Back in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, candidates for President of the United States didn’t have much truck with foreigners. They didn’t vote, they lived on the other side of the ocean, and they spoke funny, most of ’em. (If a Frenchman is a man, Jim points out to Huck Finn, “why doan’ he talk like a man?”) Even after America’s rise to global power, the only overseas travel seen as obligatory for a Presidential hopeful was to what pols called the Three-I League—Ireland, Italy, and Israel, venues that had more to do with the lingering tribal identities of big-city ethnics than with anything as highfalutin as foreign policy. (Let us note, in the currently fashionable spirit of joke-explaining, that the baseball allusion is to a long-defunct Class B circuit made up of teams from Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa.)
Nor did the incumbent get around much during the first fifty-four years of his life. “Bush’s foreign travels,” the Associated Press reported a few days after the Supreme Court awarded him custody of Air Force One, “have been limited to three visits to Mexico, two trips to Israel, a three-day Thanksgiving visit in Rome with one of his daughters in 1998, and a six-week excursion to China with his parents in 1975.” Israel, check. Italy, check. He didn’t bother with the third I.
In our post-9/11, post-unipolar, and soon-to-be-post-Bush world, staying home is not an option—especially if you’re the “inexperienced” candidate and the opinion polls say that your war-hero opponent is better at foreign policy and national security than you are. Anyway, John McCain had spent months needling Barack Obama for not having lately visited the fourth I. So, last week, off to Iraq he went—and, while he was at it, he doubled and redoubled down, adding Afghanistan, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Germany, France, and Britain to his itinerary.
Just before the trip, a leading wire service summarized the prevailing view:
"WASHINGTON (Reuters)—U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s overseas trip will be a high-risk debut on the world stage—with the potential pitfalls at least as numerous as the likely rewards."
“On a trip like this, on a stage like this, there is no room for error,” Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic operative, told ABC News. “He needs to make sure every word is right, every setting is proper, and that he makes absolutely no mistakes.” And Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe predicted that the trip as would be “an extraordinarily public test of a Presidential contender’s mastery of world affairs.”
Whether or not it was that, it was certainly a test of his mastery of political theatrics, his sure-footedness, and his willingness to take a calculated risk. On the first leg of the trip, Obama found himself in a military gym in Kuwait, a major staging point for Americans going to the war zones. The bleachers were packed with soldiers wearing fatigues. A basketball materialized. “I may not make the first one,” he said, no doubt imagining what a metaphor-hungry press would make of a miss or, God forbid, a whole string of misses, “but I’ll make one eventually.” With a spring of his toes, he put the ball up. When it came down, swish.
It was the three-point shot heard round the world, and, for the Obama campaign, things only got better from there. As the candidate whirled through Afghanistan and Iraq—talking with troops, huddling with generals, conferring with presidents and prime ministers—the policy dominoes suddenly began toppling his way, flicked by unexpected fingers. Commanders on the ground in Afghanistan made known their belief that more NATO troops are badly needed there, as Obama has been arguing all along. The Bush Administration sent an Under-Secretary of State to a meeting in Geneva with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, thereby edging toward the kind of direct diplomatic engagement with Tehran that Obama has been urging all along. The White House announced that President Bush and the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had agreed on the idea of a “time horizon” for withdrawing American troops from Iraq, thus seeming to endorse the general approach that Obama has been advocating (and his opponent just as firmly rejecting) all along. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Maliki went stunningly further. Asked to predict when most of the American troops will leave Iraq, he replied:
"As soon as possible, as far as we’re concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about sixteen months. That, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes."
After four days of panicky spinning and backtracking from Washington and (at Washington’s prodding) Baghdad, an audio recording of the interview—the published text of which, in any case, had been provided to Maliki’s office in advance—surfaced, and its accuracy was confirmed. Maliki’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, had the final word: “We cannot give any timetables or dates, but the Iraqi government believes the end of 2010 is the appropriate time for the withdrawal.” By the time Obama’s plane touched down in Germany, an utterly unanticipated consensus seemed to have emerged: besides having been right about the Iraq war’s beginning (i.e., that it should not have had one), he is right, in broad outline, about the path to its ending.
There has been much discussion of whether it will prove politically advantageous for Obama to have addressed a mile-long crowd of two hundred thousand happy Berliners in the golden early-evening sunlight. Berliners are Germans, and Germans are foreigners, and since well before John Kerry was demonized for knowing how to speak French it has been axiomatic that heartland Americans don’t like foreigners piping up about our elections, however much brainland Americans may disagree. Obama gained nothing in the polls during his nearly flawless, arguably triumphant grand tour. Still, after seven years during which, even among our closest allies, contempt for Bush bled into resentment of the country that returned him to office, one would have to be an awful grouch not to be gratified by the sight of a sea of delighted Europeans waving American flags instead of burning them and cheering an American politician instead of demonstrating against one.
Back home, one such grouch had ample reason to be grouchy. McCain’s luck last week was as bad as Obama’s was good. McCain rode in a golf cart with Bush senior; Obama rode in a helicopter with General David Petraeus. Obama was hailed by the German multitudes; McCain, his planned photo op at an offshore rig preëmpted by an oil spill and rained out by Hurricane Dolly, held a press gaggle in front of Schmidt’s Fudge Haus, in Columbus, Ohio. Obama got a big kiss (“Obama? C’est mon copain!”) from the new President of France, a dashing conservative with an exotic background and an unusual name; McCain stood athwart the cheese aisle of a supermarket, complaining. The presumptive Republican nominee had a right to be irritated by what he was complaining about: Obama’s reluctance to admit that the surge in Iraq which he opposed has helped make the withdrawal from Iraq which he supports less problematic. But McCain had no right to accuse him, not once but repeatedly last week, of being willing to have his country “lose a war” if it would win him an election. That was shocking; that was unworthy. Obama drained a three-point shot; McCain committed a three-shot foul. The game is getting physical.