Page last updated at 07:46 GMT, Saturday, 19 July 2008 08:46 UK

Pitfalls for Obama on world tour

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

For the past two months, the Republican National Committee's website has featured a ticker, counting the days since Barack Obama last visited Iraq. It is past 900 and rising.

Barack Obama
Mr Obama's trip will be subjected to intense media scrutiny

Soon, that number will be reset to zero, when the Democratic Party's presidential nominee addresses what many see as his Achilles heel: his foreign policy credentials.

A recent Washington Post/ABC poll suggests that 72% of Americans think his Republican rival, John McCain, would be a good commander-in-chief.

Less than half say that about Obama.

Of course, the Illinois Senator is addressing this weakness in the fevered atmosphere of an election campaign.

His trip to the Middle East and Europe, which began on Saturday with a visit to Afghanistan, must be seen in this context.

Perceived changes in policy will be highlighted, but, in many ways, this is more about the impression he leaves, the perceived gaffes he makes and the photo opportunities he collects.

All will be used for campaign purposes - by both sides.

Pressing problems

The upsides of the trip are clear.

Obama will see - at close range - some of the most pressing international problems facing the next US President, whoever it may be.

If he plays his cards right, he will appear statesmanlike, well-briefed - presidential.

He will be able to sprinkle future campaign speeches with references to leaders and citizens whom he met.

The downsides are apparent, too.

Angela Merkel may have done him a favour by apparently blocking his alleged plans for a speech at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate

On the European leg of his trip, Obama is likely to be greeted by large, curious and excited crowds.

Obamamania will go global.

Yet, while such images may help bolster the sense that he is best-placed to improve America's image in the world, they could also create the impression of an arrogant candidate, who has crossed the line between appearing ready to lead and acting as though he is already in charge.

So, the German leader, Angela Merkel, may have done him a favour by apparently blocking his alleged plans for a speech at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

Would such an event - with its echoes of Ronald Reagan's famous address at the same venue - go down well with most American voters or appear a rhetorical gesture too far?

It could go either way.

Body language

Although for security reasons it has not yet been confirmed when the senator will be making a stop-off in Iraq, it is probably his most eagerly-awaited visit.

In recent days, Senator Obama has restated his intention to pull US combat troops out of the country within 16 months of taking office.


Why Barack Obama's tour could be decisive

He has, at the same time, retained the option of leaving behind ill-defined "supporting" forces.

He has also talked about "refining" his views, after meeting commanders on the ground; a choice of verb, which provoked Republican accusations of inconsistency.

So, when he sees those military leaders, he will have to show that he understands their concerns and goals and - perhaps - convince them that his vision would not bind them to unrealistic timetables, which could undermine Iraq's recent, hard-won security gains.

Expect the body language from that meeting to be analysed even more than the words.

Words matter, though - as Senator Obama often says - and he is likely to be quizzed on his choice of them when he enters the difficult realm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last month, in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he said:

"Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided."

That controversial reference to an undivided Jerusalem (which Obama has since conceded was "poor phrasing") drew criticism from the Palestinians and makes his visit to the Middle East even more sensitive than it was.

Republicans, after all, had previously been labelling him the "candidate of Hamas" - after a member of that militant organisation said positive things about him.

But - despite the potential pitfalls - most analysts agree that Barack Obama had to make this trip.

With his major speeches on race and religion he has shown a tendency to directly address perceived weaknesses.

That is what he appears to be doing again.

Speeches are much easier to control, though, than week-long trips across the world.

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