Obama Arrives In Afghanistan

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Afghanistan is the first stop on a week-long overseas trip during which Sen. Barack Obama also plans to visit Iraq. His presence there is considered part of a congressional delegation and not part of his presidential campaign.


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Senator Barack Obama is in Afghanistan today. The presumptive Democratic nominee for president landed in Kabul at 3:15 a.m. Eastern Time after a visit with U.S. troops in Kuwait. Senator Obama, along with Senators Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed, also visited an airfield in Jalalabad and Bagram Air Base where they met with top military leaders. NPR's Don Gonyea joins us. Don, thanks for being with us.

DON GONYEA: Happy to be here.

SIMON: And officially, this is a congressional delegation trip. But we can safely call this a campaign trip, can't we?

GONYEA: We certainly can. And this stop in Afghanistan, and it is expected to be followed by one to Baghdad, to Iraq, it has been tacked onto the front of what had been an officially-announced campaign trip to the Middle East - to Jordan, to Israel - and then to Europe - Germany, France and Britain. But while he certainly wants to talk to commanders on the ground and meet with soldiers and meet with Iraqis and leaders in Afghanistan, he is also sending a message to voters back in the United States.

And though the campaign wouldn't admit this, he is responding in some way to some chivying and some criticism from Senator John McCain that Senator Obama had not been to Iraq since January of '06, and that he had never been to Afghanistan.

SIMON: I noticed in the pool report thoughtfully provided by John McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, who said the senator had chicken and rice and broccoli - if you were wondering - on the air from Chicago to Andrews. Did he seem to make a point of saying, I'm going to do more listening than talking?

GONYEA: He was asked what he wants to accomplish. And aside from what I just said - meeting with commanders, meeting with leaders, meeting directly with soldiers - he was asked if he would have stern words for Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan or for Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq, telling them that they need to do more to gain, you know, self-reliance and not depend on the United States so much. And Senator Obama responded to that question saying, look, mostly I'm going there to listen, to hear what they have to say, to hear what their concerns are, to hear what they think of the situation on the ground. He said he doesn't need to be giving them a message or giving them orders. We have one president at a time, and that is George W. Bush for now.

SIMON: Don, given your experience in covering politics and the White House, what are some of the political risks in a trip like this for Senator Obama?

GONYEA: Well, yeah, he is perceived as not having - by the American public in poll after poll after poll - as not having the foreign policy experience that John McCain has. Not just that, but not being as well qualified on foreign policy issues. So he does have to step up and look like he is comfortable, look like he is knowledgeable, in these trips but also in the subsequent trips with these key European allies - in Germany and in France and Britain - which will take place later next week. He does have to look presidential on the foreign stage to American voters.

SIMON: There's already been a controversy in Germany over - apparently, his campaign at one point wanted to have him speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate, and the German government had to say, well, that's not a stage prop.

GONYEA: Exactly. And there is always the danger in a trip like this of overreaching. Some said the Brandenburg Gate backdrop would have been that. The other is we know Senator Obama, I think it's safe to say, he is adored in Germany and in France and in Britain. You also have to be careful not to get too much love. Certain segments of the American voting public might say, well, why doesn't he go be a president over there then? So, it's a balancing act for him.

SIMON: NPR's Don Gonyea, thanks so much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

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