HNN, July 23, 2003
Historians are trained to bristle at the term “unprecedented.” We watch journalists hyperventilate and hype stories as we acknowledge we have seen it all before with a world-weary sigh. But Barack Obama’s whirlwind world tour is certainly un… usual. True, senators travel all the time, jetting around the world with more zeal than Phineas Fogg or the Harlem Globetrotters. (Memo to the under-thirty crowd, for Phineas Fogg check out “Around the World in Eighty Days,” for Harlem Globetrotters check out any old geezer who grew up in the Seventies). True, John McCain himself has visited Iraq and just last month made a foreign policy speech in Ottawa, the capital of that country to the north of the United States. But to appreciate the um, out-of-the-box nature of Obama’s trip, consider his trip in broader historical perspective – and check out the amazing coverage he received.
Thinking historically, let us remember that it was not until the twentieth century that a president in office actually traveled abroad. In 1906 Theodore Roosevelt visited Central America to supervise the construction of the Panama Canal. In December, 1918, when Woodrow Wilson traveled to Paris for World War I peace negotiations, he stayed abroad for all but ten days of the next six months, returning to Washington in July 1919. More recently, it would have been inconceivable during the 1944 election, at the height of World War II, for the Republican nominee Thomas E. Dewey to drop by Winston Churchill or Josef Stalin for a quick chat while campaigning against Franklin D. Roosevelt. And in October, 1952, Dwight Eisenhower generated coast-to-coast headlines with a simple, dramatic, promise of an intention to travel, proclaiming, “I shall go to Korea.”
The Eisenhower pledge is worth remembering because, like Barack Obama’s Middle East and European tour, it was all about stagecraft more than statesmanship. When the great hero of World War II promised to go to Korea, he was playing to Americans’ hopes that his presence would magically solve the Far Eastern mess. In this case, the alchemy is supposed to have a reverse flow: Democrats are hoping that by not making a mess of it, the drama of overseas travel will burnish Barack Obama’s foreign policy credentials – and boost his standing as a leader.
Midway through the trip, the magic seems to be working. Most important of all, Obama has avoided a major gaffe. But beyond the avoidance of the negative, the level of coverage has been iconic, not just presidential. Even before delivery, his Berlin speech was being compared with John Kennedy’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall” – two of the most influential presidential addresses in history. The three-network-news anchor honor guard accompanying Obama guaranteed Pope-level coverage. This trip has proved once again that not only is Obama’s candidacy the most exciting political story of the decade, but that the election remains all-Obama-all-the-time; this election is Obama’s to win or lose.
There are two, contradictory, lessons one hopes Obama will draw from his excellent adventures. His foreign policy needs more nuance and more passion. The simplistic sloganeering the campaign trail demands simply does not fit the Middle Eastern realities. Only a fanatic could visit Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel without realizing just how messy and multi-dimensional each conflict is. Seeing each of those situations should be humbling for a potential president, reminding him of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to John Kennedy that the easy decisions are made outside the Oval Office, only the impossible problems end up on the president’s desk.
At the same time, Obama risks being too cool, too detached, especially on core issues such as the fight against terrorism. He says the right thing, as he did after the heinous bulldozer attack in central Jerusalem, just blocks from his hotel; but many listeners are never sure how deeply he cares about the issue. This latest Palestinian terror attack, executed by an East Jerusalem resident with Israeli papers, may give Barack Obama what we could term his John Kennedy-Joschka Fischer wake-up call. John Kennedy only realized the depths of poverty in America when he visited Appalachia during the 1960 West Virginia primary. Joschka Fischer was the German foreign minister who was visiting Israel in June 2002, when a suicide bomber murdered 21 young Israeli revelers outside the Dolphinarium disco. Fischer also had teenager children and had recently jogged right in front of that site. He subsequently referred to that moment as “ the terrible terror attack on the kids in the Dolphinarium” and was much more passionate in denouncing Palestinian terrorism.
Both Kennedy and Fischer were intellectuals in politics. Each was “cool,” and not afraid of nuance, but also not afraid of passion. Obama could do well by emulating both – and showing that, in the wake of what he has learned and experienced, he will be a muscular moderate as leader, rooted in principles, angry when core values are assailed, but nimble and adaptable to the changing conditions of a chaotic world.