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Why So Nervous?

It is not just that Barack Obama is incapable of planning an overseas trip without creating hurt feelings among those whom he is going to convince to adore us. It is what follows once he arrives that may be really scary. This devastating account of the Barack Obama summer abroad plans gives some insight into the dilemma: how to avoid a gaffe in unscripted moments on the international stage. Solution: Don’t have any. An unnamed official lets us in on this morsel:

“Look for carefully scripted statements and comments,” says a senior Democratic insider. “I doubt he will be drawn into detailed discussions of sensitive topics with the media.”

But more shocking is this:

One big challenge for Obama will be how to handle his expected discussions with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq during the troop surge that has helped lessen violence in the country. (Petraeus is widely considered the architect of the surge policy.) What Obama advisers want to avoid is a situation where Petraeus undermines the presumptive Democratic candidate’s stated policy—such as by saying a phased withdrawal would jeopardize the hard-won gains of U.S. troops, ignore their sacrifices, and put the future of Iraq at risk. “That would reverberate around the country in a negative way,” says the Democratic insider.

Yeah, we can’t have the commander of forces telling Obama something that’s contrary to his pre-set misinformed views, can we? I can’t recall another situation in which a campaign approached its candidate’s contact with the real world with such trepidation. (Dan Senor has some excellent suggestions for the itinerary in Iraq which of course would violate the trip’s cardinal rule: do not encounter reality.) It is rather amusing that the man who says we should be more internationalist in outlook and speak other languages is the picture of the ugly American tourist, someone who doesn’t really want any authentic contact with the countries he is visiting.

But of course the trip can’t be held under laboratory conditions. Here is a startlingly candid take from the New York Times. What do Iraqis think of Obama’s withdrawal plan in Iraq?

“Very difficult,” he [an Iraqi general] said, shaking his head. “Any army would love to work without any help, but let me be honest: for now, we don’t have that ability.” Thus in a few brisk sentences, the general summed up the conflicting emotions about Mr. Obama in Iraq, the place outside America with perhaps the most riding on its relationship with him.There was, as Mr. Obama prepared to visit here, excitement over a man who is the anti-Bush in almost every way: a Democrat who opposed a war that many Iraqis feel devastated their nation. And many in the political elite recognize that Mr. Obama shares their hope for a more rapid withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. But his support for troop withdrawal cuts both ways, reflecting a deep internal quandary in Iraq: for many middle-class Iraqis, affection for Mr. Obama is tempered by worry that his proposal could lead to chaos in a nation already devastated by war. Many Iraqis also acknowledge that security gains in recent months were achieved partly by the buildup of American troops, which Mr. Obama opposed and his presumptive Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, supported.

I suppose you can’t please all of the countries all of the time.

And what happens if Obama gets to be President? Will his entire presidency need to be reduced to a detailed script complete with stage directions? (“Shake but don’t kiss leader of X. Keep all discussion limited to the weather and everyone’s health.”) And then there is the tricky part about how to get the military to conceal information and not embarrass the commander-in-chief.

If the blogger fan club is going to insist that the Obama campaign be used as a proxy for an Obama presidency (look how stress-free they are!), it is only fair to examine this trip for clues about his preparedness and skill-level as well. Forget about the 3 a.m. phone call — can he handle a lunch at noon or a 7 p.m. dinner meeting? What if a man on the street in Baghdad wants to plead with him to keep American forces there? The mind reels.


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