Barack Obama’s political tour

Godfrey Hodgson
28 July 2008

Senator Barack Obama's trip to the middle east and Europe from 19-26 July 2008 was no junket. Nor was it an updated version of the old "three I's tour" that Democratic presidential candidates used to make - to Italy, Ireland and Israel - for reasons exclusively of domestic electoral politics. Obama is playing three-dimensional chess on half-a-dozen boards at once.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969).

Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), and A Great and Godly Adventure:The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's recent openDemocracy articles on American politics:

"The United States election: time for ‘change'" (10 January 2008)

"America's change election: reality or mirage?" (11 February 2008)

"'Superdelegates' and the US election" (25 February 2008)

"The lost election year" (15 May 2008)

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

Obama's journey - taking in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel (and the Palestinian West Bank), Jordan, Germany, France and Britain - was also a high-risk attempt to seize one of Senator John McCain's strongest weapons. McCain argues that Obama is woefully short of international experience, and the polls suggest that a large majority of Americans agree with him.

A one-to-many message

The European leg of the trip has been reported, both in Europe and in the United States, largely in terms of the probability that if elected Obama will be a more popular United States president in Europe than George W Bush. That would not be hard.

In fact, the whole tour - in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Jordan and in Israel, as well as in Berlin, Paris and London - was plotted and planned with immense care by Obama's enormous foreign-policy staff. (He has a foreign policy team of 300 advisers, split into some twenty regional or issue teams.) Care was needed. Obama had to steer his way through the hazards with all the mastery of a Tiger Woods.

Obama has to convince many different audiences at once. The primary target - as it must be - is those American voters who are not sure he can be trusted with America's international relations. Another audience is European politicians, genuinely uncertain whether he will be elected president on 4 November 2008, and anxious to learn what to expect of him if he is.

There are others Obama is obliged to try to reach. He seeks to reassure the pro-American forces in Afghanistan that he will not abandon them, that indeed he regards Afghanistan as a more urgent theatre of conflict for America than Iraq. In Europe he stressed that he wants more Nato allies to send troops to Afghanistan. He needs to persuade the government and the military in Pakistan that he understands the sensitivities of the porous Afghan-Pakistan border.

In Iraq, he tried and he may have succeeded, in showing that his conception of a planned US troop withdrawal is not just irresponsible pandering to American liberals, but is actually more in line with what the Nouri al-Maliki government wants than Senator McCain's willingness to keep a massive America army of occupation in Iraq more or less indefinitely.

In Europe he chose to make is one big public address at the Tiergarten in Berlin, rather than London. This was not, as hypersensitive British editorial writers feared, because he thinks Germany is more important to America than Britain, though it is possible that he does.

It was because he and his advisers wanted his speech to be shown alongside clips of John Kennedy's Ich bin ein Berliner speech (26 June 1963) and Ronald Reagan calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" (12 June 1987). The stratagem worked perfectly. Obama succeeded in presenting himself in the company of the two presidents generally perceived in America as the masters of international relations.

Obama was only away for a week. The tour was a indeed a brilliant success. But it is too early to be sure that it has worked in its primary purpose: to persuade middle America that "national security" would be safe in his hands.

Senator McCain, having patronised Obama for inexperience in foreign policy, is now accusing him of something close to dereliction of duty for leaving the country for a week. Indeed for all his proven resilience of character and his engaging wit, McCain is beginning to sound both ungracious and more than a little desperate.

That does not necessarily mean that Obama's journey has disposed of popular doubts about his ability to take charge of America's national-security policy.

If McCain's credentials include dropping bombs on Hanoi and then behaving with heroic courage as a prisoner there for more than five years, Obama's life-experience includes a similar period of time in childhood spent in a modest household in Jakarta, capital of the world's most populous Muslim nation. That might be thought to equip with him a certain useful insight into one of the most difficult problems America faces, namely the hostility of many Muslims.

A change in the weather

The comparison illuminates a reality that, like so much in American politics, is obscured by euphemism and evasive language. When Americans tell pollsters and reporters, as many of them do, that they are not sure that Obama is the man to trust with national security, there are many ways of parsing that opinion.

"National security" is often a synonym for "defence", which in turn is a euphemism for "military". Obviously, if national security is seen as essentially a matter of maintaining America's military strength, then McCain - a war hero, a bomber-pilot, the son and grandson of admirals, educated at the US naval academy and a member of the armed-forces committee of the Senate - ticks all the boxes.

If national security is seen in those terms, as it certainly is by many of those who doubt Obama's fitness to be commander-in-chief, he has little to show for himself in his curriculum vitae. A Kenyan father and an Indonesian stepfather, an American mother who devoted her life to helping people in the developing world, an autobiography that reveals deep insights into how the United States looks from outside: these are not bankable assets in political terms. For many, they are debits.

True, Obama has been a member of the Senate foreign-relations committee since he came to Washington in late 2004. It is revealing that McCain's (admittedly longer) service on the armed-services committee is thought to count as relevant experience, but Obama's time on foreign relations is not usually thought worthy of mention by journalists assessing his fitness to be president.

Obama calls for change, and there could be no greater sign of change in American political instincts than a victory for him in November. Yet increasingly the feeling is that he is not just preaching change. He may also have detected a change that has already taken place.

If you listen carefully to what he is saying, he is not repeating the standard liberal package offered by a Walter ("Fritz") Mondale or a John Kerry. He is advocating policies that are in the interests of the United States as well as of the rest of the world. In his Berlin speech, he called for policies that did not insult and upset the rest of the world, but that would be good for America too.

He has not wavered in his opposition to the Iraq war, but - faced with the (probably exaggerated) relief in Washington that George W Bush's "surge" has been successful - he has continued to call for American withdrawal, in the name, not of leftwing principle, but of Iraqi democracy.

He has resolutely supported the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. He has also started to insist that the European members of Nato, especially Germany, should put their soldiers where their mouth is. He has walked through the fire in the middle east without being fatally burned.

Middle America may not yet be ready for the experiment. But it does look as if, in a single week's intercontinental barnstorming, Obama may at least have deprived McCain of the argument that his opponent does not understand the world beyond the oceans.

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