Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Obama Sets the Agenda on Foreign Policy

As I was watching the Tour de France, the perfect metaphor came to me for what Barack Obama is doing with his trip abroad this week. Just as Lance Armstrong was the patron, the boss, who set the agenda for the peleton (pack of riders), Obama is setting the agenda for the debate over America's place in the world.
The Tour's patron does more than win races; he has to dominate the proceedings. It helps to be fast, to be a strong climber and have a strong team, but a rider can wear the yellow jersey and still not qualify as the peleton's patron. The mark of the patron is setting the agenda. The patron determines the pace of the peleton, and decides who is allowed to break away and who isn't. The art of the patron is one of muscular diplomacy: Riders on other teams know they have to consider his point of view when they map out their own tactics.
Many observers considered Obama as the political equivalent of a sleek time trialist; he performs well in front of a crowd, but could he handle the rarefied air of foreign affairs? In cycling terms, Obama needed to survive the mountains without losing ground to McCain in order for his trip to succeed. Instead, he has dominated.
Consider the events of the last week:
Obama's contention that we need to shift attention and forces from Iraq to Afghanistan has become conventional wisdom.
After criticizing Obama for discussing diplomacy with Iran, the Bush administration sent the highest level diplomat the country has seen in 28 years to a meeting on its nuclear program.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came out clearly for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from his country. Even George Bush has suggested a "horizon" for withdrawal from Iraq.
Obama seems to be answering the question of whether he can be effective on the world stage.
Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post
says he can:
Obama's Strategic Vision
Maybe the symbolism of Barack Obama giving a major speech this week at Berlin's Victory Column -- a 19th-century monument to Prussia's military triumphs -- isn't as incongruous at it might seem. After all, it was Frederick the Great -- the 18th-century Prussian monarch who transformed his kingdom into the dominant German state -- who once advised his generals, "He who would defend everything ends up defending nothing."
You can't deploy everywhere in strength, Frederick was saying, and that's a lesson Obama seems to understand a lot better than John McCain does.
As the New York Times reports, McCain is being reduced to ill-tempered backbiting:
Senator John McCain and his campaign sharply stepped up criticism of Senator Barack Obama on Tuesday as a craven and naïve traveler to the Middle East who, as Mr. McCain put it at a raucous town-hall-style meeting here, "would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign."
It's hard to picture Obama as naïve when world leaders are aligning themselves with his strategic vision. In contrast, John McCain's approach seems to be to bull your way through, much as our current president has done.
The image of Barack Obama on the world stage is appealing to those who have seen U.S. influence in the world decline over the last eight years. I don't know if Obama's trip will lead to a quick bump in the polls, but it will make it easier for undecided voters to conclude that the guy can shape events and restore America's leadership in the world.
Photo: Department of Defense

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