Posted on July 28, 2008 in Washington Watch

There were, to be sure, a number of risks associated with Barack Obama’s nine-nation foreign policy foray. It is one thing to masterfully run a primary campaign, and quite another to travel to three of the world’s hottest conflict zones, each with its own unique challenges.

First was the matter of timing. With much of August occupied by the Olympics and the two parties’ political conventions at the end of the month, this trip occurred within the final time frame left for the candidates to make their marks before the mad dash to November’s election.

Instead of playing safe at home, Obama ventured out into treacherous waters, where the dangers were not only the unpredictable circumstances of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israel-Palestine conflict, but the watchful eye of the U.S. media. While some critics suggested that the presence of all three major network news anchors (and a hundred other assorted media personnel) ensured maximum coverage for the trip, this carried dangers as well. Stung by criticism that they favored Obama, many journalists would feel a need to prove their credibility by pouncing on any major mistake made by the candidate. This could have proved fatal.

It was in Afghanistan and Iraq, where nearly 200,000 U.S. troops have been engaged in combat for over five years, that Obama was to face down his greatest challenge. Prior to the trip, he had been taunted by his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, for articulating a policy before visiting the war zone and meeting with commanders on the ground. Obama had called for a 16 month drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq and a stepped-up effort in Afghanistan, which he has identified as presenting the more direct terrorist threat to the U.S. and the region.

Just days before his departure from the U.S., sudden shifts in positions by both the Iraqi Prime Minister and President Bush played into Obama’s favor. Prime Minister al-Maliki was quoted as saying that a U.S. departure from Iraq was indeed desirable within the time frame articulated by Senator Obama. (A statement which al-Maliki at first disputed making but ultimately reaffirmed.) And President Bush, himself, appeared to accept the idea of a timetable for drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, while also arguing that a beefing up of the U.S. military in Afghanistan was needed.

The military’s leadership did express their reservations about a withdrawal timetable, and that might have spelled trouble for the Democratic candidate. Despite the U.S. public’s reservations about the war, they have demonstrated increasing appreciation for the commitment and sacrifice U.S. forces have made in Iraq. This provided Obama with a challenge which, in the end, he handled quite well. The visuals of the enthusiastic reception given the youthful Senator by U.S. combat forces provided ample evidence of their acceptance of his leadership. At the same time, while indicating a respectful understanding of the concerns expressed by U.S. military leaders, he noted that – if he were to become “Commander in Chief” – he would consider their views but assert his strategic priorities for where best to employ U.S. forces, demonstrating confident political savvy and his vision.

Entering the troubled waters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was another matter. There, Obama had several goals to accomplish – all difficult. There were diverse constituencies closely watching his every move. Israelis and some American Jews needed to be assured of his commitment to Israel’s security, while Arab Americans and many throughout the Arab world needed to be convinced of his commitment to even-handedness. By any measure, a very tough load to balance.

A respectful visit to long-time U.S. ally King Abdullah of Jordan, and a press conference set against the backdrop of magnificent Greco-Roman ruins, provided Obama with an opportunity to define his policy goals in a nuanced manner. He expressed his strong support for Israel’s security, while asserting that the best way to guaranty that security is to “recognize the legitimate difficulties that the Palestinian people are experiencing right now – [because] it is not only in the interests of the Palestinian people that their situation improves….it is also in the interests of the Israeli people.” He pledged “to start working from the minute I’m sworn into office to make breakthroughs” and affirmed that the “ultimate resolution is going involve two states standing side by side in peace and security.”

Prior to going to Israel, Obama had been pressed by supporters to visit a number Israeli leaders and sites designed to establish his bona fides. These visits went well, but dismayed Palestinians, who chafed at the fact that he made only one West Bank visit with President Mahmoud Abbas and President Salim Fayyad. But the contents of the meetings went well and provided Obama with ample opportunity to assure both sides of his commitment to begin an intense effort to negotiate peace.

From there, it was off to Germany, where his address before a crowd of 200,000 could only be described as a tour de force. The Berlin speech focused on rebuilding America’s image and restoring U.S.-European ties. Making reference to the tearing down of Berlin’s iconic wall, the Senator issued a line whose meaning might have been missed by some, but whose implications were of significance on many levels, including people in the Middle East, when he said, “The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”

A final observation: During all this time, Senator McCain was clearly frustrated. Some observers noted that while McCain might have taken advantage of Senator Obama’s absence from the U.S. to focus on critical domestic messages that would have strengthened his standing, he instead was reduced to an angry heckler on the sidelines. Clearly, the winner in this round was Obama.

Washington Watch is a weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby. The views expressed within this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab American Institute.

We invite you to share your views on the topics addressed within Dr. Zogby’s weekly Washington Watch by emailing jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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