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?
Von Erich Follath

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.

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.

Not a Good Week for McCain

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.

In the run-up to his visit to Israel, the Democratic candidate tried to compensate for his position on Iran -- and ended up making his worst foreign policy blunder: Speaking to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC in Washington in early June, he went so far as to assert that Jerusalem would "remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." Not even the extremely pro-Israel Bush administration had gone that far. The Palestinians, who -- in agreement with the European Union and the United Nations -- claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, were furious; the extremists in Hamas called Obama a "Zionist poodle."

The senator from Illinois bowed and was deeply moved at the Holocaust memorial, he remained respectfully silent at the Wailing Wall, and shook his head in Sderot -- an Israeli border town that has been plagued by rocket attacks from the nearby Gaza Strip -- when he was handed the remains of a Katyusha rocket. It was little more than the standard political visit, but Obama has the rare ability to give everyone the impression that there is no one more important to him.

"This will be the next president of the United States," wrote the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, which until then had been critical of Obama. And their colleagues at Haaretz found that, compared to the Obama tour, the visit by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had an opportunity last week to speak before the Knesset, was as insignificant "as a warm-up act for the Beatles." A survey conducted by Israel Radio following the visit revealed that 4 percent more Israelis favor the Democratic senator over McCain.

Next Obama endeavored -- tightrope act number two -- to reduce the reservations that Palestinians have about him. He had already revised his statement about Jerusalem. In an interview on CNN he said: "Obviously, it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations." He traveled to see the leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. He promised moderate Palestinians that under his leadership the US would push the Israelis to stop building new settlements and actively pursue the peace process. He may have only spent just under two hours in the West Bank, but even Palestinian skeptics were highly appreciative of the visit. When McCain visited Israel four months ago, he saw no reason to visit Ramallah.

The more moderate, nonpartisan and presidential the Democratic senator acted on this trip, the more it underscored the grating tones of his opponent: "Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign," a visibly more nervous McCain commented. Even the weather seemed to turn against the Republican. He set out to prove his expertise on energy issues by flying out to an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. But the modest photo op was spoiled by a hurricane.

No, it wasn't a good week for the McCainiacs. The head strategists of the Republican election campaign were up in arms over the "Obama orgy" that they believe America's media had orchestrated while other supporters -- depending on their disposition -- struggle with bouts of Obamanic depression. The leading networks CBS, NBC and ABC did indeed send their anchormen to the Middle East, and it took plenty of chutzpah to bill the election campaign trip as a simple congressional delegation with Chuck Hagel (Rep.) and Jack Reed (Dem.) tagging along as decoration.

However, when CNN decided out of a sense of fairness to give McCain exactly the same prime airtime last Wednesday, it turned out to be rather counterproductive for the Republican. He was seen standing on some hilltop in Maine, his hair disheveled by the wind, and out of the blue he said "I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice, I promise you."

With an expressionless look on his face, he examined heads of cabbage at a supermarket in Pennsylvania and told housewives how concerned he is about the high prices of food and gasoline. Afterwards, viewers were treated to McCain with George Bush Senior playing a round of golf. The two men looked like a couple of pensioners -- active, but not necessarily so dynamic that people would be inclined to entrust them with the most important office in the world: more like the generation 70 and over.

The Winners and Losers of Berlin

Recently, McCain has made a number of faux pas, a few slips of the tongue, but in view of his attacks on Obama's inexperience, they weigh in as fairly important. The presumptive Republican nominee spoke of "Czechoslovakia" -- a country that has not existed for over a decade; he told stories about threats on the "Iraqi-Pakistani border," which has never existed; and he named Vladimir Putin as the "president of Germany."

And then the current US president, McCain's fellow Republican Party member, stabbed him in the back: George W. Bush acted -- in view of his disastrous historical legacy -- surprisingly multilateral and willing to negotiate. He dispatched a top diplomat to the nuclear negotiations with the Iranians, he spoke of a "time horizon" for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and he allowed his secretary of state to shake the hand of her North Korean counterpart. "Appeasement" was how McCain would have until recently described such policies. Now he seems particularly out-of-step with the times and stubborn, while his opponent looks like an advisor for the last few months of the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, Republican campaigners were having fun distributing phony French press credentials to the reporters who stayed back in the US. And while Obama's Berlin speech was broadcast around the world, three American towns with the name Berlin were targeted with special McCain campaign ads -- all rather futile attempts at counteracting Obamania in Europe. They culminated in the idea of placing the Republican presidential hopeful in front of Schmidt's Restaurant and Sausage Haus in Columbus, Ohio for his own German experience while Obama celebrated his triumph at the Victory Column in Berlin. In a sour tone, McCain said that he would love to give a speech in Germany, "but I'd much prefer to do it as president of the United States, rather than as a candidate for president." The candidate's only inspiring idea was that he met with the Dalai Lama the following day.

In the world of sports, this would be called a class distinction. If Europeans could vote then in the contest between the Democrat against the Republican, the results would be something like 8:1 in France, 5:1 in the UK, 7:1 in Germany. But what has the world, or Germany for that matter, learned about Obama's policies? What has been left unsaid, what details can we expect to hear from the presidential candidate in the near future? Who were the winners and the losers of Berlin?

German politics narrowly avoided a serious embarrassment. Politicians such as Rainer Brüderle (of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, FDP) and Andreas Schockenhoff (of the center-right Christian Democrats, CDU) were opposed to allowing Obama make a spectacular appearance at the Victory Column, because of its status as a symbol of German wars. Chancellor Angela Merkel ensured with her public remarks about being disconcerted that the senator would not be allowed to speak at the Brandenburg Gate -- a petty decision that can only be explained by her undying loyalty to Bush. Obama supporters take pleasure in pointing out that Merkel broke the unwritten law of fairness prohibiting all criticism of one's own government when abroad. Back in February, 2003, when she was still in the opposition, she published a pro-Bush article on the invasion of Iraq in the Washington Post, effectively stabbing then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the back.

Obama was able to score points in Europe and, more importantly, back home. In the weeks running up to his trip to Germany, he renounced some of his more liberal positions. The politician now openly supports the death penalty and the right to bear arms. In the area of civil rights, he made what is seen as a distressing policy shift by many Europeans: He now supports a telephone surveillance law introduced by the Bush administration. He has to do this, his campaigners argue, to counter allegations that he is too "soft" on terror. But his younger supporters, especially, are disappointed and feel that principles should not be abandoned for the benefit of election campaign tactics.

When it comes to foreign policy, Obama doesn't have to adopt new positions -- he already has them. He doesn't divide the world into a Manichaean concept of good and evil like the Republicans. He has no pretentious "freedom agenda" like McCain, who prefers to work together with a self-proclaimed "league of democracies" and would like to ban Russia from the G-8. The Democrat would rather promote civil society and opportunities for economic advancement.

"Obama has been called a naive idealist, but in terms of foreign policy, he's the true realist in the race," says Fareed Zakaria, an influential Washington insider who is editor of Newsweek International and author of the bestseller "The Post-American World".

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