Page last updated at 19:21 GMT, Friday, 25 July 2008 20:21 UK

Diary: Barack Obama's world tour

The BBC's James Coomarasamy is following Barack Obama on the Democratic presidential hopeful's foreign tour.

Here, our correspondent gives his day-by-day account of the progress of the trip.


It is Friday, so it must be Paris.

That is how I feel - and it is probably how Barack Obama feels as well.

He is popping in to see President Sarkozy after taking it a bit easier this morning, following his big speech in Berlin.

A speech in English, of course.

Nothing unusual in that for a US politician, but what was unusual - and did not really strike me at the time - was that large numbers of the crowd probably understood only some or, even, little of what the senator was saying.

They were there to see the phenomenon, to catch the vibe, rather than to hear the words.

Nicholas Sarkozy (L) and Barack Obama
Mr Obama (R) is unlikely to speak French on the Paris leg of his trip

So while he used the fall of the Berlin Wall as a metaphor for bringing down barriers between races, religions and nations, even the Democratic nominee could not erase the linguistic barrier.

And that probably helps explain some of the rather lukewarm post-speech reviews, which I heard from members of the crowd.

That - and the fact that Obama was rather flatter in his delivery than usual.

He was - it seemed - playing it safe, careful to save his best lines for the audiences that count, back home.

Yet while he did not talk about bringing down linguistic barriers while here in Europe, he did recently in the United States, urging Americans to teach their children Spanish, even though it is not a talent which he possesses himself.

Unlike President Bush, of course.

Although his smattering of Spanish can be accompanied by a less-than-positive positive attitude towards fellow polyglots.

I remember, in 2002, going to a press conference of Presidents Bush and Chirac at the Elysee Palace, when an American journalist asked the French leader a brief question in the language of Moliere.

This was President Bush's comment:

"Very good. The guy memorises four words, and he plays like he's intercontinental."

Barack Obama read his words off the teleprompter last night but he is - to use the current president's phrase - playing pretty much like an intercontinental this week.

He did not try out his German - there was no JFK Ich bin ein Berliner moment - and he is unlikely, I'd wager, to take a leaf from John Kerry's playbook and speak French while he is here.

When the previous Democratic candidate did, it became something of a cause celebre in right-wing circles back home - and it did not exactly help him get elected.

So, while Senator Obama portrays himself as a global citizen - the personification of the American melting-pot - the man with the exotic name and the exotic heritage remains stubbornly monolingual.

Whichever country he is in.


There are days on trips like these when you have to follow your nose, rather than the candidate.

After an early road crossing from Jordan to Israel - thumb-twiddlingly long, but sweetened by a small glass of cardamom-flavoured coffee and a breakfast falafel at the "So Good" petrol station - it was time to consider the reality of the day ahead.

Barack Obama would be meeting Israeli and Palestinian presidents and prime ministers, visiting pertinent sites - and, no doubt, having security-related changes of schedule.

So, what to do?

The answer: do not even try to keep up with him, but - instead - canvas opinions about him.

In truth, there was not much evidence that he was in the country - no real visible signs of Obama-mania.

Barack Obama shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, 23 July, 2008
Mr Obama went to Ramallah - a place that Mr McCain has yet to visit

Apart from in the Zeit and Za'tar bakery in Ramallah.

There - next to its wood-fire oven - manager Nasser Abdulhadi told me about "the O", his culinary homage to the visiting presidential candidate.

He calls it a pastry, but the "O" is actually a sort of Palestinian pizza - a circular dough ball, stuffed with cheese, dotted with cherry tomatoes and black sesame seeds and topped with a garnish of basil and mint.

All of which, Mr Abdulhadi told me, reflected the American melting pot, symbolised by Senator "O" himself.

The white cheese represented white Americans, he explained, the red tomatoes the "Red Indians" - or native Americans - and the black seeds, what he called the "Afro-Americans".

The green? Mr Obama's environmental policies, apparently - slightly random, that bit.

But Mr Obama's visit to Ramallah certainly was not random.

It marked him out from his Republican rival, John McCain - who has yet to visit the West Bank - and went some way to addressing Palestinian concerns about his recent statement, that Jerusalem would remain the "undivided capital of Israel".

Mr Abdulhadi said that he, too, was worried by those remarks, but he had decided that the best way to change Barack Obama's mind was through engagement.

Or, at least, through pastries - call it "Change you can bite into".

And he has been making progress.

Mr Abdulhadi is one of the proud creators of the world's largest salad - a tabbouleh weighing in at 1,081kg or 2,382.2 pounds - but he seemed far more proud that the Palestinian leadership had ordered 10 "O"s for the visiting Obama delegation.

