular around the world, Obama is likely to be warmly received, especially in Europe.

The BBC went so far as to predict “Obamamania will go global.”

But any stumble along the way could prove disastrous with American voters.

“He could end up looking like an innocent abroad, which would produce precisely the opposite effect Obama is seeking,” Newsweek said.

Already seen as a gaffe was an interest expressed by Obama’s campaign to speak at the Brandenburg Gate near the site of the old Berlin Wall where Ronald Reagan famously lectured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down this wall.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel discouraged the idea of Obama’s speaking there, noting that this was principally a political, not a diplomatic, visit. And Obama’s campaign said over the weekend that he will give a major speech on trans-Atlantic relations Thursday in front of the Siegessaule. a landmark victory column in a large park in central Berlin.

Another pitfall Obama must avoid is seeming to side with President Bush’s many European critics, the Financial Times of London said in analysis of the Obama trip.

“He must not accept the acclaim of those who loathe President George W. Bush and all his works too eagerly,” the Financial Times said. “Americans have a low opinion of their president, but do not always care to hear foreigners (some of whom might be anti-American, after all) express similar contempt.”

Yet another pitfall lies in the intricacies of Middle East politics, Reuters said.

“Obama attracted attention in June when he told a pro-Israeli lobby group that Jerusalem must remain Israel’s undivided capital — only to amend his stance the next day to say the issue should be negotiated by all parties,” Reuters said.

It would be very easy for Obama to misspeak in the Middle East. And it is certain that McCain and his campaign would pounce on any mistake.

Despite the risk, Obama “had to make this trip,” the BBC concluded.

“With his major speeches on race and religion he has shown a tendency to directly address perceived weaknesses,” the BBC said. “That is what he appears to be doing again.”

However, the BBC noted, “Speeches are much easier to control, though, than week-long trips across the world.”

Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq 
Obama’s first stop was in Kuwait, where he played basketball with American troops.

Next, in Afghanistan, he received briefings from officials at Bagram Air Base near Kabul and at an American base in Jalalabad near the mountainous border with Pakistan, the International Herald Tribune reported. In Kabul on Sunday, he ate breakfast with American troops and lunch with President Karzai.

Obama used the setting to declare that Afghanistan must become “the central front” in the war on terror, thereby sharpening his policy clash with McCain over whether the war in Iraq has been a distraction from that effort, the Herald Tribune said. Obama has pledged to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan and to focus more on terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Today, Obama began what may be the trip’s most crucial stop: a visit in Iraq. First, he stopped in the southern Shiite city Basra, where he visited soldiers and met with British, Iraqi and American officials, a military spokesman told the New York Times. Then it was on to  Baghdad.

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