x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Obama sees tour as triumph of his policy

The success of Obama's foreign trip is likely to silence critics who say he is too inexperienced to serve as president

The US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is seen with the British prime minister Gordon Brown, in the garden of Number 10 Downing Street.
The US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is seen with the British prime minister Gordon Brown, in the garden of Number 10 Downing Street.

LONDON // Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, headed home yesterday at the end of a triumphant foreign tour that is likely to silence critics who say he is too inexperienced to serve as president.

European commentators agreed that his trip, taking him from Afghanistan and the Middle East to Germany, France and Britain, had succeeded beyond all expectations, without a single diplomatic gaffe. Mr Obama himself, mindful that foreign policy is hardly an election winner, told reporters he did not expect European-style Obama-mania to follow him across the Atlantic back home. "I would not be surprised if you see a dip in some opinion polls as a consequence of this trip," he said after two hours of talks with Gordon Brown, the British prime minister. "People are worried about gas prices and home foreclosures."

Such a downbeat approach will have little effect in Europe, where newspapers outdid each other in hyperbole. In Britain, The Independent declared that Mr Obama had "bewitched the world". In France, where Nicolas Sarkozy, the president, abandoned all restraint to endorse his "mate" Mr Obama, Le Figaro said in an editorial: "Mission Accomplished: Barack Obama has made a success of his foray into the big wide world."

His popularity put the British government in a quandary over how to get the Obama stardust to rub off on the desperately unpopular Mr Brown, without alienating John McCain, the Republican candidate, who is well known and respected by European governments. The prime minister's office had decreed that the visit should follow the protocol of Mr McCain's visit to London in March, so there would be no public handshake outside No 10 Downing Street.

But to the surprise of tourists, the two men later slipped out of a side door for an unscheduled walkabout on a parade ground behind Downing Street, providing the much-needed photo opportunity. The contortions of the government protocol office underlined a fact seemingly forgotten by the 200,000 people who gathered to hear Mr Obama speak at a rally in Berlin: opinion polls do not suggest that the presumptive Democratic candidate will be a shoo-in.

Sir Christopher Meyer, a former ambassador to Washington, recalled that Britain had got burnt in 1992 when the Conservative Party supported the failed re-election campaign of George H W Bush, who was beaten by Bill Clinton. "This was a bit of a problem. It certainly affected the way the Clinton camp felt." Throughout his trip, Mr Obama spoke cautiously and never put a foot wrong. His tour benefited from presidential-style planning - and some good luck.

He resisted being dragged into Mr Sarkozy's rhapsody on the rise to the White House of a man of immigrant stock like himself, politely reminding the French leader that he was not yet president. He did not utter a word of French - which might have reminded US voters of John Kerry, a Democratic candidate, brought down in part by revelations of having family in France. Nor did he speak any German in Berlin, which would have no doubt pushed the parallel with John F Kennedy too far.

His visit to Iraq -potentially the most delicate part of the tour - coincided with reports that Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, endorsed his proposal for US combat troops to be withdrawn within 16 months of his election, an enormous boost to his prestige. Mr Maliki's office later denied he had supported Mr Obama's proposed timetable. Yesterday, Mr Obama sought to sum up his foreign trip as the triumph of reason and pragmatism in foreign policy. He said there were "signs of convergence" around his policy proposals for setting a target for withdrawal from Iraq, reinforcement to prevent defeat in Afghanistan and engagement with Iran.

"The point I have been making during the course of this trip is that a lot of foreign policy issues have been seen through a prism of politics and ideology for too long. Part of the reason for this convergence is that reality is asserting itself. You cannot argue with the facts." While Mr Obama has been meeting presidents and prime ministers, the McCain camp has been trying to shift the focus onto areas closer to the hearts of the US electorate. They have produced a YouTube video titled Obama Love that mocks the fawning attitude - as they see it - of some US media towards the senator for Illinois, and condemned the Berlin rally as a "premature victory lap".

Mr Obama said yesterday that restoring ties with allies would ease the financial and military burden on the United States as European countries would have to play a bigger role in the war in Afghanistan. "I am convinced that the issues we face are not going to be solved effectively unless we have strong partners abroad. Unless we get a handle on Iran and Afghanistan, not only are we going to be less safe, but also it will be a huge drain on resources," he said.

Opinion polls show that he might struggle to get that kind of argument to the undecided US voter. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll published on Wednesday showed 55 per cent of US voters considered Mr Obama the riskier choice for US president, while just 35 per cent said the same of Mr McCain. The same poll found that 58 per cent of voters identified more closely with Mr McCain's values and background, against 47 per cent who said the same of Mr Obama.

These figures, and the success of his foreign trip, hint at an unlikely conclusion: the area of foreign policy, where Mr McCain - and before him Hillary Clinton - had been needling him as inexperienced, may actually be one of his strong suits. The harder problem will be for him to project himself as an ordinary guy to US voters who, as the polls show, do not naturally identify with his exotic background.

Charles Gibson, the ABC News presenter, who accompanied the candidate on his tour, said: "There is a paradox to Obama. He gets treated as a rock star because he is fresh and different. But when you see him, you find there is a great measure of reserve to the man. He likes to be somewhat circumspect, a little bit removed and somewhat distant." That may prove in the end to be a more serious issue than his experience in foreign policy.