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Obama’s World Stage Debut

He proved he could take on the establishment of the Democratic Party. Now he must show he can take on the world.

It seems odd that a man born to a Kenyan father, who studied in Indonesia and has traveled widely across both the country and globe has to prove his international credentials, but that’s exactly what Sen. Barack Obama must do beginning this weekend.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee will board a plane choked with reporters, including the anchors of the three national network news shows, and with surrogates, bound for, in no certain order, France and Britain, Jordan and Germany as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. There will be photo-ops and meetings with the likes of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

Officially, Susan Rice, a leading Obama foreign-policy adviser, said in a recent conference call with reporters, the "broad goals of the trip" are to "deepen, even further, important relationships and to exchange views with the leaders in several countries whose partnership with the United States is really critical to our national security."

In truth however, it is meant to show that Obama can handle his own on the World Stage. For months now, we’ve seen this young, charismatic crusader woo people in Fargo and Butte, Detroit and Flint, St. Louis and Dayton. Now it’s time for the man who began his career as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side to begin his transformation into the role of statesman — at least to the American people.

"Above all, he needs to show he’s a quick learner," said Walter Russell Mead, the historian and the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy for the Council on Foreign Relations. "That would imply he’s not only smart and willing to read books and briefings, but also would show people whether his ideas work in the world or are they just quirky? Does he have unrealistic ideas about what’s possible. Does he have a good mental tool kit?"

Throughout the Democratic primaries, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton hammered Obama on his lack of experience while her team of foreign-policy experts–including her husband’s Secretary of State Madeline K. Albright–ridiculed his foreign-policy credentials. Clinton ran a much-discussed ad asking the American people who they want answering the phone at 2 a.m. in the middle in of an international crisis. Picking up where Obama’s Democratic rival left off– Sen. John McCain called the Illinois senator’s world view "naive."

In truth the trip represents a real opportunity for Obama to distance himself from McCain. A recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll found that, despite the attacks, 45 percent of people trust Obama to handle the war in Iraq, a mere two percentage points behind McCain. While McCain holds a 49 to 43 advantage in whom people trust to handle the U.S. campaign on terrorism, the two are dead even, at 45 percent, when it comes to the broader issue of international affairs.

Perhaps this is a reflection of McCain’s own international stumbles in recent months. While endorsing the continuation of the vastly unpopular Iraq war, McCain has made potentially embarrassing mistakes. He’s confused the different factions tearing Saddam Hussein’s former fiefdom apart, and joked about bombing Iran via a Beach Boys song. All the while Obama — whose only real gaffe to date was made on a tarmac in Fargo, where he said he would "refine" his heavily defined plan for Iraqi withdrawal plan–has not only not made such confusions, but gets all the pronunciations right.

"I’m a little bit amused when McCain says he knows how to win wars," said Gaddis Smith, the Larned professor emeritus of history at Yale and foreign-policy scholar. "If I were at a press conference I would say, "Sen. McCain, you say you know how to win wars, but what winning wars have you been in?"

Of course, Obama might not want to use Smith’s battle plan, but the question remains: What can Obama do to not only close the small gap, but to surpass McCain?

Harry S. Truman had the advantage of becoming a wartime president before running for president and Dwight D. Eisenhower had the great advantage of directing the United States to victory on the ground against the forces of darkness in World War II. Even John F. Kennedy, young Kennedy, had established his cred early when he wrote "Why England Slept," his Harvard thesis, which his father helped publish as a book.

"I don’t see foreign policy as that big of a weakness," said former New Republic editor Peter Beinert, now a senior foreign-policy fellow at the non-partisan Council of Foreign Relations and author of "The Good Fight: Why Liberals — and Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again." "He has so much stuff going for him. It’s not a weakness, but just an area where he’s seen as weaker on other issues where he rates so highly, like the economy."

"He’s not a guy who makes a lot of gaffes," Beinert pointed out. "You’re hard prone to find as many gaffes as the much more seasoned politicians he’s come up against in Hillary Clinton and John McCain. During this trip you’re going to see people mobbing him in the streets, making snarky press coverage even that much harder."

It’s fair to say that Obama will stay far, far away from the track of the the last man to win the Oval Office. During the 2000 election, George W. Bush, who famously failed a test on foreign leaders, argued that he would surround himself with experienced graybeards who would help him form a consistent foreign policy. These are the same men– Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld– now seen as bogeymen by a really, really angry American public. In some ways Obama abroad would be best advised to do what he’s done so well during the campaign: Speak to the foreign press with knowledge and eloquence and listen, as he does with ordinary folk in town halls, to the concerns of foreign leaders.

"It’s a very smart move on his part to schedule these trips," said Mead, of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Over time, a presidential campaign becomes a trial ordeal, a mock presidential administration through which people are able to see how do they handle crisis, how do they handle scandal and what their core values are."

Indeed, should everything go according to plan, we will see Obama at his best: A man both able to stand with the most powerful people on Earth, and feel the warm embrace of the people they represent. Yes, it is a political show. But it’s his show — and if we’ve learned anything over these many months of campaigning its that he is supremely efficient in staying on message, on making sure the image he wants of himself is transmitted both on screen and in print. So the odds are good that Obama will return from abroad as a seasoned diplomat, able to begin a sentence with "When I was in Iraq…"

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