He was just a college kid, vagabonding around the world. But Barack Obama says the weeks he spent traveling through Pakistan in 1981 shaped the views that he still holds today—and that he would bring into the White House. Obama remembers most vividly the desperation and hopelessness—"essentially a feudal life"—he witnessed in the countryside surrounding Karachi, a city that is today a hotbed of jihadist activity. At the tender age of 20, Obama suggested, he was already beginning to understand more about what ailed Muslim societies—what generated terrorism and fratricidal conflicts—than George W. Bush or John McCain do today. "Both as a consequence of living in Indonesia and traveling in Pakistan, having friends in college who were Muslim, I was very clear about the history of Shia-Sunni antagonism"—which is one reason why, as an Illinois state senator 21 years later, he opposed the war in Iraq, Obama told NEWSWEEK last week. "This notion that somehow we were going to be able to create a functioning democracy and reconcile century-old conflicts, I always thought was a bunch of happy talk from this administration."
Obama's taken a lot of hits over his alleged foreign-policy inexperience—most notoriously from fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, who suggested in a TV ad last month that he was the wrong man to answer the phone at 3 a.m. during a crisis. But last week Obama signaled that he'd had enough of these attacks. Not only did he not lack experience, Obama cockily told a fund-raising crowd in San Francisco, but "foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton or Senator McCain."
If Obama wins the nomination and faces McCain, this will be a critical test of his candidacy: can he change the terms of the debate so that the traditional measures of foreign-policy experience don't apply? Because the kind of experience he talks about so confidently is not what one typically associates with a presidential résumé. It's not Ike leading the Allied Armies into Europe; it's not JFK saving his shipmates aboard PT-109; it's not George H.W. Bush running the CIA and serving as veep for eight years. (Or, for that matter, John McCain flying combat missions and getting shot down in Vietnam.) Nor was Obama alluding to his mastery of the Moscow Treaty on nukes or the subtleties of Mideast peace talks—though many of his Senate colleagues are impressed with his growing expertise in those areas.
Instead, it is the kind of bottom-up experience that comes from growing up in the muddy lanes of Jakarta, in a plain concrete house at No. 16 Haji Ramli Street. There Obama played hide-and-seek in the local mosque, dueled with bamboo sticks and learned dirty words in Indonesian. Friends and teachers recall his being picked on for his height and dark skin, but say that even amid an alien culture he was a leader and a peacemaker in the schoolyard. He always wanted the job of organizing the other kids into a line before class, says Fermina Katarina Sinaga Suhanda, his third-grade teacher, who had to urge him to take turns. "He always wants to be No. 1, to be at the front. Psychologically, he wants to be in charge," she says.
It's a long way from homeroom monitor to commander in chief, of course. But it was in Jakarta that Obama came to appreciate both the powerlessness of his native companions and the status that came from having a white American mother, Ann, who worked for the U.S. Embassy. "He was at an age when you first begin to see what's going on," says Ben Rhodes, one of his speechwriters. "And what he saw was that America had something other people wanted. Here he is in a majority Muslim country, in a poor neighborhood. And … he has this tie to America that affords him an immediate opportunity that no one else has." Both Obama's Kenyan father—who abandoned the family—and his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, were eager to penetrate that Western world. They never fully succeeded, and Obama knew it.
That experience, aides say, turned Obama into both someone who identifies with those less fortunate abroad—and a true-blue patriot. "He understands he's gotten where he is based on the fact that we have a system that opens up opportunity to smart and talented people," says retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak, a top Obama adviser. McPeak, Rhodes and others claim that Obama's upbringing gives him deeper insight into how to win the "hearts and minds" so crucial to success in Iraq, and in the global struggle against Islamic extremism. "Obama's experience living abroad gives him a sense of that grass-roots life, which is so important in shaping why a terrorist is a terrorist," says Tony Lake, Bill Clinton's former national-security adviser, who now is a top Obama adviser.
Obama strikes this theme in speech after speech. In San Francisco last week he derided the typical "codel" (congressional delegation) trip in which "you go from the airport to the embassy … then you go home." Obama will often refer sarcastically to the view a U.S. senator gets from a helicopter zooming over another benighted country. "You see thousands of desperate faces, but you only see them from a distance," he said in a speech last August. Al Qaeda's new recruits come from just those communities, and the key to success for America in the global sphere, he added, is to win over "that child looking up at the helicopter [who] must see America and feel hope." He knows this because he was that child once, Obama says.
