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A trip full of opportunity and risk

Overseas, Obama could improve his image or validate GOP-fostered doubt.

July 19, 2008|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

On his trip to the Middle East and Europe, Barack Obama hopes to reassure Americans that he has the foreign-policy expertise to keep the nation safe. Images beamed back from Jerusalem, Berlin and other cities next week will show him meeting heads of state with all the formal trappings of summitry.

If the all-but-certain Democratic nominee avoids mistakes, the intense news coverage -- three network anchors will accompany him -- could ease voter doubts.

Republican rival John McCain will be trying to reinforce those doubts as Obama makes his way from Jordan and Israel to Germany, France and Britain. Obama also plans to visit Iraq and Afghanistan soon but has kept the timing secret for security reasons.

Obama's itinerary will require deft navigation of foreign conflicts, a skill that at times has eluded the 46-year-old senator from Illinois. And the slightest stumble could solidify McCain's standing as the candidate voters see as more seasoned in world affairs.

Obama will meet with King Abdullah II of Jordan; the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, and prime minister, Ehud Olmert; and the Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, and prime minister, Salam Fayyad. In Europe, Obama will confer with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

On Obama's agenda: nuclear threats, terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan and climate change. "These are issues of vital importance to all concerned," said Susan E. Rice, Obama's senior national security advisor.

Obama will also move to build ties with those out of power. In Britain, he will see David Cameron, the opposition Conservative Party leader; in Israel, he'll see former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud Party.

Obama's advisors have played down the trip's potential effect on the campaign. They describe the trip as a substantive exchange of ideas with foreign leaders, not a string of events designed to fill a gap in Obama's public profile.

"We really don't view it that way," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. "Over the course of the campaign, voters have increasingly become comfortable with the notion of Barack Obama as president and commander in chief."

But a recent Washington Post/ABC News survey found that 72% of voters saw McCain as knowledgeable enough about world affairs to be a good president, compared with 56% who had that view of Obama.

A former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain, 71, has traveled extensively during his 26 years in Congress. He has made eight trips to Iraq and four to Afghanistan. In that light, Obama's journey looks like "a smart move," said Ron Kaufman, a Republican strategist. "The biggest problem would be if he didn't do it."

In planning the trip, Obama spoke with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and his staff has been working out details with U.S. embassies in the countries he will visit. Advisors signaled Friday that Obama would take pains not to overstep his role as a candidate.

"There's one president of the United States at any given time, and we will certainly honor and respect that," said Susan Rice, Obama's advisor.

In addition to Susan Rice, advisors traveling with Obama will include Anthony Lake, who was national security advisor under President Clinton; Dennis Ross, a former U.S. envoy in Middle East peace talks; and Richard J. Danzig, Navy secretary under Clinton.

It is common for candidates, especially those with scant Washington experience, to travel overseas to enhance their national-security credentials -- but not this late in a campaign.

In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton faced a similar situation. Then governor of Arkansas, he was challenging an incumbent steeped in foreign affairs: The first President Bush, fresh from his Persian Gulf War victory, was a former vice president, U.N. ambassador, CIA director and World War II combat pilot. But in the end, said Paul Begala, a Clinton strategist, voters concluded: "He's less experienced than Bush, but he's experienced enough for me."

This week, Obama started running TV ads that trumpet his support of a law to "lock down loose nuclear weapons" and his pledge to fight "cyber-attacks." He also gave speeches on national security, stressing his call for a shift of U.S. military resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Obama has at times faltered in trying to prove himself. For a year, he has faced trouble for saying in a debate that he would meet without preconditions with leaders of Iran and other nations hostile to the U.S. His then-rival for the Democratic nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, used the remark to suggest that he would make an unseasoned statesman, an attack McCain has echoed.

And this week, Obama called it "poor phrasing" when he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last month that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." Palestinian leaders were furious at the comment; he backpedaled the next day.

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