Foreign Policy Cred

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 30, 2008 8:54 AM

Well, Rupert Murdoch may think Barack Obama is our next president, but first he's got an election to win.

More on Rupe in a second, but at the moment, the senator from Illinois seems to be trying to climb out of a foreign policy box of his own making. It was in a debate last summer that Obama said he would be willing to meet with hostile foreign leaders, and with Republican Sen. John McCain practically accusing him of wanting to have a wine-and-cheese picnic with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this has become a bit of a dilemma. (And not having visited Iraq may be one as well, since the Obama team now says it's considering such a trip.)

On one level, Barack has a pretty good response: Didn't Nixon go to China? Didn't Clinton meet with Yeltsin? Didn't Bush look into Putin's soul? What sense, then, does it make not to talk to Cuba (other than in terms of Florida's electoral votes?).

But campaigns are not a good time for history lessons. And with McCain saying that Obama would rather meet with Ahmadinejad than Gen. David Petraeus, the Democratic candidate needs a sharper response.

I've always wondered whether Obama meant to stake out this ground or just gave an off-the-cuff answer to a debate question and was stuck with the response. Certainly, he's been trying to walk it back a bit since then.

The candidate doesn't agree to a NYT interview on the subject unless he's got a message to push or some damage to control. Obama "sought to emphasize, as he and his aides have done continually over the last few days, the difference between avoiding preconditions for talks with nations like Iran and Syria, and granting them automatic discussions at the presidential level.

"While Mr. Obama has said he would depart from the Bush administration policy of refusing to meet with certain nations unless they meet preconditions, he has also said he would reserve the right to choose which leaders he would meet, should he choose to meet with them at all.

"The issue presents one of Mr. Obama's biggest political and policy tests yet as he appears headed toward a general-election contest against Senator John McCain of Arizona: How to continue to add nuance to a policy argument that he views as a winning one, without playing into a fierce round of accusations that he is either shifting positions or appeasing the enemy."

David Axelrod also tackled the question with the Huffington Post's Sam Stein:

"I guess the question is, if you had a chance to make progress on some of these issues that go to the security of our country and the world, why would you say you would never be willing to? It is an odd thing to say. What Sen. Obama is saying in essence is that we need to use all the tools in our toolbox when we are working and fighting for our security, including for aggressive diplomacy, which has been shunned by the Bush administration to our detriment."

Meanwhile, the Washington Times reports, "Sen. Joseph Biden yesterday said his one-time presidential rival Sen. Barack Obama has asked him to 'play a more prominent' and 'deeply involved' role in his campaign, a signal the likely Democratic nominee is looking to burnish his foreign-policy credentials that Republicans are attacking."

I'm guessing this is going to be a fall issue, because Karl Rove says so in what he calls Obama's "revision tour":

"Last July, Mr. Obama pledged to meet personally and without precondition, during his first year, the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Criticized afterwards, he made his pledge more explicitly, naming Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Venezuela strongman Hugo Chávez as leaders he would grace with first-year visits.

"By October, Mr. Obama was backpedaling, talking about needing 'some progress or some indication of good faith,' and by April, 'sufficient preparation.' It got so bad his foreign policy advisers were (falsely) denying he'd ever said he'd meet with Mr. Ahmadinejad -- even as he still defended his original pledge to have meetings without precondition.

"The list goes on. Mr. Obama's problem is a campaign that's personality-driven rather than idea-driven. Thus incidents calling into question his persona and character can have especially devastating consequences.

"Stripped of his mystique as a different kind of office seeker, he could become just another liberal politician -- only one who parses, evades, dissembles and condescends. That narrative is beginning to take hold."

Certainly on Fox News, where the former Bush strategist has been pushing this line.

Speaking of Fox--and the New York Post, Weekly Standard, Wall Street Journal, etc.--here is the Murdoch take on Obama, as articulated at the "All Things Digital" conference:

" 'He is a rock star. It's fantastic.' 'I love what he is saying about education.' 'I don't think he will win Florida . . . but he will win in Ohio and the election.' 'I am anxious to meet him.' 'I want to see if he will walk the walk.'

"About the presumptive Republican nominee, Murdoch said, 'McCain is a friend of mine. He's a patriot. But he's unpredictable. Doesn't seem to know much about the economy. He has been in Congress a long time, and you have to make a lot of compromises. So what's he really stand for? . . . I think he has a lot of problems.' "

Maybe Murdoch should go on O'Reilly or Hannity to debate Rove.

Should Obama go to Iraq? Or would that look like an artificial, staged-for-the-cameras event?

"He probably has to go now, for political purposes, but the whole idea of visiting Iraq to get a 'better view' of what's going on there is kind of silly," says Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics. "It's not like Obama is going to change his mind about the war, regardless of what he sees . . .

"Still, it is important for politicians - especially those running to be Commander in Chief - to visit war theatres like Iraq and Afghanistan if only to show support and respect for the troops serving there. Obama probably should have visited Iraq more than once for this reason alone."

Joe Klein basically agrees: "It wouldn't be a bad idea for Obama to visit the war zones, meet with our troops and their leaders--as soon as the nomination fight is over. There's a lot to learn, if you ask the right questions. And McCain was wise enough to understand that Bush's initial strategy was a disaster in Iraq, and to call for the changes that have brought increased security, if not long-term stability, to that country.

