(AFP) – Jul 17, 2008
WASHINGTON (AFP) — Barack Obama will flash Kennedy-style charisma but face a stern test as a novice on the world stage in the Middle East and Europe next week, on a trip rich in both risk and potential rewards.
The presumptive Democratic nominee is expected to meet King Abdullah II in Jordan, tread the frontlines of the Israeli-Arab conflict in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and engage leaders of European powers Germany, France and Britain.
His audition as US commander-in-chief is also expected to take in Iraq and Afghanistan soon, though details have been withheld for security reasons.
"This is one of those things that is high risk, but he has no choice," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, noting polls that show voter disquiet over Obama's inexperience.
"If he pulls this kind of trip off, it is a huge payoff because this is his only real weakness at this point."
Obama will get a receptive audience, in Europe at least, where his prospects are feverishly followed and he boasts approval ratings that are the envy of some of his battered hosts, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for example.
His stands on combating global warming and early opposition to the Iraq war are appreciated, as is his electric rhetoric in a region thirsty for some political glitz.
But his main audience is back home. Travelling network television anchors and a press pack in search of a slip-up will shadow Obama's every step.
To dispel doubts, Obama must look at ease at the top table of global diplomacy, show he can wrestle with foreign policy minutiae and add bite to his vow to repair the US image abroad.
But a glaring policy error would spur huge media coverage, and could validate claims by his more experienced Republican rival John McCain that Obama, 46, is a risky choice in a time of war.
Obama must also prove his toughness and show he can grit it out for US interests abroad: he will likely tell his hosts to offer more troops as Afghanistan deteriorates.
Recent opinion polls suggest a successful trip could net a substantial political payoff.
A Washington Post/ABC survey this week, in common with other polls, showed Obama leading McCain by the high single digits. He was ahead on most issues, but trailed the Republican on national security credentials.
Only 48 percent of those asked said Obama would be a good commander-in-chief, while 72 percent said the same about McCain.
If Obama could cut that gap, he could establish himself as a firm favorite, as he is also favored on the other top issue, the battered US economy.
Sensing the stakes, both campaigns have duelled furiously over foreign policy all week, with McCain savaging Obama's new plans to divert firepower from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Obama's itinerary has not been released, but details have leaked out from capitals on his route.
He is expected to meet King Abdullah in Amman on Monday and will next head to Jerusalem for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Senior Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erakat has said Obama will visit Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank on July 23.
Again, Obama's audience will be as much at home as in Israel as he aims signals to American Jewish voters he has yet to win over.
His last bid to make the sale, in June, backfired, when he declared Jerusalem must remain the "undivided" capital of Israel.
That seemed to pre-judge final status peace talks, and allowed Republicans to claim Obama was wobbly on diplomatic tightropes.
Obama will begin his visit to Europe in Berlin, a city rebuilt with American money after World War II, with its very unity a living symbol of shared US and European endeavor in the Cold War.
His visit will draw comparisons to the fabled visit to Berlin in 1963 of president John F. Kennedy, to whom Obama is often compared by supporters who see him also as a leader at the intersection of hope and history.
The Berlin visit has already been controversial, after Obama's team apparently looked into the possibility of speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, backdrop to another famous presidential visit, Ronald Reagan's in 1987.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly balked at a US campaign rally being staged at such a potent national symbol as being inappropriate.
Obama is expected to make a short trip to Paris on July 25, for talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and will wrap up his swing by meeting Britain's Brown.
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