Barack Obama's unfolding foreign trip has been a public relations bonanza for him so far.
He has demonstrated steadiness and composure, and, most surprising, gotten the better of GOP candidate John McCain and the Republicans back home, at least temporarily, on the sensitive issue of what to do next in Iraq.
The biggest news of Obama's journey has been the endorsement by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of a timeframe for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq that closely resembles what Obama has been proposing. Their terminology is different, but what it amounts to is this: Both Obama and Maliki support withdrawal of U.S. combat forces according to similar schedules—by the end of 2010, in Maliki's formulation, or within 16 months of Obama taking office, in the Democratic candidate's formulation.
In other words, they are talking about essentially the same timeframe, give or take a few months. After Obama met with Maliki in Baghdad Monday, all of this was reconfirmed by an Iraqi government spokesman.
Such agreement enhances Obama's credibility as a serious potential commander in chief, and this has unsettled McCain and President Bush.
At the White House, the consternation is palpable. "We don't think that talking about specific negotiating tactics or your negotiating position in the press is the best way to negotiate a deal," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "However, we understand that they're a sovereign country and they'll be able to do that. We're just not going to do it on our end."
For many months, both Bush and McCain have opposed a withdrawal timetable of any kind, but last Friday, as Obama's trip was beginning, White House officials said the president was willing to accept a "time horizon" for drawdowns, which sounds very similar to a timetable, although the language is more fuzzy. All this could isolate McCain, who still opposes a timetable.
Obama still has substantial vulnerabilities on Iraq as a campaign issue. From the start, he has strongly opposed President Bush's "surge" of U.S. troops into the war zone. But now, it seems clear that the surge has helped to quell much of the violence in Iraq over the past several months—results that Obama said would never materialize.
McCain told reporters Monday that if Obama's view had prevailed and the surge had never been launched, Iraq would be near chaos, withdrawals would be impossible, and there would be "greater problems in Afghanistan." (McCain, however, didn't help himself when, during a television interview this week, he made reference to problems along "the Iraq/Pakistan border." Those two countries do not share a border, and it appeared McCain had meant to refer to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.)
Obama had another objective on his trip—to get attention for his view that the Iraq war is diverting needed troops and money from the more important conflict in Afghanistan, where allied forces have been suffering setbacks in recent months. He has made that case, but the Maliki embrace has crowded it out of the news coverage.
So far, however, Obama has avoided any gaffe that would damage perceptions that he could be an effective commander in chief. His most effective bit of stagecraft has been to surround himself at every opportunity with delighted soldiers in uniform, a gambit designed to reassure voters that he is popular with the troops—and his news coverage has been very positive.
Obama's eight-country tour is at its midpoint. He has visited Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq so far, and is scheduled to make other stops in Jordan, Israel, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.