Obama's trip to the Middle East and Europe last week was one of the most impressive displays of political skill, orchestrated symbolism and rhetoric in recent memory. While showing his rapport with European leaders, he more importantly buttressed his foreign-policy credentials. The media ate up the trip like I eat up red curry--voraciously. The press coverage was so extensive and positive that John McCain's campaign, desperate for attention, was forced to "leak" false rumors to reporters that his veep choice would be announced soon.
The trip was brilliantly planned from start to finish. Obama got himself photographed wearing a yarmulke at the Wailing Wall, which is certain to reassure Jewish voters. The visit to Iraq coincided nicely with his repositioning on his strategy for the country. And,Obama's big public speech, to an enormous 200,000 people, was in Berlin. As a friend pointed out, Germany is a noncontroversial (and popular) country to Americans. Had the speech been in France, it would have been much easier for Republicans to attack him.
Considering how well the trip went, John McCain got desperate. The McCain camp's main criticism of Obama's trip was that it distracted from the economic problems Americans are facing domestically. McCain insists on pretending that the economic problems in the US can somehow be solved by cutting taxes. They clearly cannot, and will require international cooperation, which McCain seems less able to offer than Obama. And in the minds of voters, it is Obama that has the edge on economic issues, not McCain.
Clearly, the foreign-policy dynamic substantially changed since 2004. When John Kerry mentioned that some foreign leaders supported him, the Bush campaign was quick to make that a bad thing. Kerry's ability to speak French was roundly pilloried by the Republican press. The candidates competed to say how little they would listen to anyone outside of the United States. The chest-thumping anti-Europeanism of four years ago has now disappeared as the limits of American power have become clear to pretty much everyone not currently employed by the Bush administration. Now, thankfully, McCain and Obama are competing to show their ability to work multilaterally.
But it's clear that Obama has this battle won, far and away. French President Nicholas Sarkozy all but endorsed Obama; remember, this is the man whom Republicans loved to talk about during their primary debates. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, realizing that his predecessor's close relationship with George Bush contributed to his downfall, has to realize that an Obama presidency will help his own struggle to stay in power. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki--the man with 140,000 American troops in his country--endorsed Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan, which left the Bush White House scrambling to control the damage.
What is most striking about Obama's campaign in this phase is its intense, consistent seriousness. This is not a campaign that takes itself lightly at all. McCain is known for shooting the off-the-record breeze with reporters at the back of the Straight Talk Express; Obama's campaign not only severely limits press access and clamps down on any leaks, but attacks reporters, as Adam Nagourney described in a recent article in The New Republic. This seriousness might be what we need to legitimize the presidency again. Seriousness resurrected the Batman franchise; maybe it will work for America, too.
I've been skeptical about Obama's foreign-policy chops before, and I still am. He's still too likely to cave to the left on free-trade and Iraq-related issues. But what he has shown with this trip to Europe and the Middle East is his rapport with the international leaders with whom he will be working if he is president in six mnths. Personal relationships--which led President Bush down the wrong path with Vladimir Putin--will prove to be far more important than most people think as we try to resuscitate our image abroad.