AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 31/2008

Obama's Whirlwind Tour The Triumph of the Anti-Bush

A crowd of 200,000 in Berlin and an enthusiastic welcome in Jerusalem and Paris: Barack Obama's whirlwind tour of the Middle East and Europe has fascinated the crowds and impressed politicians. Will it be enough to overcome doubts about his foreign policy expertise?

By Erich Follath


Presumptive US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in Berlin.
AP

Presumptive US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in Berlin.

On the one hand, there were the American media pros working for the US presidential candidate, constantly searching for the best shots to use back home. They left nothing to chance, right down to the tiniest carefully choreographed details. "Message control" was the buzzword as they implemented "the plan" -- Barack Obama for president. John, does camera three have the Brandenburg Gate with him in the foreground? Jack, how can we best get the crowd into the picture with him, should he wave to the left or to the right? Linda, why do so few people in the front rows have Obama balloons?

On the other hand, there was the man himself. From the very second he walked onto the stage with an athletic bounce in his step, waved, smiled, it was obvious here was a man who so obviously knows where he stands and is so confident in his message. This doesn't look like just another political product that needs to be sold -- at most just someone who needs to be coached in the details. Here comes a natural talent with the charisma of John F. Kennedy, the kind of man who only comes along once in a generation. And when he stood up to speak, it immediately became clear why it may be one thing when wannabe crowd-pleasers like Hubertus Heil, secretary general of Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), shout "Yes, we can" -- but it is another story altogether when Obama does it himself.

He gave an almost poetic speech, a tour de force through global politics, but without many specifics, in which he invoked what has fallen by the wayside during the Bush years without even referring to George W.: the partnership with Europe, cooperation on climate protection, phasing out nuclear weapons. On the topic of Afghanistan, he called on the Germans to play a more active role. He didn't utter a single negative word abroad about his own government, about the lies that were used to justify the Iraq war, about the ongoing revelations of torture by the CIA, or the fact that 74 percent of Americans feel that their country is on the wrong path. On this very special Thursday evening at Berlin's Victory Column, a crowd of 200,000 was fascinated by Obama, cheering this man who presents himself as a citizen of the world, and who they hope will become the next US president.

This was all quite a remarkable contrast to the last visit by an important guest from the US. It was just under seven weeks ago that George W. Bush -- the man who is still US president for the time being -- was in Germany. A quiet "couples evening" took place at the idyllic Meseberg Palace, 70 kilometers (44 miles) from Berlin, as the Merkels dined with the Bushs, undisturbed by the public interest. And so it was that the commander-in-chief of the world's greatest superpower received the worst possible kind of political affront: He failed to attract anyone's attention -- not even his opponents seemed to care anymore. Not a single demonstration. The small group of farmers who gathered on a field near a neighboring village were only interested in getting better prices for dairy products.

By contrast, the Obama trip covered eight countries in seven days, flying tens of thousands of miles in the Boeing 757 leased by the election campaign team (emblazoned on the side: "Change we can believe in, Barackobama.com"); from Washington to the deserts of Afghanistan to Downing Street in London, with stops in Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, Germany and France; over 20 planned political meetings, including tête-à-têtes with four prime ministers, three presidents and a monarch; shooting hoops with US troops in Kuwait, drinking tea with a Sunni elder at his Iraqi clan house, dinner with Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman, and a press conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace.

Obama, 46, arranged a monster program of events and saw it through with iron discipline and a constant smile, although the jetlag, as he himself admitted, was so severe that he could "fall asleep on his feet." He knew that this whirlwind tour could be the key to his bid to become the next president of the US.

Playing the Statesman-in-Waiting

Up until last week, opponent John McCain was barely trailing him in the opinion polls -- by 2 to 4 percent, with over 10 percent undecided. In almost every political arena, from the economy to health insurance, the Democrat leads the Republican by a comfortable margin. McCain, 71, can only score more points with his foreign policy experience. When Americans are asked which of the presumptive candidates for the White House they would most trust as the commander-in-chief in a time of crisis -- who, for example, would be in a better position to protect them from terrorist attacks -- the Vietnam War veteran comes up with a clear advantage. This motivated Obama to take his election campaign to the world stage. Now that he had recognized his own Achilles' heel, he planned to make it unassailable. And on Monday, it looked as if it had paid off -- at least temporarily. The first post-trip Gallup poll showed Obama nine points ahead of McCain after the Democratic candidate's mini world tour.

Obama at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
REUTERS

Obama at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Already during the first half of his trip, as he toured the Middle East, Obama took a very skilled and disciplined approach. He didn't lecture, he listened. And when he commented, he carefully chose each word and weighed each phrase. Obama is a man who occasionally allows a brilliant phrase to overshadow the message itself and -- no stranger to vanity -- sometimes allows himself to get carried away by the engaging power of language. But this gifted orator managed to hold back. He played the statesman-in-waiting, not the election campaigner. And we only occasionally caught a glimpse of how difficult this was for him.

For instance, during a press conference in the Jordanian capital Amman, with the Temple of Hercules in the background, he bit on his lip as reporters fired one provocative question after another. No, not Iraq, but Afghanistan is the most important front in the war on terror, he insisted, adding that the two to three US combat brigades required there could only come from Iraq. He pointed out that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki supports his 16-month withdrawal plan from the country. The nuances of his ideas on Iraq are important to him. He wants to make distinctions as a counterpoint to Bush, who once famously said: "I don't do nuance."

Above all during his trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories -- the world region with the largest political minefields -- Obama did not, as some expected, come across as a messianic savior. Before the trip, American comedian Jon Stewart joked that the presumptive Democratic candidate would certainly visit Bethlehem because "he has to see his place of birth." But Obama avoided making any grand gestures and made absolutely no attempt at walking on water. Instead, he seemed intent on becoming the new master of the low-key approach.

During his 34-hour stay in Israel, Obama encountered a country that is once again struggling to find its bearings, a nation that is deeply divided and plagued by scandal. The attorney general is soon expected to charge former Israeli President Moshe Katsav on two counts of rape; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is being investigated on corruption allegations and will likely have to leave office in September; Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon continue to threaten Israel with attacks.

There is only one issue that practically all Israelis can agree on: Iran, with its fanatical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, must not be allowed to become a nuclear power. There is a slender majority that would still rather pursue tougher sanctions than air raids. But Israeli intelligence sources have been pushing for a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities -- the risky plan with unforeseeable consequences is gaining support among politicians. And as SPIEGEL learned in Jerusalem, Obama received a new and particularly alarming Mossad dossier on Iran from Olmert.

Israel is one of the few countries worldwide -- at least prior to the visit -- where a majority of the population would prefer to see McCain elected president. Experienced, graying old warhorses with military experience like Ariel Sharon enjoy more support there than young charismatic politicians. And American Jewish voters, whose support promises to be so crucial in swing states like Florida and Ohio on Nov. 4, are watching carefully. Ever since Obama said that he would seek unconditional talks with Iran, Jews in the US have been eyeing him with suspicion.

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