The delegation was treated to a series of high-profile meetings, which seemed more appropriate for a sitting president than an aspiring one.

No wonder John McCain is frustrated.


Barack Obama arrived, looking much like any other tourist visiting Amman's historic citadel, his jacket slung casually over his shoulder, his eyes sweeping over the ancient Roman ruins, before moving to take in the panorama of old Amman.

And then - under the watchful eye of his secret service detail - it was down to business.

Jacket on. Water swigged down. Talking points out.

He was not alone.

The senators who had been with him in Iraq and Afghanistan - Democrat Jack Reed and Republican Chuck Hagel - were the brief warm-up acts, before the Man Hoping To Be President gave his assessment of the situation there.

He spoke and took questions for about 45 minutes, justifying his continued embrace of a timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq, despite the attempts of the top US commander, General David Petraeus, to change his mind.

He had listened to the general's advice, considered it, but had taken his own decision.

Barack Obama, in Amman, Jordan, 22 July 2008
Mr Obama chose a different backdrop from Mr McCain for his press event

Even if it is not actually his to take just yet.

And may never be.

Obama attempted at one point to include Chuck Hagel in the question and answer session - but he was out of luck.

The senator - an anti-war Nebraska Republican - has been spoken of as a possible wild-card running-mate, but he clearly felt as though he had done his part.

When asked whether he wanted to chip in, he shook his head.

"It's your show" he said, reinforcing the message that Obama was trying to convey.

Earlier this year, Republican candidate John McCain had graced the very same stage.

He, too, had just arrived from a congressional trip to Iraq, when he spoke at the Amman citadel.

If you look at the photos from that March day you will see McCain against a backdrop of Roman pillars - an image which speaks of the past, of history.

The Obama team - ever keen to draw the distinction between their younger candidate and his opponent - shifted the cameras around, so that Mr Obama's first substantive appearance on the world stage was filmed against the Achrafiyeh Hills neighbourhood.

John McCain's comments in March were noted for one thing: not for the first time, he got his Sunnis and Shias mixed up.

His friend Senator Joe Lieberman had to put him straight with a whispered prompt.

No one corrected Barack Obama when he said that Israel would always be a friend of Israel.

He had meant to say the United States, of course.

It was a slip, rather than a gaffe, perhaps.

But an unfortunate one, since the Senator is viewed with suspicion in some Jewish circles.

Not that I am looking for them, but I noticed another slip as well, one that was possibly more pertinent to the day's message.

At one point, a reporter for the Fox News network, called Major Garrett, asked Obama a question.

When he replied, he simply referred to him as "Garrett".

So - one general's advice dismissed, one major's name erased.

All in a day's work for a prospective commander-in-chief.


I am not one of the boys on the bus.

I am not the boy in the bubble.

No - although I am reporting on Senator Obama's trip to the Middle East and Europe - the BBC is not among the candidate's "travelling press", the group of reporters whose last-minute appearance, in a whirlwind of half-unfolded laptops and hastily-hoisted tripods, signals the imminent arrival of the star attraction at any event.

But, then, I am in pretty good company.

An American colleague who gained one of the few coveted places, tells me that - apart from the French news agency, AFP - no other foreign reporters have made it into the inner sanctum.

Amman, Jordan, 21 July, 2008
Mr Obama travels to Amman, Jordan, after trips to Iraq and Afghanistan

To be honest, that is no great surprise.

The extra security concerns in the region, the presence of anchors from the three major US networks, the advance billing that led to far greater numbers of press requests than usual: all mitigate against satisfaction for all but the smallest number of journalists.

But there is a suspicion that there is more than space and security at issue here; that the Obama campaign sees the foreign media - with its annoying habit of going off-message - as simply too risky to have close at hand, on a trip with plenty of its own inherent risks.

The main risk being: how to make the candidate look worldly-wise and ready to lead, without appearing arrogant, to the watching American voter.

I have arrived in Amman, Jordan, where the sweltering heat does not feel that different to the one I left behind in Washington DC, awaiting the senator's arrival from his war zone sojourn in Afghanistan and Iraq.

My journey began with a warning.

Just as I was heading to my gate at Washington's National Airport, I noticed a shop featuring life-size cardboard cut-outs of Barack Obama and his Republican rival, John McCain.

Mr Obama's wore one of those familiar, languid smiles.

McCain's on the other hand, had something resembling a frown on it.

Call it a reporter's paranoia, but his gaze seemed to follow me as I snaked my way through the security line.

The Arizona Senator has been known to quote the Beach Boys, but it was an old Simple Minds song that came to mind: "Don't you forget about me."

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