TERMED a "learning" trip, Sen. Barack Obama's eight-day tour of eight nations in the Middle East and Europe turned out to be little more than a series of photo ops to enhance his international credentials.
"He looked like a man in a hurry," a source close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said last week. "He was not interested in what we had to say."
Still, many Iraqis liked Obama's claim that the improved situation in Iraq owed to Iraqi efforts rather than the Gen. David Petraeus-led surge. In public and private comments, Obama tried to give the impression that the Iraqis would've achieved the same results even without the greater resources America has poured into the country since 2007.
In private, though, Iraqi officials admit that Obama's analysis is "way off the mark." Without the surge, the Sunni tribes wouldn't have switched sides to help flush out al Qaeda. And the strong US military presence enabled the new Iraqi army to defeat Iran-backed Shiite militias in Basra and Baghdad.
Nevertheless, in public at least, no Iraqi politician wants to appear more appreciative of American sacrifices than the man who may become the next US president.
Iraqis were most surprised by Obama's apparent readiness to throw away all the gains made in Iraq simply to prove that he'd been right in opposing the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein. "He gave us the impression that the last thing he wanted was for Iraq to look anything like a success for the United States," a senior Iraqi official told me. "As far as he is concerned, this is Bush's war and must end in lack of success, if not actual defeat."
Even so, Obama knows that most Americans believe they're still at war with an enemy prepared to use terror against them. So he can't do what his antiwar base wants - declare an end to the War on Terror and the start of a period of love and peace in which "citizens of the world" build bridges between civilizations.
That's why Obama is trying to adopt Afghanistan as "his" war. He claims that Bush's focus on Iraq has left Afghanistan an orphan in need of love and attention. Even though US military strategy is to enable America to fight two major wars simultaneously, Obama seems to believe that only one war is possible at a time.
But what does that mean practically?
Obama says he wants to shift two brigades (some of his advisers say two battalions) from Iraq to Afghanistan. But where did that magical figure come from? From NATO, which has been calling on its members to provide more troops since 2006.
NATO wants the added troops mainly to improve the position of its reserves in Afghanistan. The alliance doesn't face an actual shortage of combat units - it's merely facing a rotation schedule that obliges some units to stay in the field for up to six weeks longer than is normal for NATO armies.
Overall, NATO hopes that its members will have no difficulty providing the 5,000 more troops it needs for a "surge." So there's no need for the US to abandon Iraq in order to help Afghanistan.
The immediate effect of Obama's plan to abandon Iraq and send more troops to Afghanistan is to ease pressure on other NATO members to make a greater contribution. Even in Paris, some critics think that President Nicolas Sarkozy should postpone sending more troops until after the US presidential election. "If President Obama can provide all the manpower needed in Afghanistan, there is no need for us to commit more troops," said a Sarkozy security adviser.
Obama's move would suit Sarkozy fine because he's reducing the size of the French army and closing more than 80 garrisons. Other Europeans would also be pleased. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will soon face a difficult general election in which her main rivals will be calling for an end to "the Afghan adventure."
Today, with the sole exception of Spain (where the mildly anti-American Socialist Party is in power), pro-US parties govern Europe. These parties feel pressure from the Bush administration to translate their pro-American claims into actual support for the Afghanistan war effort. By promising to shoulder the burden, Obama is letting the European allies off the hook.
Obama doesn't seem to have noticed the European scene's subtleties. Despite his claim that he came to listen, he seems to have heard nothing of interest during his 10,000-mile trip.
Having announced his strategy before embarking on his "listening tour," he couldn't be expected to change his mind simply because facts on the ground offered a different picture.
In Paris, a friendly reporter asked the Illinois senator if there was anything that he'd heard or seen during his visit that might persuade him to alter any aspect of his polices. Obama's answer was clear: no.
Amir Taheri's next book, "The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution," is due out this fall.