US election diary: The right notes

Obama’s global tour has been viewed favourably, but did it offer anything new?

About 200,000 people are thought to have attended Obama’s Berlin speech [AFP]

Barack Obama’s foreign foray has, thus far, been a smashing success.

On a bright, sunny Thursday in Berlin, an enormous crowd gathered in the city’s Tiergarten park to hear the charismatic Democrat give one of his trademark orations.

Obama hit all the right notes. He did not try to ape JFK by trotting out any memorised German phrases, but he did riff on Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” quote by citing the “new walls” that divide peoples and nations.

“The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand,” Obama declared.

“The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand.  The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand.

“These now are the walls we must tear down.”

The crowd of mostly young Europeans went wild. In fact, one of the striking things about this trip is the almost palpable sense of yearning among many people abroad for a new, more friendly, less overbearing America, as embodied (for many) by Obama.

The weariness abroad with the swaggering, arrogant Texas cowboy style of President George Bush and his confrontational, go-it-alone policies – including controversy over torture and indifference to the global climate crisis – have been well-documented.

But I sense a great craving among Europeans for a re-emergence of the co-operative and consultative America they once felt a partnership with, just like the America that engineered the Berlin airlift 60 years ago.

The ‘tough’ side

However there were no cheering throngs for the Democratic senator in Ramallah in the West Bank, where he met for less than an hour with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and other Palestinian officials.

Obama held only a brief meeting
with Palestinian leaders [AFP]

Obama’s mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories served two main political purposes: To shore up his support among American Jewish voters, where he remains politically weak, and to show a “tough” foreign policy side for those Americans who have doubts about his ability to make hard decisions as commander-in-chief.

Many Jewish Democrats preferred Obama’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, in the Democratic nominating contest, and some have lingering doubts as to Obama’s commitment to Israel.

More significantly, a poll conducted this month shows 72 per cent of Americans say McCain would be a good commander-in-chief of the military – but only 48 per cent say the same about Obama.

Nothing new?

Obama’s rhetoric about Israel and the Palestinians was sure to disappoint those who were hoping for a new approach to the core problem of the Middle East.

He pledged total and unswerving partiality toward Israel, which he described as “a miracle that has blossomed”.

“I’m here on this trip to reaffirm the special relationship between Israel and the United States and my abiding commitment to Israel’s security”

Barack Obama, US Democratic presidential candidate

“I’m here on this trip to reaffirm the special relationship between Israel and the United States and my abiding commitment to Israel’s security,” Obama said.

He promised to vigorously promote peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, saying he would not wait until near the end of his second term in the White House, as Bush did, to get engaged.

But aside from that pledge, his policies are essentially the same as those of Bush.

Obama brought nothing new to the table and in fact goes further than Bush in siding with Israel on some issues, such as the future of Jerusalem.

Obama also visited the Israeli town of Sderot and was shown a display of missiles fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip that have fallen in or around the town.

He declared his empathy for Sderot residents, saying if someone was firing missiles on his home or his children he would do everything he could to stop them, too.

Downplaying hopes

But in Gaza, Reuters interviewed Sami abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, who said: “Obama’s choice to visit to the city of Sderot and declaring statements against our Palestinian people, Hamas and the resistance forces … mean that there is no minimal hope to any change in the US foreign policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

In focus

In-depth coverage of US presidential election

Obama himself seemed to downplay the chances of any bold new steps toward Middle East peace if he were to become president.

“It’s unrealistic to expect that a US president alone can suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace in this region,” he said.

Well, at least Obama made the effort to go to Ramallah. When McCain visited the region earlier this year, he did not even bother, instead meeting with Palestinian officials in Jerusalem.

Earlier, Obama’s trip to Afghanistan and Iraq went just as well as he and his campaign could possibly have wanted it to.

The candidate made no embarrassing gaffes, was not photographed in a goofy-looking helmet, a la Michael Dukakis, and got a huge political boost when Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, essentially endorsed his plan to pull US troops out of the country in 16 months or so.

His effort to later backpedal, claiming a faulty translation, seemed highly unconvincing.

McCain ‘overreaches’

Obama even got a boost from Bush, who reversed years of resistance to even hinting at a timetable for troop withdrawal but now talks about a “general time horizon” for bringing the troops home.

McCain’s comments on Obama’s trip
were seen as ill-mannered [AFP]

That left John McCain essentially arguing in favour of keeping troops in Iraq longer than the Iraqis or Bush want them to stay – an untenable position. 

McCain is saying American troops have to stay in order to secure “victory” and “honour”; Obama is essentially saying the – war is over, let’s go home.

McCain also says Obama is wrong for not supporting the “surge” and not agreeing with McCain that it brought increased security to Iraq.

But the larger question is whether supporting the war in the first place was the right decision and, on that, the vast majority of Americans agree with Obama, who opposed the misbegotten military adventure from the beginning.

McCain overreached again, saying: “Apparently Senator Obama, who does not understand what’s happening in Iraq or fails to acknowledge the success in Iraq, would rather lose a war than lose a campaign.”

That is a direct attack on Obama’s character, morality, patriotism and loyalty – a real step down into the gutter of demagoguery for the “straight talk express”. 

Time magazine columnist Joe Klein commented, “I can’t remember a more scurrilous statement by a major party candidate”; MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow called it a “jaw-dropper”.

Dirty tricks

Previous entries

Part 1: Obama factor
Part 2: It’s personal
Part 3: Overload
Part 4: A nasty week
Part 5: A week of war
Part 6: War and lies
Part 7: On the right
Part 8: Race card
Part 9: Bear baiting?
Part 10: No end in sight?
Part 11: Forced to wait
Part 12: Under par
Part 13: Tough choices
Part 14: Cashing in
Part 15: Making history

Part 16: Albatross
Part 17: Dog days

So much media attention was focused on Obama that McCain operatives resorted to dirty tricks in order to get a little attention for their man.

According to newspaper columnist Robert Novak, highly-place McCain aides told him that McCain’s vice-presidential pick would be announced on Tuesday.

That proved to be false, and Novak says it was an attempt to rain on Obama’s Middle Eastern parade even as he was in Amman hobnobbing with the King of Jordan. 

With all that has gone right for Obama and all that has gone badly for McCain, the race is still surprisingly tight.

The latest NBCNews-Wall Street Journal poll puts Obama ahead of McCain by just 6 percentage points – 47 per cent to 41 per cent.

Closing the deal

Make no mistake – this will be a close election, and John McCain still has a good chance of winning. 

The polling data suggests many voters, even those inclined toward the Democrats, still do not feel “comfortable” with the idea of Obama as president.

Why? Part of it has to do with race – 10 per cent of Americans polled say race is an “important factor” in their choice.

And Obama both benefits and suffers from being a relative unknown – older voters, especially, say they prefer McCain because he is a familiar face.

Finally, there is still a lot of misinformation about Obama and his background out there among voters – for example, eight per cent still believe he is a Muslim (he is not).

Obama still has to “close the deal” with voters. American voters, that is.

Source: Al Jazeera

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