Obama Attempts to Bolster Image as World Leader

Senator Barack Obama is in Iraq today meeting with American troops and Iraqi leaders. His visit is part of a weeklong tour of the Middle East and Western Europe, meant to build confidence in Obama's ability to lead as commander in chief. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik and Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of The Daily Star newspaper of Lebanon, discuss what Obama's trip means in the U.S. and abroad.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, author E Lynn Harris joins us to talk about his latest work. We'll learn what's been keeping fitness buff Richard Simmons on the move. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama began his much anticipated trip to the Middle East in Europe over the weekend. His first stop was Afghanistan where he met with U.S. troops, as well as Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. Obama said if elected, his administration would pursue the war on terror with vigor. Today he makes his second on-the-ground inspection of Iraq to gauge the progress of the war he has always opposed.

Here to talk more about the trip are NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Welcome to you both. Thank you for stopping in.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut; Editor-at-large, Daily Star, Lebanon): Thank you. Glad to be here.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Great to join you.

MARTIN: Rami, I'm going to start with you. In U.S the trip is being seen mainly through the lens of presidential politics, as a way to burnish Obama's foreign policy credentials. But how is it being covered overseas, particularly in the papers and media outlets in the region?

Mr. KHOURI: I think there are several aspects to this. First of all, there isn't one single focus or tone. There is a great variety of views in the Middle East, particularly in relation to relations with the United States. Most people, I would say, in the Middle East, are skeptical of any major changes happening with the new American president. This is the consequence of 30, 40 years of watching American presidents come and go, especially on the Arab-Israeli issue, which has always been the big one.

Now you have Afghanistan, Iraq, other big issues in the region. People don't expect major policy changes but they do - many people who follow politics closely are actually quite intrigued and impressed by Obama. So there is a new element there which is the personality element, which is probably more interesting than the policy element.

MARTIN: David, speaking of the personality element, major network television anchors are on this trip. How should we interpret that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there are a couple of things going on, one of which is - this is, network executives argue with some reason, this is an opportunity for them to test Senator Obama. The one thing that polls show that he has consistently not fully sold the American electorate on is the question of can he lead in foreign affairs because after all, he's only held federal office for a few scant years. While many governors have been elected office, he's a relative newcomer on the national scene. And so this is an opportunity for him to meet with foreign leaders but also an opportunity for them to test him.

Network anchors, of course, any time they show up, it imbues an event or an experience with a greater profile, a greater degree of attention and scrutiny. It raises the stakes for him. It raises stakes for them, too. All three networks have acceded to, sort of, interviews on consecutive days with Obama while he is abroad. And you know, it would seem as though from the McCain camp, they would feel like, hey, they are being part of his choreographed effort to seem himself presidential in talking with a couple of people who analyzed the networks as well as going back and looking for myself.

It's really pretty unusual to cover. In fact, it's exceptional to cover a presidential candidate with this degree of pomp and circumstance. Carries, you know, a bit of a risk for Senator Obama. You know, if he flubs, if he misstates, if he uses the wrong name for a prime minister or president abroad, you know, it might be the sort of thing that an experienced policy hand would shrug off, but people would say, hey, he's too green. He's not up to the task.

MARTIN: Which is what happened to John McCain when he was overseas. He misspoke and got confused about the name of the two major religious groups in Islam and kind of switched their political affiliations. But that was a story but it wasn't a major story. You're saying there's a kind of a megaphone affect here that if there is error...

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's a megaphone affect because the anchors are there with him, and they will themselves tend to a bit overcover what's happening in his trip simply because their newscasts will be done from abroad from the likes of his trip themselves. The other thing is for Senator McCain, and you can say this is right for the media to do or wrong for the media to do, but it fits into a pre-existing narrative.

For Senator McCain it is seen as, oh, is he a little old? Now I'm not saying that's fair. I'm just saying that's the way in which those comments played out. Not is he untested on foreign affairs. People have heard Senator McCain talk about foreign affairs, about national security issues for years, for decades. So people don't really have that as a question mark in the back of their minds.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with NPR's David Folkenflik and and Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut about Senator Obama's Middle Eastern tour.

Rami, the headlines so far, one is that from Afghanistan, Obama chided President Karzai for not doing more to build confidence in his government and then the interview with Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki with Der Spiegel. Talk to me about both of those, if you would. First of all, are his comments about - too kamikaze? How are they being interpreted? Is that being, kind of, as American politics or is that being viewed as disrespectful in some way to chide a political leader on his own turf?

Mr. KHOURI: You know, most people in the Middle East, the average citizen doesn't follow these things in great detail but there is a small segment of people who follow these things intensely who are interested in public affairs and American politics. And you have rather different perspectives.

