Obama's foreign trip designed to highlight new approach

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama will spend next week touring the Middle East and Western Europe, a trip that's galvanized much of the world's attention because of his charisma, race and family background and the 180-degree shift he's promising from the Bush administration's foreign policy.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee will meet with top leaders of five nations considered key allies of the United States — Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and England — as well as with Palestinian leaders.

Obama foreign-policy advisers said Friday that the central goals of the trip were to exchange views with those leaders; look for ways to enhance cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation, counter-terrorism, energy security and climate change; and underscore shared values.

"It is not our intent to make policy or to negotiate, and we won't do so," senior foreign-policy adviser Susan Rice said. "There is one president of the United States at any given time, and we will certainly honor and respect that."

While the tour allows Obama to bond with leaders and discuss common issues, it also will send cues to voters back home.

Aides say that the campaign-funded trip isn't electorally motivated. "This is not a political trip, this is a trip of substance," senior strategist Robert Gibbs said.

But the freshman Democratic senator from Illinois, whom polls show running slightly ahead of Republican John McCain in the race but vulnerable on issues such as national security, will want to show Americans:

  • That he isn't the foreign policy novice that McCain, an Iraq war supporter and decorated veteran, would have them believe.
  • That he's committed to Israel, which could help him secure more Jewish support in swing states such as Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
  • That Muslims and Arabs overseas nevertheless might feel less hostile toward the United States if Obama — a biracial Christian who lived in Indonesia for some of his childhood and whose African father's side of the family is Muslim — is president.
  • That his popularity in Europe could boost U.S. standing and translate to more cooperation on anti-terrorism, environmental and economic policies.
  • Most of next week's announced stops will involve tightly controlled meetings.

    He's scheduled to stage one major public appearance, in Berlin, the German city where President John F. Kennedy delivered his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech when it was divided and communism was the enemy.

    President Reagan had his famous "Tear down this wall" speech there and President Clinton delivered a less memorable Berlin address.

    Obama is still just a candidate, and the world's dilemmas look different from those in 1963. But in an interview last week, Theodore Sorensen, who was Kennedy's special counsel, adviser and speechwriter and who supports Obama, said of the two visits 45 years apart, "There are some parallels."

    Both men wanted to unify Western allies. Both had a charisma that swept Europeans off their feet. One of Obama's speechwriters, Adam Frankel, is a Sorensen protege.

    Sorensen said he didn't expect Obama to use Kennedy's "I am a Berliner" line although "he's welcome to it."

    Instead, Sorensen said, "I would think that Obama could predict that change is coming to America, and because of America's central role, change is coming to the world, change is coming to American foreign policy and its relations with Europe and we are turning a page. And we can forget about the America that didn't believe in multilateral organizations or consulting allies."

    The trip could pay dividends for Obama's campaign, including keeping thousands of American fans overseas excited about voting by absentee ballot this fall, and, in the meantime, donating to the campaign.

    Activists with Democrats Abroad said that as of last week Obama wasn't expected to headline any fundraisers while traveling. Fundraisers are being held with his surrogates, however. One in Paris earlier this month, featuring former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke via teleconference, raised more than $15,000, an organizer said.

    Obama's candidacy and pending visit have put more focus on blacks and other minority groups in Europe, sparking discussions on whether the political systems in France, England and Germany would allow an Obama to rise to power, and if not, what should change.

    And with his trip attracting massive media interest, he may generate lots of news coverage that takes attention away from McCain.

    But as Obama makes his way through his itinerary, he and the advisers traveling with him also will be aware of political quicksand.

    On the Mideast stops, especially, the more detailed Obama gets, the more that various factions could chafe. He likewise risks criticism if he's seen as too vague when pressed on Iran, Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas, Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and so on.

    Republicans will be looking to exploit any strains.

    Days before Obama's departure, the Republican Jewish Coalition criticized Obama for his friendship with Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who he said would accompany him when he went to Iraq. The coalition's executive director, Matt Brooks, called Hagel's record on Israel "one of the worst" and cited several votes of Hagel's that he considered insufficiently tough on Palestinians. "The message to the Jewish community is heard loud and clear," Brooks said.

    Conversely, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a Reform rabbi from Chicago who's active with two groups, Rabbis for Obama and Jews for Obama, said Obama had paid disproportionate attention to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby, and not enough to "the peace community in Israel, Palestinian and Jewish."

    In any case, Wolf said, the notion that Obama has to shore up support from Jewish voters is "overblown." "He's going to get 75-80 percent of the Jewish vote under any circumstances. All Democrats do," Wolf said. "He has spent a lot of time and effort on the Jewish community and I don't think he owes us much more. But I think it will be good for him to go there."