Political travel

The Baltimore Sun

With his trip to the Middle East and Europe, Sen. Barack Obama is trying to overcome Americans' preference for John McCain's long foreign affairs experience by showing himself to be a thoughtful student with creative answers to the thorny issues the U.S. faces around the world. It's a strategy that carries with it significant political risks, as he likely will make himself a target for a steady stream of questions and challenges here and abroad.

Mr. Obama has already laid out in some detail his view of America's agenda abroad - making the war on terror in Afghanistan an urgent priority, calling for a cautious exit from Iraq and promising to partner with other nations on energy, the environment, world hunger and other critical issues. He underlined these priorities with the ark of his travel, first to Afghanistan, then Iraq, and next Lebanon, a West Bank meeting with Palestinian leaders and Israel, where he is expected to confront worries about Iran.

Thus far, Mr. Obama has been careful to observe the political and diplomatic proprieties. By long tradition, Americans look askance at candidates who criticize the chief of state while traveling abroad. Mr. Obama may spend most of his time listening, as he said, but he should be prepared for more probing questions to come.

How, for instance, can we quickly shift troops to fight Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan when they are exhausted from the long effort in Iraq? Or what should we (or the Israelis) do if Iran refuses to stop work on its nuclear program? Truth be told, the right answers to these questions are not yet clear to the experts who have studied the issues. For Mr. Obama, the answers will be tricky. Too much candor, or not enough, and the honeymoon could abruptly end, with the senator learning that everything he says can and will be used against him.

But, thus far, he has shown himself to be a quick learner and an artful manager of awkward queries. The trip appears to be a worthwhile political gamble. Whether or not it changes his mind about the foreign policy course he plans to pursue, it is sure to inform his views as a presidential candidate and perhaps a commander in chief.

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