"But McCain's not in a terrific position to give Obama travel advice, or to question Obama's knowledge or judgment about national security matters. Obama can--and has--argued that for all his experience, McCain was completely wrong about going to war in the first place."

National Review's Jim Geraghty says he's puzzled:

"I was scratching my head over Obama's strategy on handling McCain's invitation to travel to Iraq together. His campaign could have finessed this issue a lot of different ways. They could have questioning whether the two major party presidential candidates traveling through a war zone together represented a unique and unnecessary security risk. They could have said it would be inappropriate to consider the invitation until the Democratic nomination was formally secured. They could have simply said their schedules were unlikely to coincide.

"Most notably, the campaign could have said that the candidate hopes to get to Iraq before Election Day, but that it would depend on many scheduling factors.

"Instead, their initial answer asserted that there was no value to traveling to Iraq, which I think is a much tougher 'sell.' "

Is the Democratic Party finally putting on the squeeze? Is the end near?

"Hoping to bring their party's presidential nomination fight to an end," the New York Times reports, "the two top Democrats in Congress said they were pressing superdelegates who had yet to declare a preference in the race to make their choice public by the middle of next week.

"Party officials said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, had been contacting uncommitted superdelegates, encouraging them to prepare to go public and resolve any last question about the contest between Senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York."

Trinity Church is back in the news. Michelle Malkin has video of racial remarks by a (white) pastor, Michael Pfleger, whose endorsement of Obama had until recently been on his Web site:

"When Hillary was crying (gesturing tears, uproarious laughter from audience)--and people said that was put on--I really don't believe it was put on.

"I really believe that she just always thought 'This is mine' (laughter, hoots). 'I'm Bill's wife. I'm WHITE. And this is mine. And I jus' gotta get up. And step into the plate. And then out of nowhere came, 'Hey, I'm Barack Obama.' And she said: 'Oh, damn!' WHERE DID YOU COME FROM!?!?! (Crowd going nuts, Pfleger screaming). I'M WHITE! I'M ENTITLED! THERE'S A BLACK MAN STEALING MY SHOW."

Fox was playing the video all day, and the New York Post splashes "JUDAS PRIEST" on the cover.

"Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign on Thursday was forced to again apologize for the remarks of a Chicago pastor backing his candidacy who spoke from the pulpit of his longtime church," says the Chicago Tribune.

After Obama's apology, Pfleger put out a statement of regret. Maybe they can hire Scott McClellan as a spokesman.

Atlantic's Marc Ambinder outlines a series of options for McCain, including:

"Solve the women problem. It's an open secret in Republican and Democratic circles that less ideological Republican women and independent women are openly disdainful of John McCain in focus groups; they find him angry; they don't believe that he's equipped with the proper temperament to do the job. McCain can't win Pennsylvania this way unless he somehow manages to turn out white men in record numbers. The solution: appoint Tom Ridge to the ticket; appear on Oprah and Ellen once a week; appoint himself as permanent co-host of the View; buy ads on Bravo and Lifetime; Or, try to scare these women into thinking that Barack Obama is so dangerously inexperienced that his election will render their lives all the more insecure and unstable. Or, appear with your children; open up your private life some more."

Still plenty of debate about the McClellan book. The Weekly Standard's Jaime Sneider says he was there:

"In no sense was I a 'senior advisor' during my brief tenure at the White House. At best, I was a junior staffer--if not a peon--within the Communications Office. But my experience suggests McClellan is completely off his rocker when he asserts the Bush White House operated like the Bush campaign . . .

"Although I didn't work for the Bush campaign in either 2000 or 2004, I knew many people who did. Many of these communications operatives became so frustrated with the Kafkaesque requirements of navigating executive-branch bureaucracy that they simply quit. Makes you wonder, if Scott McClellan was so unhappy and self-aware, why didn't he?"

It's all about the marketing, says the New Republic's Jason Zengerle:

"Put aside the fact that McClellan has ample personal reasons for writing a harsh book about the Bush White House (two of those reasons are named Rove and Libby). Writing a harsh tell-all memoir of the Bush years is just good business sense at this point. You only need to look back at the anemic sales of Ari Fleischer's rosy, no-tell memoir of his White House years to realize that--and Fleischer's low-seller came out at a time when Bush's approval rating was higher than 28 percent.

"So kudos to McClellan. His book displays a calculating mind that was never much in evidence in the White House press room."

The veepstakes beat goes on, with Politico saying Barack may be looking for a different kind of woman:

"According to interviews with Republicans in their home states, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill differ from Clinton by two important measures: They've managed to win elections without developing polarizing personas, and they've shied away from emphasizing gender in their campaigns.

"The distinctions are important for Obama, the front-runner in the Democratic nominating contest, as his campaign begins the process of thinking about possible running mates. Selecting a woman might serve to mend the gender-based rifts that have surfaced as a result of Clinton's historic candidacy -- and Sebelius, Napolitano and McCaskill all possess red-state political portfolios that would make them attractive vice presidential candidates."

I always come back to the same point: Will the running mate be seen as a plausible president?

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