FROM the late 18th through the 19th century, young men of means went
on a "grand tour" abroad to finish their educations. Some returned with
fond memories, others with artifacts pried from temple walls - and the
remainder with syphilis.
Sen. Barack Obama's
grand tour offers fewer opportunities for mischief and misfortune, but
we all must hope that he learned from his travels and wasn't just
checking the blocks.
Set aside your political preferences (I'll be voting for Sen. John McCain):
Whoever wins, all sensible Americans want our next president to perform
well. So let's consider the pros and cons of Obama's
wheels-down-wheels-up visits to Afghanistan, Iraq and Europe.
First positive: He went. Foreign policy never interested Obama
until it offered a political opportunity with Iraq, nor has he ever
shown much interest in our military. But magic can happen when you
touch down on foreign soil and rub shoulders, however briefly, with our
And Obama's no dummy. Behind closed doors, he'll have listened
carefully to our generals on the ground. He won't change positions
publicly before November - but he wants to be a successful president.
If elected, he won't let himself be branded as the man
who lost Iraq after it had been won. He'd give a speech in February or
March to the effect that the reality we face has changed, and we must change with reality.
Obama would no more shut down our military operations in Iraq than
would McCain. The Americans that an Obama administration would
disappoint are those on the hard left.
So, while I wish the senator had spent some time down with our
combat troops (long enough to sniff the reality of those field latrines
in the summer heat), the fact that he went at all is a positive step.
On the negative side, this has been the most carefully staged
campaign trip in US electoral history. The media, who've slavishly
adored Obama, are about as welcome as rattlesnakes on the back porch
this time around. (Reporters who failed to ask tough questions when
they had the chance won't get another shot before Election Day.)
Will Obama don body armor and a helmet for a streets-of-Baghdad
photo op? It looks like his handlers have already nixed that as too
risky - their iron law for the trip is "no Dukakis-in-a-tank moment."
As for the briefings the senator and his entourage received . . .
well, Gen. David Petraeus is far too honorable to leak his take on the
encounter, but it would've been interesting to watch Obama's body
language as he listened.
Bottom line on that leg of the trip? Obama saw, if only from the
air, how wild and rough Afghanistan is. So he'll tone down his talk
about sending ground troops across Pakistan's border. And even if his
Iraq visit kept him inside a security bubble (safe from terrorists and the media), he still felt the summer heat and got some sense of how things are going. That's all good news.
But the European leg may prove more difficult to stage-manage. The
continent's journalists are furious that Obama's staff treats them with
less consideration than President Bush's has.
And his advance team already made one whopping gaffe in Berlin.
Dissuaded from having him speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate,
Obama's staff picked a nearby alternate site: the Victory Column. Oops:
The victories that commemorates are Prussia's successful invasions of
Denmark, Austria and France. It's no symbol of European unity - and the
French and Brits were already miffed that Obama gave precedence to the
Germans on this trip.
Worse, the monument was a favorite of Hitler's - incorporated into
his plans to rebuild Berlin according to the vision of Nazi architect
Albert Speer. Hitler ordered the column moved to its present location.
Somebody didn't do his or her homework.
What's worrisome here is the mixture of naivete and cynicism.
Obama's staffers reportedly have been giving orders in Berlin as if
they'd just won the war, pressuring the Social Democratic Party (the
sister party of our Democrats) to turn out as large a crowd as possible
for the senator's speech.
The senator will get his crowd. But he's also going to get a level
of scrutiny he's avoided until now. And he just may find that Europe
has interests as parochial as those of Southside Chicago.
Obama has shown us, at last, that he's willing to sit down with our
generals in Iraq and Afghanistan. The question now is whether he's
willing to learn.
Ralph Peters' new book is "Looking for Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World."