WASHINGTON // As he traverses the globe on a trip designed to promote his foreign policy proficiency, Barack Obama has a new, and unlikely, ally: George W Bush. Mr Obama's campaign has seized upon two recent policy shifts by the Bush administration - sending a high-level diplomat for nuclear talks with Iran and agreeing to a "time horizon" for troop withdrawal in Iraq - to try to bolster his standing on the foreign policy front and put his opponent, John McCain, on the defensive.
Mr Obama, in the Middle East on a fact-finding mission that included meetings with Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, and other officials - has long called for a more robust diplomatic engagement with America's foes, including Iran, as well as a fixed timetable of 16 months for withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq. Until recently, Mr Bush had criticised, or outright rejected, both. Even now, the administration insists its shifts are not policy changes and its envoys are continuing the tough talk.
In May, in remarks before the Israeli Knesset that seemed to have been directed at Mr Obama, Mr Bush compared those who would negotiate with "terrorists and radicals" to appeasers of the Nazis. For the past seven and a half years, he has made clear his administration will not deal with Tehran until it ceases enriching uranium. Then, in a marked policy shift, Mr Bush sent William Burns, the number three official at the state department, to Europe for talks on Iran's nuclear programme.
A similar policy change took place on a key issue relating to the US presence in Iraq. Mr Bush had said that an "artificial deadline" for withdrawing US troops would "send a signal to our enemies that, if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends". But last week, the president agreed to the notion of a timetable for leaving Iraq, though he has rejected a specific one. Moreover, and equally important, Mr Maliki indicated that he too supported a timetable for withdrawal, even going so far as to say Mr Obama "is right when he talks about 16 months".
No matter his intention, the shifts by Mr Bush have been widely viewed as making Mr McCain's position in Iraq more difficult, while simultaneously lending a boost to the diplomatic approach Mr Obama says he favours when it comes to dealing with states like Iran. "Obviously, it's very helpful to Senator Obama and conversely difficult for Senator McCain to deal with," said Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Richard Holbrooke, formerly US ambassador to the United Nations under Bill Clinton, was more blunt. "It's a devastating blow to the McCain campaign - not just that Maliki moved to Obama's position, but that Bush did as well," Mr Holbrooke told Politico, a politics website, this week. All of this has left Mr McCain exactly where Mr Obama wants him: on the defensive on an issue that is supposed to be his strong suit. This week, Mr McCain has been hammering his opponent, as the Democrat travels overseas, on his earlier, vigorous opposition to the so-called troop "surge", saying it reflects Mr Obama's inexperience and poor judgment.
Mr McCain's tactic, said Mr Hess, was to point this out: "If it weren't for the surge, we wouldn't be in this position in the first place. I was right and he was wrong." The Republican has likewise been highlighting the opposition by military leaders on the ground in Iraq to a fixed schedule for US troops getting out. Adm Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said on Sunday that such a schedule could have "dangerous consequences".
In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Randy Scheunemann, senior foreign policy adviser to Mr McCain, charged Mr Obama with "selectively misinterpreting" the facts in claiming that Mr Bush has moved to embrace his positions. Mr Obama "wants to make unilateral concessions to Iran, not insist that they suspend their uranium enrichment programme, and engage in unilateral cowboy summitry and meet unconditionally with [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," Mr Scheunemann said.
"The only way you could compare what the Bush administration is doing with its diplomacy with Iran with what Senator Obama wants to do would be if President Bush invited President Ahmadinejad to Crawford for a barbecue, and that certainly isn't going to happen." As for the troop withdrawal, Mr Scheunemann said, "there's a great deal of difference between having a 'time horizon' - or a goal - where you hope to have American troops out depending on conditions on the ground, and having an unconditional date-driven withdrawal, which is what Senator Obama wants".
Carah Ong, an Iran policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said these initial steps toward diplomacy with Iran did not become the "spectacle" Mr McCain predicted such a meeting would in a recent speech before the American Israeli Political Action Committee - and in that way undermines his position. And the fact that the White House has made clear that American participation in the talks was a one-time deal leaves Mr Obama an opening to say: "You only tried once."
But she likewise was critical of what she called Mr Obama's own shifting stances on Iran, noting that he at first expressed support for talks without preconditions, then later modified his terms. "I think people need to have no illusions about being in the campaign season," said Ms Ong. "People will do or say whatever it takes to get the White House. Don't expect those exact policies to actually be pursued, whether it's McCain or Obama."