Politics & Government

Obama's foreign policy: moderation, not change

U.S. Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are seen following their joint press conference after their meeting at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, Friday, July 25, 2008. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)
U.S. Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are seen following their joint press conference after their meeting at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, Friday, July 25, 2008. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama has presented himself to American voters as the candidate of change, but on a weeklong foreign trip that ends Saturday he sounded more like a traditionalist when it comes to foreign policy.

In some cases, the foreign policy middle has shifted Obama's way. His proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq over 16 months no longer seems radical. Iraq's prime minister endorsed it, and even President Bush now agrees that there should be a "time horizon" for some troop withdrawal. Virtually everyone now agrees that more American troops are needed in Afghanistan.

In other cases, Obama staked out the traditional middle ground. He toughened his rhetoric on Iran, was unstinting in his support for Israel and called on Europe to do more to fight terrorism, particularly in Afghanistan.

Nuances aside, those are all positions with which Bush and Obama's Republican presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain, could agree.

Obama's trip was aimed at reassuring American voters that although he has little foreign policy and no military experience, he's up the job of commander-in-chief, so it's not surprising that he avoided making brash new proposals or offering detailed policy prescriptions.

His trip was choreographed to show the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee at ease on the world stage. He met U.S. troops in Afghanistan; drove with Jordan's King Abdullah; stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Israelis in the rocket-besieged town of Sderot; and spoke before some 200,000 cheering people in Berlin.

Obama's speech Thursday in Berlin calling on Europeans and Americans to tackle global problems together was "inspirational and reassuring," said Annette Heuser, the executive director of the nonpartisan Bertelsmann Foundation, which promotes trans-Atlantic cooperation.

He also sought to introduce himself to skeptics, particularly in Israel, and there he made headway. "His charismatic personality and chumminess fit the Israelis like a glove, and were reminiscent of the love affair between the Israelis and Bill Clinton," Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper wrote after the visit. "For every fear, query or question, Obama immediately produced a suitable Zionist sentence."

Palestinians, used to playing second-fiddle during such visits, also spoke warmly of Obama and discounted the rhetoric. "This is all part of the political campaign," said Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas political adviser in the Gaza Strip who made trouble for Obama earlier this year by praising the Democratic nominee. "He promised to make change, and I hope that we will see real change in the American policy across the entire Middle East."

The trip, however, did little to clarify how the senator from Illinois might deal with a globeful of tough problems if he makes it to the Oval Office.

What would he do if neither negotiations nor tougher sanctions persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions? Would he pressure Israel and the Palestinians to make concessions for peace, for example halting construction of Jewish settlements and disarming Islamic militants?

In Afghanistan, Obama called for more U.S. troops but didn't outline a broader strategy for dealing with the country's multiple security, economic, social and narcotics problems — or for eliminating the Taliban and al Qaida safe haven in neighboring Pakistan.

"I think it'd be a huge mistake to give specifics" on foreign policy, said Gary Samore, a nuclear proliferation expert and vice president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. "Policy-making and the details of policy-making is something you can't do until you're in power."

Obama, however, has caught a wave of change in foreign policy that, while not of his making, has been breaking his way as the Bush administration's penchant for muscular unilateralism has collided with hard military, economic and diplomatic realities.

On issue after issue — Iraq troop withdrawals, direct U.S. talks with Iran, sending more U.S. combat forces to Afghanistan — the consensus is moving toward positions that Obama has long espoused.

"I think he's been incredibly lucky," said Samore.

Nowhere has that luck been more apparent — or ironic — than it's been on Iraq.

Obama's timeline for troop withdrawals now appears feasible because of the improvement in security brought about by the rise in Sunni Muslim opposition to Islamic extremists, a halt in activity by Shiite militias and Bush's decision to "surge" more troops into Iraq. McCain supported the "surge" and Obama opposed it, yet Obama appears to be the political beneficiary.

While Obama was in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki endorsed something close to Obama's 16-month timeline. Maliki had good domestic political reasons for doing so, but the effect was to undercut Bush's and McCain's criticism of Obama's proposals.

He didn't address Iraqis directly, and some felt he was using their plight as a stage for domestic political theater.

"If Obama is serious about (withdrawing troops), that really is the dream for all Iraqis, and I hope he'll stick to his word. But I think all these statements are only to serve his private electoral campaign," said Nather Ibrahim, 47, a chemist.

In other arenas, Obama's call for negotiating with adversaries has become the order of the day. While Obama was on the road, Bush sent a senior U.S. official to join nuclear talks with Iran. Israel and Syria are holding indirect peace talks.

But Obama was careful not to push the envelope too far.

His visit to Sderot, an Israeli town that's been a frequent target of rockets fired by the Palestinian group Hamas, was made possible by a cease-fire mediated by Egypt. Asked if Israel should talk directly with Hamas, Obama gave the standard U.S. answer that Hamas must decide if it's a political group or a terrorist group.

In Sderot, "the situation is the best it's ever been since anyone can remember because there's a case-fire with Hamas," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator now at the New America Foundation. "Nobody mentioned it."

Talev reported from Paris. Nancy Youssef in Baghdad and Dion Nissenbaum in Jerusalem contributed.


More on this story from McClatchy:

French President Sarkozy all but endorses Obama

Obama in Berlin: 'This is our moment, this is our time'

Obama talks tough about Iran during visit to Israel

Related stories from McClatchy DC