Can Obama win “vital election points” for his tour?
As the young U.S. senator begins his first major foreign tour as a presidential candidate, the Republican machine may gethe chance to hammer him on a massive public scale for several of his policies concerning Iraq and Afghanistan.
All eyes were on U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama this week, as he undertook a major foreign tour, including his first visit to Baghdad, in the countdown to the November 4 U.S. presidential elections.
The “war-torn” tour comes at a crucial time as the feverish election campaign gathers pace.
It is likely that as much as this visit can win Obama vital election points as well as seemingly address his alleged foreign policy “Achilles heel,” it could serve just as much as a Republican stick to hamper his presidential quest.
On paper, Obama’s ascent to prominence and candidacy for the White House helm is almost poetic. While the U.S. global image has suffered immensely in the shape of a controversial foreign policy and a war on terror, with President George W. Bush perhaps serving as the personification of that, Obama represents a taboo-breaking and fresh outlook to the international community.
His victory as the Democratic presidential candidate over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton highlighted his political astuteness and growing confidence, a campaign undoubtedly augmented by the unavoidable fact that he is a young black from a deprived background.
Dress rehearsal as next American president?
Although Obama’s foreign visit in light of the possibility of winning the election in November was always going to depict him by some circles as the visiting next U.S. president, he was very quick to play this down.
Obama is careful to bolster his election chances with an effective medium campaign, by appearing as a confident but modest U.S. senator and not in an arrogant tone as the next president. Obama emphasized that he did not have a “message” as such to Afghan or Iraqi leaders, as he was “more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking.”
The Iraq effect
There is no doubt that the Iraq War has centred heavily in the U.S. election campaign, and Obama’s objection to long-term troop presence and repeated calls for a withdrawal within 16 months has formed a central spotlight of his campaign.
Obama has capitalized on the fact that he was against the war from the outset, while his Republican presidential rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, supported the Iraqi invasion from day one and has vowed to keep troops in country as long as necessary rather than set any unrealistic benchmarks or timetables.
A firsthand analysis in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq is served to signal his desire to be seen as in touch with the realities on the ground and to foster crucial political understanding with key leaders.
Before his visit to Iraq, Obama promised to make “a thorough assessment” that could ultimately influence a “refinement” in his policy. Critics lost no time in accusing him of laying the foundation for future changes in his stance on Iraq, but in reality, with much changing in Iraq, it is hard for Obama not to adjust his viewpoint as much as it may play against him.
Meeting with Iraqi leaders
Obama arrived in the heavily fortified Green Zone as part of a congregational delegation, where he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talabini, as well as the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
Clearly, the security situation in Iraq and the prospect of troop withdrawals was a common interest. In Iraq, a swift American withdrawal is a hotly contested debate with some figures keen not to incept a premature withdrawal by the onset of a fixed timetable at a delicate stage in Iraq’s recovery and with Iraq still far from political reconciliation, while others, such as Moqtada al-Sadr, have used this to assemble significant following and influence.
Al-Maliki quickly denied claims that he supported Obama’s plan to withdraw combat troops within 16 months. However, at the time when Iraqi leaders are under intense public pressure to assume prime sovereignty, thy will press Obama for clarity on his long-term vision.
Obama has previously stated that he wants Iraq to assume responsibility for security, with the U.S. possibly leaving a residual force to help train Iraqi troops and fight al-Qaeda.
The situation on the ground in Iraq has changed a great deal since the start of the presidential race. Largely owed to the U.S. surge established in early 2007 and the onset of Sunni Awakening Councils, the security situation in Iraq has improved markedly.
Obama’s new willingness to be more flexible on the assessment of Iraq has naturally led to accusations of inconsistency by the Republicans.
The Republicans, while pointing out that the surge strategy Obama opposed has worked, have accused him of “stubbornly adhering to an unconditional withdrawal” and say he threatens to undo the hard work of the past year.
Tying the hands of the next president?
The Bush administration has been vehemently opposed to setting a firm timetable for troop withdrawals from the outset and have instead emphasized that decisions should be made based on military assessments on the ground and Iraqi attempts to foster political reconciliation.
However, Bush has been criticized in many circles for seemingly tying the hands of the next administration. With the days of his tenure in office coming to an end, he is not expected to make any major decisions on troop numbers but is likely instead to pass the baton to the next president.
The negotiations on the Status of Forces agreement, highlighting the long-term legal status of American forces in Iraq, has proved highly contentious and is unlikely to be agreed upon by the original target date at the end of July. To avoid a legal vacuum in January 2009, when the last UN mandate expires, a “transitional” pact is envisaged, leaving the hard negotiations to the next U.S. president.
An increasingly confident Iraqi government has been pressing for a more definitive timeline and a less hazy role for the U.S. in the future Iraq, forcing Bush to somewhat grudgingly accept a “time horizon” for withdrawal, a notion he has long opposed.
Despite Obama’s bold assurance of a withdrawal within months of assuming the presidency, in the short term his hands may well be tied. Any major decision that has negative consequences may well hammer his image and credential before his job has even begun. In the short term, the principle cogs assembled by the Bush administration will continue without significant change.
Obama is aware that any move to dampen the delicate foundations set in Iraq could be catastrophic. With many political stumbling blocks remaining between fractious Iraqi groups, any hasty withdrawal to fulfil election promises may set Iraq back many years.
With a more optimistic climate, Iraq is becoming less of the nail to hammer the Republicans and may yet work strongly in their favor.
Contrast with McCain
The contrast of the first-term senator from Illinois with his established Republican presidential rival McCain could not be more distinct. Obama is already becoming a well-known international name and has attracted huge media attention.
McCain, however, has the experience to derail Obama’s election bandwagon and will use any perceived flaws or missteps on Obama’s trip to full advantage. McCain’s earlier visits to Iraq and elsewhere attracted much less attention, and he could argue that Obama’s background has played as much significance as his political merits.
McCain will also point to recent opinion polls in the U.S. suggesting he has more public trust as Commander-in-Chief.
With improving prospects for Iraq, coupled with a growing crisis over the state of the U.S. economy, Iraq has increasingly taken a back stage in the U.S. public’s concern, which may take the spin off of Obama’s campaign.
Need for new focus on Afghanistan
With a resurgent Taliban creating fear in parts of Afghanistan and pushing already limited coalition forces to the breaking point, Afghanistan is under threat of becoming a forgotten war.
Obama, upon visiting Afghanistan, claimed that the country should be the new “central focus” of the fight against terrorism and pledged to reinforce troop levels by a couple of brigades, by diverting troops no longer needed in Iraq to Afghanistan. Republicans would argue, of course, that this is just an adopted Republican surge tactic and is just masking another way to ultimately keep troop levels the same and U.S. forces strained.
All in all, the perception that Obama leaves as he carries on his foreign tour may well go a long way in deciding the next U.S. president.