I think people who are interested in politics find it absolutely normal for Obama to do what he is doing and there is a great thirst. In most of the Middle East, not all of it, but I would say 80 percent of the people want a different American policy. They see America's role in the region as one of the problems in the region, and you see this reflected in polls in Iraq, for instance, showing that the majority of Iraqis want the U.S. to get out in an orderly way but to start getting out. So the American presence has been interpreted by most people as a problem rather than as a solution.

And polls now consistently show in the Arab world, as least, that people see the U.S. and Israel as two of the great threats to their society so the American presence is a problem. Therefore, Obama represents a new tone, a new direction possibly.

There's two things about Obama that are important for most people, whether they follow politics closely or not. His tone and his style are very appealing. He doesn't make threats. He doesn't talk about regime change. He talks about engaging in conversations, et cetera, et cetera. People see in him the best of what they see in American values. So people like that at one level.

Second is the policy issue. There are areas where his policy is different but that gap is closing, for instance, talking to Iran and getting out of Iraq. So there's - the policy issues will become less important. The personality and the tone, the style will become more important.

MARTIN: Talk to me for a minute about that interview that the Iraqi prime minister gave to Der Spiegel, a German outlet where it had been interpreted by some as his agreeing with Obama, almost like an indirect endorsement of Obama's position asking for a timetable for withdrawal of American troops. And then he has backtracked and said, I was misinterpreted or I was actually mistranslated. What's your take on that?

Mr. KHOURI: Yeah. It's extraordinary how many people are mistranslated or misinterpreted in the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Even when they speak English to English papers.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, exactly. Even when their own interpreters interpret things properly. But I think this is obviously a political sensitivity. But you know, in the last year, I would say, in my travels all over the Middle East, in my - you know, hundreds of conversations with people, virtually ever single person I have spoken to wants Obama to win. There's a great sense that Obama represents something promising in American foreign policy as a whole. Not just the Middle East. At the same time, people don't expect major changes, say, on the Arab-Israeli issue.

They know that policy on the U.S. and Arab-Israeli issues is made with Congress and the pressure groups and the interest groups and the White House. There's a whole range of issues that create policy. It's not just what the president talks about. And anyway, they've heard Obama and McCain saying more or less the same thing in their talks to AIPAC and other groups here in Washington, so don't - nobody expects major changes in Arab-Israeli issues, but in other issues people do expect a different approach on issues of democratization, the Iran issue, Iraq and things like that.

So there is an anticipation. People like - most people, including the Iraqi prime minister, obviously, like what they're hearing from Obama. You have to put this in the context of not just in the Arab world, Arab-Islamic and Middle East, but throughout the world there has been a rising crescendo of criticism of American foreign policy. So Obama is somebody who people broadly like. They like what he's saying and his style makes a huge difference.

MARTIN: David, you talked to me about this whole question of whether - how much coverage is too much. I heard this morning that there were some of the conservative talk show hosts were dismissive of the amount of coverage that this trip was receiving for a congressional delegation. On the other hand, Senator McCain's trips abroad were covered, too. What's your take on that controversy? Can you really even sort out a bottom line truth on something like this, it's so political?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, everything is politics and everything is being used as political fodder. I'd say a couple of things. The first off is that there's no doubt that it's exceptional for the anchors to accompany - they're, I think, having consecutive interviews Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Three different anchors, three different networks, three different days, three different countries and it will provide him with face time with - you know, tens of millions of Americans watching the network news who's still doing that.

You know, Senator McCain, I believe, you know, has had opportunities to have the press accompany him on certain kinds of trips and has decided not to do that. The networks have reached out to Senator McCain. At the moment he's not doing, one network official told me, sit-down interviews with the anchors so that, you know, it is a bit of a political fodder.

And let's not forget, you know, Obama himself, as well as a candidate is also a phenomenon in a different way than Senator McCain. A little ironic. Senator McCain for years considered a real media darling, you know, somebody in the - his brief-lived but intense primary campaign in 2000 against then-Governor George W. Bush. You know, he was seen as the clear-cut media favorite and this time around Senator Obama is somebody who generates incredible excitement. You know, we've just heard that from abroad as well as from people here in the States, and I think, you know, in the time of declining viewership, the network anchors want a little bit of that magic to run off on themselves.

They want a piece - in an event, if there's a phenomenon in Germany, you know, where Senator Obama's scheduled to give a big public address, they want to be there for it. You know, if there are crowds there's - you know, the footage of him walking presidentially with Hamid Karzai, or perhaps leaders in Baghdad, you know, this is going to be a moment they want to somehow be wrapped around and get a bit of that electricity for themselves.

MARTIN: All right. We'll have to leave it there. David Folkenflik is media correspondent for NPR. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Rami Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, an editor-at-large of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. He was kind enough to - and we were lucky enough to have him here in our Washington studio where he just happens to be touring this week. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KHOURI: Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: My pleasure.

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