Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Dan Simpson

Foreign leaders cozy up to Obama but don't take sides

APART from the challenge presented to Sen. Barack Obama himself by his eight-day, nine-stop trip out of the country last week, there also was the dilemma his visit presented for the foreign leaders with whom he met.

On the one hand, it was a golden opportunity for Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom to get off on the right foot with the person who is currently the favorite to become the president of the United States for the next four years. To the degree that making him look good would make it more likely that personal relations with him would be warm if he were elected, all of these people had a vested interest in treating Mr. Obama well.

On the other hand, these leaders are savvy students of American politics. Even though the United States has been getting batted around in Afghanistan and Iraq and its economy is tanking, to the growing peril of the world, America is still the big dog on the block as an economy, as a military machine, and - heaven help us - probably culturally as well. (The United Kingdom has Amy Winehouse and France has Carla Bruni but we have Miley Cyrus.)

As knowledgeable of American politics as are King Abdullah, Ehud Olmert, Mahmoud Abbas, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and even poor Gordon Brown, they have to know that a foreigner taking sides in an American presidential contest is akin to a weak-kneed Joe Namath bootlegging in the face of a charging Baltimore Colts line.

Thus, they had to showcase Mr. Obama favorably and cozy up to him but not seem to be taking sides in the ongoing electoral battle in the United States. They probably succeeded in playing this double game. It is also undoubtedly true that if the putative Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, visited these places, he would receive the same friendly welcome.

Was there any substance - foreign policy or otherwise - to Mr. Obama's trip? More or less, not. He hit the three hot spots - Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine. He also got in a decent dose of allies. He went to Kuwait, which the United States saved from Saddam Hussein's ravaging hordes in 1991. He went to ever-friendly, ever-helpful, courageous Jordan: King Abdullah II drove him to the airport himself, a gracious gesture. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are the big three of America's post-World War II European alliance. It must have been tough for Germany's Chancellor Merkel, who appears to hold a special place in the heart of outgoing President Bush.

On Afghanistan, he swished a symbolic three-pointer. Even though Afghan president Hamid Karzai is neuralgic about the activities of American troops in his country - in his view they use air power too much, killing too many civilians and creating problems for his government - Mr. Obama's general message of the need for America to pay more attention to Afghanistan, as opposed to Iraq, was very welcome to Mr. Karzai.

In Iraq, Mr. Obama's troops-out-within-16-months position meshes nicely with the one that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has arrived at as his occupation government tries to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement with the United States. The United Nations fig leaf for the U.S. presence in Iraq expires Dec. 31. Agreement between Mr. Maliki and Mr. Obama pushed Mr. Bush to talk about "a general time horizon" for withdrawal, leaving Mr. McCain to scramble from the right of Mr. Bush toward the center to call the Maliki-Obama timetable "pretty good."

The positions Mr. Obama set out in meetings with the Israelis and Palestinians did not break new ground. With the Europeans, he basically pledged to talk seriously with them if he became president, leaving behind the general "take it or leave it" nondiplomacy of the Bush Administration, although he did not put it that way.

Lest anyone think that the set of foreign policy positions Mr. Obama put forward during this trip was a primer on what would be his foreign policy if he were elected president, I would suggest that he signaled an approach, but only that.

To validate that conclusion we only have to look at what he didn't do - and where he didn't go. I am not saying he should have gone to these places. To have done so would certainly have brought criticism that the problems the American people would most want him to address if elected are at home, in the supermarket, at the gas station, in the fall at the thermostat.

If he is elected president, here are some of the foreign-policy-related questions he will face: China, partner or dangerous rival? Russia, not down, certainly not out. Africa, starving, fighting, and hard to help. Latin America, essential to us and jealous. Canada and Mexico, bigger problems because of Mr. Obama's blowzy position on NAFTA. The need to coordinate with a prickly rest of the world on greenhouse gases and climate change.

Enough? Plenty. But all of his positions on all of these issues will be purely hypothetical - scarcely even interesting to historians - if he doesn't win. In that sense, Moscow, Idaho, is more important to him at this point than the Russian capital.

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