WASHINGTON — Barack Obama said Saturday that he'll soon travel to the Middle East and Western Europe to meet with allies and discuss terrorism, nuclear weapons and global warming.
The trip, to take place this summer although travel dates were not released, will provide the freshman Illinois senator and presumed Democratic presidential nominee an opportunity for face time with some of the world leaders he'd be working with if elected in November.
More immediately, it gives the 46-year-old Iraq war opponent an opportunity to strengthen his foreign policy credentials, which presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain, a veteran senator, Vietnam war hero and supporter of the Iraq war, has criticized as insufficient.
And with much of the world fascinated by Obama's candidacy, and with a large fan base in Europe, an enthusiastic reception overseas could be a selling point for Obama with American voters concerned about the nation's reputation under President Bush.
Obama said he will stop in Israel, Jordan, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
He made no mention of whether he will meet with Palestinian officials — a potentially thorny issue as he aims to ease strains between the United States and Arab and Muslim nations while solidifying his own standing with Jewish voters at home.
"We're building the itineraries now for each of the stops and we're not in a position to release any further details," said Obama foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough, when asked to clarify whether Obama will meet with Palestinians and under what circumstances.
However, James Zogby, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Arab American Institute, believes Obama will meet with the Palestinians.
"My understanding from the conversations I've had is that they will meet with the Palestinians but the itinerary hasn't been set. Not meeting with them would send the wrong message, and I believe they're intending to send all the right messages."
Aaron Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and an Arab-Israel adviser to six Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, said he thinks it would be a mistake for Obama not to meet with Mahmoud Abbas or other Palestinian Authority officials during the trip — and he'd be surprised if Obama doesn't.
The Mideast portion of the trip, Miller said, is "primarily about signaling to the pro-Israel community that Barack Obama has a fundamental stake in the security and sovereignty of Israel."
As for the overall trip, Miller said of Obama, "When he connects with people not only does he influence them but the pictures of his connecting add to his credibility."
Obama and his team "may calculate this can only help him because they're going to put him in situations where he's engaging with world leaders and he's going to demonstrate a certain gravitas in his public remarks," Miller said.
In a statement announcing the trip, Obama said that "Israel is a strong and close friend of the United States, and is confronting grave threats from Gaza to Tehran. Jordan has been a close partner in the peace process and a host of other issues of common concern."
"France, Germany and the United Kingdom are key anchors of the transatlantic alliance and have contributed to the mission in Afghanistan, and I look forward to discussing how we can strengthen our partnership in the years to come."
The announcement that Obama would go forward with any foreign campaign trip follows weeks of private discussions among the candidate and his foreign policy and political advisers to sketch out the pros, cons and goals of overseas travel before the general election.
Obama also plans to travel to war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan this year, but as part of a congressional delegation that would include other senators and be funded by taxpayer dollars. Obama has visited Iraq once, more than two years ago, before the U.S. military buildup that has had some positive effects. McCain has been challenging Obama to go back and see the surge in action.
Obama aides could not say whether the Iraq visit and the broader foreign trip would overlap or be entirely separate in terms of timing, or whether Obama would meet with Pakistan as part of either itinerary.
McCain, who has made eight Iraq visits since the 2003 invasion and was in Europe and the Middle East already this year, was headed out of the country again next week, but closer to home — to Colombia and Mexico.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008