Obama travels the globe, and would that I had returned to this blog in time to cover its opening phases adequately. Suffice it to say that it has been appropriately heroic.
Here’s why: Like the heroes of old, Obama has demonstrated amazing bravery in visiting the places he has. Like the heroes of old, he has done so with an appreciation of the prestige those visits earn him and the nation he seeks to lead. Like the heroes of old, he has been fearless in who he confronts.
This is not immediately evident. But a full examination of the places he visited, and how, makes it clear:
First, Afghanistan. Obama’s decision to put Afghanistan first on his list of destinations reinforces his message that Afghanistan is the top priority in the war on terror.
Even critics of Obama’s Iraq policy have to admit this by following a simple train of logic: Afghanistan – or, more specifically, the Afghan/Pakistani border – is where bin Ladin is; bin Ladin is who we went to war to get; we need to make Afghanistan our priority to achieve the clearest objective of victory.
Obama visited Afghanistan first in order to invest the prestige of his trip in his foreign policy’s military priority.
Then came Iraq. Here Obama did something that is unbelievably, jaw-droppingly bold and significant – something only Petraeus and his agents have so far had the vision and guts to do.
I don’t mean his saying he came not to criticize Maliki but to listen to him. That was artful, sincere and correct, but it only demonstrated the man’s wisdom, not his, well, audacity.
I refer to Obama’s meeting with the men who were and are the hinge for the war in Iraq: He met with the warriors who turned the operational promise of the Surge into a strategic victory for the nation. He met with the terrorists.
Specifically, he met with the Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province. These leaders are the backbone of the “Awakening” – the sudden and ruthless uprising against al-Qaeda by their former base of support, the Sunni militia community.
Few in American, and virtually none in the media, care to state the significance of this event. It is often presented as a convenient backdrop to, or even a by-product of, the Surge. But looking at the raw economy of the Iraq war, the Awakening caused a shift of dozens of casualties per month being inflicted on us by the Sunni militias into dozens of casualties being inflicted on al-Qaeda, routing the Islamic extremists.
This is a tough pill to swallow for those who see war in sepia tones or action-movie terms: The notion that our worst enemy in Iraq was persuaded by Petraeus, in many ways directly in spite of the White House, to become our best ally – that as powerful as our troops are, they could not have achieved success without the terrorists on our side.
Look at the names made famous in the Iraq war history and it becomes evident: Fallujah, a stronghold of the Sunni nationalists. Haditha, a massacre hyped by the Sunni nationalists. Juba the Sniper, most notorious killer of Americans, a member of the same militias who rose up to scatter al-Qaeda to the hinterlands of Iraq.
Obama met with them, and so demonstrated he not only has the courage to meet with the most dangerous men in Iraq, he also recognizes they represent a critical power in the nation’s fragile future. That takes vision and guts. It got no press.
Then came Jordan, and the press conference at the Temple of Hercules. And this choice of venue showed the third aspect to Obama’s command of the heroic image so crucial to great leadership – that a great leader must appear great.
We see it throughout history – Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot, Caesar standing firm and alone to halt his routing forces at Dyrrachium – and in our modern times. I can understand those critical of Obama, who see his speaking from the awesome vista of a ruined Greek temple to the mortal hero who became a God as grandstanding. But I would remind them of the spiritual value of the Reagan era – the man who, not by his policies but by his prestige, led this country to believe in its greatness again after the bleak compromises of the 70s. He did this in ways both gaudy – lighting the Statue of Liberty with a laser – and grand – yelling out demands from the Berlin Wall. And while they could be dismissed by critics as crass, these actions nevertheless suggested an awareness, an appreciation, of greatness by our leader.
The rest of Obama’s trip has continued to evoke these appreciations, these commands of heroic qualities: He went to the West Wall, visited the Holocaust memorial, visited both the Palestinian hotbed of the West Bank and the leadership of Israel. These are evocative, powerful destinations, and visiting them to talk to people displayed a combination of audacity and modesty.
Even accusations of showmanship must recognize this – that while Obama may be travelling to places perfect for photo ops, he is also going to places that are dangerous, diverse, often forgotten, and always critical to our future in the region.
His latest destination, Berlin, is a model of this.
It is, most assuredly, going to be a pep rally for him. Europeans almost universally love Obama.
In a survey of some 6,200 people in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, the senator from Illinois received 52 percent of the vote to just 15 percent for Republican Sen. John McCain.
This support is especially strong in France. 65% polled there favor him; only 8% favor McCain. The biggest support committee in Europe is in France with over 2,000 members on staff, and the papers overwhelming laud him, expressing not just preference, but genuine excitement.
“For the French establishment, Obama represents a new chapter in the Western alliance … For ethnic minorities he embodies the equality of opportunity they crave.”
Thus Obama represents not only inspiration for the hopeful among the African-Americans, but people of color the world over. In a nation like France, where 10% of the population is of African or Arab origin, that has significant appeal.
But it is in Germany that Obama has the most profound support – 67% to 6% over McCain, and papers across their political spectrum hailing him as the salvation for American foreign relations.
It is expected that hundreds of thousands of Germans will flock to see him speak at another heroic location today: The Victory Column. Obama will be capitalizing on the genuine adoration many Europeans feel for America; the desire to see it restored to an ally, rather than a solitary and sullen adversary. This will be a grand photo-op given his international support.
Most importantly to Americans, it restores a measure of grandeur to the Presidency and to the nation. It invests heroic qualities like courage, compassion and majesty to the station.
By doing these great things, Obama is not just telling the world he can be great – he is reminding it how great America is.