Obama’s appeal as anti-Bush is telling

Times Staff Writer

Barack Obama’s electoral rival is John McCain, but Obama’s overseas trip this week has given heartburn to another Republican -- President Bush.

In stop after stop across the Middle East and Europe, Obama was embraced as the man whose promise of change meant a change from Bush: on Iraq, Mideast peace, the treatment of terrorism suspects, climate change, alliance relations and more.

The tour has brought into focus how world leaders already are positioning themselves for a new American president.

Obama’s debut appearance on the international stage was the most vivid demonstration yet that the world is moving beyond the Bush era, even while the White House works frantically in its last six months to salvage what it can of its foreign policy agenda.


The trip had to come as a jolt for administration officials, said Wayne White, a senior State Department intelligence official in Bush’s first term. “I’m sure it was a bit rattling for the administration to see someone treated with such deference,” he said.

In Baghdad, Iraqi leaders who have appeared to be intimate allies of the White House suddenly were saying they wanted the kind of rough deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal that Obama has endorsed -- and Bush has repeatedly rejected.

In Jerusalem, key leaders signaled that they could accept Obama’s proposal for high-level talks with Iran, an approach that Bush labeled “appeasement” in an appearance before the Israeli parliament this spring.

The Iraq visit brought to light frictions in the U.S.-Iraqi relationship and may have jeopardized the Bush’s administration’s chances of concluding negotiations over the U.S. military role in Iraq that the administration had hoped to wrap up by the end of the year.

Last weekend, in tense exchanges, administration officials succeeded in persuading Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to partially take back his July 18 comment to the German magazine Der Spiegel that he favored Obama’s plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq in 16 months. Yet when Obama arrived in Baghdad on Monday, Maliki spokesman Ali Dabbagh said that withdrawing troops by the end of 2010, only a few months beyond the timetable suggested by Obama, sounded just about right.

The comments appeared to change the debate from whether the United States should draw down in Iraq to how to deal with a different challenge, the militant threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s the discussion Obama has been urging.

Israeli leaders have been steadfastly loyal to Bush, sometimes describing him as the strongest supporter of Israel ever to inhabit the Oval Office.

But this week, several Israelis -- including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the hawkish Likud Party -- signaled that they were ready to set aside Bush’s insistence that it would be foolish to talk with Iran unless it first halted nuclear activities that Israel and the U.S. fear would give Tehran the ability to make a bomb. The Israelis said they were willing to accept Obama’s plans to talk to top Iranian leaders as a means of exhausting diplomatic possibilities.

Nathan J. Brown, a specialist in Arab politics at George Washington University, said that Obama’s visit came at a time when the Bush administration has a “very weak hand” in the Middle East because of “its failure to build strong partnerships, the unrealistic goals it has set, the overstretch in terms of military positions, and the natural effects of reaching the end of the term.”

The trip “may have highlighted this weak position and prompted some regional leaders to position themselves toward a new administration,” he wrote in an e-mail message.

In Paris on Friday, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has gone out of his way to repair French relations with Bush, presented himself as Obama’s “buddy” and said France would be “delighted” to see the Democrat elected as the next U.S. president. Sarkozy said the two have “converging” views on issues such as climate change and Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama’s appearance with Sarkozy contrasted with McCain’s low-key visit to Europe and the Middle East in March. There was no joint news conference in Paris; McCain answered journalists’ questions in a courtyard without Sarkozy.

White House officials said Friday that the administration’s relationships with the Iraqi and Israeli governments remained strong and that Obama’s conversations were not disrupting plans.

“We’re not going to let this trip be a distraction,” Press Secretary Dana Perino said.

She otherwise refused to talk about Obama’s trip but said pointedly that when Bush and the Iraqis decide upon a “general time horizon” for a change in the U.S. role, “these will not be dates plucked out of thin air based on an American political calendar or based on an American, you know, inside-the-Beltway decision of, ‘We think this would be a good date to remove troops.’ ”

Conservatives complained that Obama’s presidential-style appearance before an adoring crowd in Berlin was presumptuous, and some predicted that there would be an American backlash against a candidate who had such support from foreigners.

One U.S. official acknowledged that the administration was fully aware that its standing, as much as McCain’s, was on the line. “The message would be pretty hard to miss,” said the official, who insisted on remaining anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on the subject.

Obama has barely mentioned Bush by name during his trip. Nevertheless, he took shots at the administration at every stop -- far more than he leveled at McCain.

In Afghanistan, Obama suggested that the administration was moving too slowly in bolstering U.S. forces there and said that officials had not been forceful enough in pressing the new Pakistani government to move against the growing militant threat in that nation’s tribal regions.

In Israel, he promised that he would move quickly to begin an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, rather than waiting until the seventh year of his presidency, as he has accused Bush of doing. “I will not wait until a few years into my term -- or my second term, if I’m elected -- in order to get the process moving,” he said.

Obama also said that he, unlike Bush, would not neglect his presidential obligation by letting generals alone decide whether it would be wise to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior commander in Iraq, has to think about how U.S. dollars can best be spent on the American mission in Iraq, Obama said. But it would be his responsibility as president “to think about how we could be using some of that $10 billion a month to shore up a U.S. economy that’s really hurting right now. If I’m president of the United States, that’s part of my responsibility,” he said.

In his single appearance before a large crowd, at the Victory Column in Berlin, Obama offered a generally conciliatory message about the need for Americans and Europeans to work together on their common interests.

Though his language was muted, it was still clear that he was offering himself as the un-Bush, promising a less ideological American partner who would join forces on climate change, “reject torture and stand for the rule of law,” and work jointly for nuclear disarmament. “The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand,” he said.

Obama’s speech contained a number of messages less welcome to the Germans, including that their military needs to take on a bigger and more dangerous role in Afghanistan.

Der Spiegel cautioned its readers before Obama’s arrival that they might not like what they would hear from “the American idol.” Yet Europeans, it said, “have fallen in love with Obama -- mostly because he’s not Bush.”