Obama considering world tour ahead of August convention

McClatchy NewspapersJune 13, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama may depart this summer from his road-warrior tour of election-battleground states to take a trip around the world, one intended to shore up his credentials on foreign policy.

With a foreign trip under discussion in the Obama camp, any itinerary almost certainly would include a stop in Iraq. That would be his first trip to the war zone since early 2006. It would be designed to answer Republican presidential candidate John McCain's criticism that antiwar Obama can't talk credibly about withdrawing U.S. forces since he hasn't been on the ground there since the 2007 troop buildup brought some military success.

While he's at it, Obama may extend his journey to other parts of the globe, especially Western Europe, where his racial mix, youth, optimism and themes of anti-Bush, multilateral diplomacy have generated impassioned interest in his candidacy.

Obama advisers are eager to find a way to harness his popularity overseas to boost his appeal to undecided voters back home, and to show that the 46-year-old freshman senator from Illinois can compete with McCain on foreign policy. While the Arizona senator is a veteran of war and Washington — and 25 years Obama's senior — his support for the Iraq war puts him on the losing side of public opinion.

Susan Rice, Obama's senior foreign-policy adviser, said Friday that "no decisions have been made" yet about whether Obama will travel abroad this summer, and if he does, where he'll go. However, she did confirm that the matter is under consideration and "I can't rule anything out."

A Pew Global Attitudes survey released Thursday found that people abroad feel more favorably toward either Obama or McCain than they do toward President Bush. But when they were asked how confident they are that the next president will make good foreign-policy decisions, Obama beat McCain in almost every nation, including 72-19 percent in Spain, 82-33 percent in Germany, 52-17 percent in Indonesia and 31-23 percent in Egypt.

Rice, who was an assistant secretary of state to President Clinton, said that Obama's international appeal stemmed from the fact that he "represents to the rest of the world the best of the American dream at a time when they have become disillusioned and disappointed with America. He's a new generation of leadership that's globally oriented and aware. By virtue of his family background and having lived abroad in his youth, he has a unique appreciation of different cultures, different societies, and represents an American leadership that's committed to more cooperative solutions."

For all that, there are pitfalls that Obama and his advisers must consider in deciding where to go, for how long, whom to see, what to say and how it might play back home.

If he goes to Israel, for example, does that anger Palestinians? If he talks to Palestinians there, does he turn off Jewish voters back home? Is Asia too far away for a quick visit, and if he could stop in only one Asian nation, which should it be? Obama's last trip to Africa generated a photo of him in traditional clothing that detractors spread on the Internet to suggest falsely that he's Muslim, so does he steer clear of there for now? And so on.

Some foreign-policy experts say that preliminary discussions about an Obama visit already are under way in their circles, and they expect that he'll make at least a few foreign stops, probably before the Democratic National Convention in late August.

"I do think he'll probably come," said John Hulsman, a scholar with the German Council on Foreign Relations, based in Berlin. "He's going to show he's a new kind of politician, and to do that you can't just go to London."

Hulsman suggested that in Iraq, Obama might consider staying outside the fortified Green Zone to show that he wants to see real conditions and to contrast his trip with McCain's infamous 2007 tour of an open-air Baghdad market. McCain claimed then, under the protection of helicopter guns and 100 U.S. troops, that people could "walk freely" there.

Hulsman also said that Obama could afford to skip Israel, Asia and Africa on this trip, as the political and economic factors in each venue were myriad and the time constraints real.

In Western Europe, Hulsman said, Obama is "fanatically popular. People here, they're mesmerized by the notion an African-American could be elected president. They see Obama talking and hear Kennedyesque strains in what he says, and think maybe America isn't as bad as they thought."

While Europeans typically prefer American Democratic presidential candidates to Republicans ideologically, Hulsman said, "this is more than the average. It's total disillusionment with the current administration," with which McCain is more closely tied.

Robin Shepherd, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based research center, said he didn't know anything about Obama's plans but that a limited foreign trip probably would help his candidacy and jump-start his diplomatic relations should he win in November.

"It's a difficult question, in the middle of a political campaign, whether it's sensible to be out of the country," Shepherd said. "There's a limit to how long he can spend away from America. But a week in Europe or Iraq, I don't see a problem with that."

Some Obama campaign backers privately acknowledge concerns about him leaving the country now, the argument being why take the risk when he's leading McCain slightly in national polls.

But Democratic officials said there could be upsides.

"I don't think voters are going to be told what to do by people in other countries," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in an interview this week. "But I think American voters would rather have the respect we had eight years ago than what's happened to us under Republicans. Restoring the American moral authority in the world under President Obama will be a big piece of this."

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., said that on an overseas trip he made months ago to Asia and Australia, "people were telling me they saw in this election and in this candidate (Obama) the opportunity to once again look up to this country."

McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said Friday that McCain had visited Iraq eight times since the 2003 invasion. When she was asked about McCain's summer plans, she said she couldn't disclose any upcoming travel.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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