Barack Obama’s campaign trip abroad was thought to be an effort to show him operating freely on the world stage. Instead, it has been a carefully managed exercise, designed to expose Obama to no contrary or potentially embarrassing viewpoints, and most of all, to shield him against the possibility that the media might capture a gaffe.
Obama had a rocky week before his overseas trip. He settled on a unique approach to national security: shoot first and ask questions later. Before his major overseas adventure he set his views in stone with a New York Times op-ed and a major policy address.
Having boxed himself into a position designed to appeal to his netroot supporters — adhere to a 16-month timetable for withdrawal and continue to deny the relevancy of Iraq to the broader war on terror — he encountered opposition before he even landed in Kuwait.
General Petraeus did not mince words in an interview with Andrea Mitchell. The message was clear: there could be no fixed withdrawal schedule.
John McCain was making the most of the growing sense that Obama had stumbled by locking in his position before a trip. He released two hard-hitting ads. Then in his weekly radio address McCain declared:
My opponent, Senator Obama, announced his strategy for Afghanistan and Iraq before departing on a fact-finding mission that will include visits to both those countries. Apparently, he’s confident enough that he won’t find any facts that might change his opinion or alter his strategy. Remarkable.
This is similar to the mistake Senator Obama made when he confidently declared that the surge in Iraq could not possibly reduce sectarian violence there, and might well increase violence. He was so certain the surge would fail that he called for our troops to retreat as quickly as possible. Senator Obama’s previous statements against the surge have been hastily removed from his campaign website, in the audacious hope that no one would notice. But we all remember quite well that he said the surge would fail, and today we know that he was wrong.
Mainstream media pundits had already taken Obama to task for his disinclination to shape policy based on conditions on the ground. (And Obama’s surrogates like Bill Richardson seemed only to highlight Obama’s closed-mindedness by confirming that Obama wasn’t much interested in picking up any new information.)
AFGHANISTAN — THE SHELTERED TRAVELER
The weekend was taken up by Obama’s surrogates wrestling with McCain’s team over the meaning and exact wording of Prime Minister Maliki’s comments on the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Depending on the translation Maliki either supported the 16-month time frame or didn’t. It was either a lifeline for Obama or “inartful” wording as McCain’s foreign policy advisor described it.
To McCain’s credit, he kept nipping at Obama’s heels, reminding voters at every turn that it was his sponsorship of the surge which had saved the day and Obama’s opposition which would have sunk it.
And Obama? We saw some photos and were told about some meetings, but he was never exposed to the glare of media. He neatly steered clear of really engaging anyone who could upset his choreographed routine — foreign press or leader — in public. He appeared only after a meeting held far from cameras with President Karzai and declined to give a presser. He met with troops, but we don’t know if they or their leaders imparted any information which might impact his assessment of the political and military situation.
To say the trip was “stage managed,” as one liberal blogger let on, would be a gross understatement. For all intents and purposes Obama was play-acting the role of a traveling statesman, eating meals and smiling but doing and saying nothing of consequence with what veteran network correspondent Mitchell described on Hardball as an unprecedented level of press restriction and manipulation.
He didn’t have reporters with him, he didn’t have a press pool, he didn’t do a press conference while he was on the ground in either Afghanistan or Iraq. What you’re seeing is not reporters brought in. You’re seeing selected pictures taken by the military, questions by the military, and what some would call fake interviews, because they’re not interviews from a journalist. So, there’s a real press issue here. Politically it’s smart as can be. But we’ve not seen a presidential candidate do this, in my recollection, ever before.
He did manage to slip in a real interview for Face the Nation. But even in an interview so gentle as to give “softball” a bad name, he managed a couple of cringe-inducing moments, suggesting he might be president for eight or ten years, and ending with some braggadocio that he “never” had doubts about himself.
Obama arrived the day after McCain surrogates spread out on the Sunday shows to make their case. Senator Joe Lieberman argued that McCain had been the one to turn around our policy, that Obama’s trip would not have been possible without the surge, and that chaos would have reigned had we followed Obama’s policy of defeat and retreat. (Lieberman explained, “You can’t choose to lose in Iraq and win Afghanistan.”) McCain kept up the drumbeat of criticism himself on the morning shows.
Obama spent a day in Iraq and did meet, finally, with General Petraeus and with Prime Minister Maliki. Once again, however, there were no cameras present, no observers likely to divulge if Petraeus counseled him in private to give up his notion of a fixed timetable, and no way of knowing if Maliki expressed pique that Obama has repeatedly declined to recognize his remarkable political progress in creating a sovereign, truly national government.
Obama managed to navigate throughout Iraq unmolested by the press. He was able to get by with only the briefest description (“constructive”) of his meeting with Maliki. (Later it was revealed that Obama didn’t actually bring up his fixed timetable withdrawal plan.) Meanwhile, McCain pounded him from the homefront, declaring his judgment “universally wrong” and labeling his adherence to a fixed timetable in the face of expert advice from Petraeus as “stubborn.”
But, before departing for Israel, Obama finally let the mask of reason slip. In an eye-popping interview with ABC’s Terry Moran Obama he declared that he still would have opposed the surge, even knowing what he knows now. Moreover, in brash terms he confided that General Petraues took strong exception to his fixed timetable schedule, but that Obama didn’t much mind. And Obama wasn’t going to be pinned down between a choice between fixed and unfixed timetables for withdrawal. Uh huh.
So for those who thought Obama was persuadable by reason and by evidence, or that he might be more influenced by a near-victorious U.S. commander than his netroot base, it was a sobering performance.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
In the first half of Obama’s trip we learned that Obama is desperate to get Iraqi leaders to agree with a fixed timetable, but doesn’t think Iraq was worth saving or that America’s defeat was worth avoiding. We saw that Obama loves photos and cameras, but just not when they might capture a tense or unplanned interaction with foreign leaders. And we learned he thinks General Petraeus’ advice that a pre-fixed schedule for withdrawal can be ignored.
He did accumulate lots of nice pictures and plenty of fawning U.S. media. And that was really the point of the whole venture, to create the aura — but not the reality — of competence and resolve.
Unfortunately, by refusing to concede what is now obvious — the surge saved America and Iraq from chaos and defeat — Obama may have only created more questions than he answered.