Overseas journey to the US heartland

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2008, 12:00am

Barack Obama wants three things out of his tour of the Middle East and Europe. He wants people everywhere to think he has the answers for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wants Jewish Americans to believe he is Israel's unquestioning supporter. And he wants Americans to notice that Europeans would choose him by a five-to-one majority, if they could vote in the election.

Americans will certainly notice that, although it will not do him much good among the key group of American voters whose support would make an Obama victory in November a dead certainty: the white poor in decaying rustbelt towns who 'cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them ... as a way to explain their frustrations', as he famously put it in the spring. Those people are not impressed by the views of foreigners, and they don't automatically vote Democratic any more.

Neither do Jewish Americans, and the Zionist majority among them are deeply suspicious about Senator Obama's commitment to Israel.

The one foreign policy question that Senator Obama cannot avoid is what to do about President George W. Bush's wars. His short-term solution is to couple his long-standing opposition to the 'wrong war', Iraq, with a newfound enthusiasm for the 'right war': Afghanistan.

Senator Obama's proposal to send an extra 10,000 American troops to fight in Afghanistan will not change the situation there. Even 100,000 US troops wouldn't change it. He may even know that, but this is his only way of dealing with the politically inconvenient fact that Mr Bush's troop 'surge' in Iraq has brought about a visible improvement in the local security situation.

The improvement may not last, but the perception that will dominate the few remaining months until the election is that Iraq is on the way to being an American success story. Senator Obama, quite rightly, opposed the invasion from the start, and is committed to pulling out US combat troops within 16 months of taking office. So how does he fight off the accusation that he risks throwing a victory away?

By arguing that ending the war in Iraq is 'essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taleban is resurgent and al-Qaeda has a safe haven'. He is quite right to want to bail out of Iraq as soon as possible, but he needs the war in Afghanistan to explain it to American voters, who have been persuaded by years of propaganda that the best way to deal with the threat of terrorism is to invade places.

Not only was invading Iraq in 2003 a ghastly mistake; invading Afghanistan in 2001, although a political necessity in the US after 9/11, was also a strategic error. In terms of neutralising Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, more would have been achieved, at a far lower cost, by placing the country under a strict blockade and quarantine.

In the end, western troops will have to leave Afghanistan again, and if that means that the Taleban regains control (which is not actually very likely), then quarantine may yet have to be the long-term solution.

Does Senator Obama realise this? Maybe not. But his trip will be a success so long as he sticks with the platitudes while he's in the Middle East, and avoids too much adulation while he's in Europe.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries