CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Popularity breeds popularity

In Iraq, mixed feelings about Obama and his troop proposal

A tough Iraqi general, a former special operations officer with a baritone voice and a barrel chest, melted into smiles when asked about Senator Barack Obama.

“Everyone in Iraq likes him,” said the general, Nassir al-Hiti. “I like him. He’s young. Very active. We would be very happy if he was elected president.”

But mention Mr. Obama’s plan for withdrawing American soldiers, and the general stiffens.

“Very difficult,” he said, shaking his head. “Any army would love to work without any help, but let me be honest: for now, we don’t have that ability.”

Thus in a few brisk sentences, the general summed up the conflicting emotions about Mr. Obama in Iraq, the place outside America with perhaps the most riding on its relationship with him.

There was, as Mr. Obama prepared to visit here, excitement over a man who is the anti-Bush in almost every way: a Democrat who opposed a war that many Iraqis feel devastated their nation. And many in the political elite recognize that Mr. Obama shares their hope for a more rapid withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

But his support for troop withdrawal cuts both ways, reflecting a deep internal quandary in Iraq: for many middle-class Iraqis, affection for Mr. Obama is tempered by worry that his proposal could lead to chaos in a nation already devastated by war. Many Iraqis also acknowledge that security gains in recent months were achieved partly by the buildup of American troops, which Mr. Obama opposed and his presumptive Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, supported. [complete article]

Obama faces his overseas audition

Even though the details remain sketchy, it’s clear that Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to the Middle East and Europe is an audition on the world stage. But the most important critics will not be the foreign leaders who will be sizing him up as a potential member of their ranks, or the cheering throngs that are likely to greet him at every stop. The audience that matters most will be the voters back home, where many Americans have yet to be convinced that this young man of relatively little experience is the right person to fill the role of their commander-in-chief. “This,” says Ken Duberstein, who was Ronald Reagan’s White House Chief of Staff, “is an absolute opportunity to get over the acceptability threshold.”

Polling suggests that Obama still has a way to go in that regard. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News survey, only 48% of registered voters said Obama would make a good commander in chief, with an equal percentage saying he wouldn’t. By comparison, 72% said John McCain would be a good one.

The campaign has thus far provided only the barest outline of his itinerary. On Monday, Obama will be in Amman, Jordan; on Tuesday and Wednesday, Israel and the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Thursday, Friday and Saturday will be a sprint across Europe, with stops planned for Berlin, Paris and London. And somewhere in all this, Obama plans to make a much-anticipated visit to Iraq and Afghanistan with two Senate colleagues, Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — It might sound like the most obvious of truisms, but victory in the presidential election will go to the most popular candidate. Which is to say — and let’s assume it’s Obama — the more popular he appears, the more popular he will become.

Many people who read (as opposed to simply watching) the news, probably already know that Obama is hugely popular outside America, but that’s not something that most Americans know yet. It’s conceivable that nightly news images of Obama receiving effusive greetings and being hailed by cheering crowds of foreigners might fuel the Machuria-candidate suspicions of a few Americans, but I think the more likely deduction that most people will make is that if the rest of the world likes America’s next president, that affection will also extend towards the whole nation.

Barely concealed behind America’s need to elevate itself and be seen as a “shining beacon on the hill”, America has a much simpler and more deeply-rooted need — a need that amounts to a form of national insecurity: the need to be liked.

If Obama is able to channel his own popularity into a broader image of American revival, the effect may snowball in such a way that McCain simply has no way of competing.

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