Be careful what you wish for. John McCain practically dared Barack Obama to go to Iraq, and he did, with a vengeance. He has been on a world tour, going to three key areas Iraq and Afghanistan, where US troops are fighting; to Europe, location of America’s principal allies; and the Middle East, where America has a fundamental commitment to Israel and to regional peace.
By most accounts, the trip has been a huge success. Obama has seemed presidential, and has been treated as a world leader in world capitals. Media coverage has been very positive and extensive, and he has not made any serious mistakes that could undermine his foreign policy credentials.
In particular, he seems to have navigated the Israel/Palestinian/Jordan scene successfully. Of all the American voters watching this trip, nobody is more attentive than Jewish voters. Obama made all the right visits, struck the right chords (no peace agreement just to have a peace of paper), and smartly met with the right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the current government. He pushed the envelope a bit by going to Ramallah.
The most significant portion of the trip was the interchange with Iraq’s leadership. When Maliki endorsed Obama’s plan for a timed withdrawal from Iraq it placed McCain in a dreadful position. It’s impossible to argue for staying longer than the Iraqis want us to stay, unless our presence is actually an occupation. Even worse for McCain, President Bush undercut him by moving toward Obama’s position, leaning toward a “time horizon” for withdrawal.
Now McCain, who has built his campaign on unwavering support for the Bush policy of an open-ended commitment in Iraq, finds himself to the right of both Bush and Obama. The lesson? Even a president of your own party will put his own legacy ahead of you, no matter how loyal you have been. The good news for Americans? We are probably closer to ending the war in Iraq today than we were a month ago.
This world tour reminds me of the bus tour that Bill Clinton and Al Gore, along with their wives, took right after the 1992 Democratic convention. A young, untested ticket running against an older Republican in a bad economic climate lit a spark by getting out into the streets of America. Obama’s world tour works in a different way, by potentially elevating his standing from the new young candidate to the potential commander-in-chief.
It probably won’t show up in the polls right away, but Obama may have helped close the “gravitas” gap with McCain. If he does, McCain’s position becomes serious. On domestic matters, it’s a Democratic wipeout. I’d watch Jewish voters very carefully in the next few weeks. They are “canaries in the mine” when it comes to Democrats and foreign policy. Convince Jews, and you’ll win the foreign policy argument with everybody else.
And no matter how great the trip, Obama is going to have to work right through to November to close that sale.