Campaign Turning Point?
Many, many things can and will happen to affect the dynamics of the race between now and the election. But if Democratic candidate Barack Obama ends up victorious, it's possible that we'll look back to these couple of weeks in July as the turning point -- a time when Obama was able to neutralize foreign policy and his lack of hands-on experience as an issue. While his trip abroad is already being heralded as a success by some, what's helped him the most is a shift in administration tactics and external events.
The administration took several steps in recent days that helped make Obama look like a pragmatic, centrist foreign policy maven instead of the naif that GOP candidate John McCain and other Republicans are seeking to portray him as. By joining U.S. allies in talking with Iran about its nuclear program (and having talked with North Korea and reached a deal on its program), by agreeing on a broad timetable with Iraq on withdrawing American troops and by acknowledging that more troops are needed in Afghanistan, Bush has inadvertently helped make Obama's views seem more mainstream.
And that leaves McCain, who has embraced most of Bush's earlier policies on issues overseas, out on a limb. It will be far tougher for him and the GOP to characterize Obama's longtime support for talking with Iran and of setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq as the risky moves of an inexperienced peacenik. The Iranian talks haven't produced any change in Tehran's position, of course, but that doesn't really matter. By joining France, Russia, China, Germany and Britain in direct talks to get Iran to stop enriching uranium, the administration has signaled the importance talks might have. And the administration's talk of needing to move more troops into a shaky Afghanistan while it and Iraq discuss a timetable for withdrawal of troops doesn't just make Obama's call for a timetable look more in the foreign policy mainstream. It also appears to shore up his position that focusing so much time, blood and treasure on Iraq has put Afghanistan at risk of once again becoming an ungovernable state and home to terrorists.
None of this is really about whether Obama is right or wrong on any of these given foreign policy positions. It's about how Obama is perceived. And the image emerging now, especially in contrast to the past policies of Bush and current view of McCain, is of an Obama who is a cautious pragmatist and foreign policy realist who understands the limits of American influence and power. That puts him much closer to the center of the foreign policy establishment. In fact, one relatively clear-eyed foreign policy commentator, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, wrote a column in the Washington Post today arguing that it is McCain who has the more "fanciful" approach to foreign policy.
If Obama can make that perception stick, he essentially neutralizes foreign policy and his experience as an issue. And if there are no huge changes in the global picture, that means taking away McCain's biggest weapon and moving the presidential campaign on to the Democratic-friendly terrain of the weakened economy and other domestic issues.