This supposedly unique sense of empathy, however, could easily remind some people of Bill Clinton's propensity for "feeling their pain"—and it opens Obama up to charges of naiveté. "It is a danger," says biographer David Mendell, the Chicago Tribune reporter who wrote "Obama: From Promise to Power." "He believes that he can turn anybody to his side. His former Senate campaign manager says Obama thinks he can go into a room full of skinheads and come out with all their votes. But some people just aren't going to be won over." Obama was harshly criticized after he declared, during a debate last year, that he would sit down with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without setting preconditions. The Bush administration and McCain have declared they would not do so at least until Tehran stops enriching uranium, and even Clinton has criticized Obama's stance. The candidate still insists that a major power like Iran must be engaged. But he's now careful to inject a note of realism into his position, telling NEWSWEEK last week that "it wouldn't make sense for us to negotiate or even have discussions with Iran probably when they are in the midst of a political season." (Iran's presidential elections are in 2009.)
Even some Dems who'd favor him in any contest against McCain also worry that Obama is overplaying his experience. "I don't know whether he's drinking his own Kool-Aid," says a former senior member of the Clinton administration who is not backing either Democratic candidate but would talk only on condition of anonymity because of his private-sector job. "I'm all for talking to the Cubans, or to the Iranians. I'm just not sure he's the guy to do it. The biggest administrative job he ever had was collecting articles for the Harvard Law Review."
It's true that one thing Obama's multicultural upbringing has left him with is enormous self-confidence. He seems to feel at home everywhere, in every kind of crowd.
Obama advisers say that background has given him a feel for what the other side in a negotiation will accept, which helps him to bridge divides. One aide recalls that during a discussion with Palestinian university students in 2006, he told them they have "legitimate aspirations" for statehood, but had to set aside dreams of destroying Israel or splitting the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Obama also shows a pragmatic willingness to find a modus vivendi—as he demonstrated when he asked Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker at hearings last week how much of an Iranian and Qaeda presence in Iraq was acceptable. Former representative Lee Hamilton, another supporter, says Obama's ability to engage with opposing points of view is critical at a time of declining American influence. "We're the world's biggest power, we have all this economic, military and technological power, but we cannot bend the world to our will. This means you have to have a president who's going to be a good listener."
Yet both Clinton and McCain have offered similar bromides about approaching the world more humbly post-Bush. Obama's camp may be on more solid ground when they argue that his fresh global perspective allows him to question traditional foreign-policy thinking. They note that when he joined the Senate in early 2005, one of the first things he did was call Republican Richard Lugar out of the blue and ask to work with him on preventing the spread of loose nukes. (The two combined on the Lugar-Obama law, which seeks to destroy and intercept conventional and nuclear weapons and WMD materials.) In last week's interview, Obama attacked the central premise of McCain's campaign, that "Islamic extremism" is the "transcendent challenge" of the 21st century. "I think he's missing the forest for the trees," Obama said. "I think the defining challenge for us is to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of those who might be tempted to use them … Then we can handle the terrorists."
Touting his worldliness remains politically risky for Obama. Americans, as they have been for 200 years, are suspicious of foreign influence—recall that some mocked John Kerry because he spoke French. Obama's sensitivity to foreign grievances is likely to become a talking point for the GOP, which will question his priorities as commander in chief. Former JFK adviser Newton Minow says Obama reminds him of a young Kennedy. But Minow is wary of the fate of Adlai Stevenson, the Illinois governor and Democratic nominee in 1952 and '56 who, like Obama, was seen as brilliant and eloquent but a little too … exotic. "I remember after Adlai lost, he said to me: 'I could have carried England and France'," Minow jokes. The more Obama-mania sweeps countries around the world, the more suspicious his background becomes to some Americans.
Obama's supporters say it's slanderous to suggest that he wouldn't have his priorities straight as president. "I've never met a person anywhere in and out of public life who is more focused on America and its interests," says McPeak. Adds Sarah Sewall of Harvard, Obama's counterinsurgency adviser: "He's really clear about this. He says the first thing I'm supposed to do is keep Americans safe. All these people who would imply that [he's not tough enough] are the same people who jumped all over him about his comments about Pakistan and bombing." (Obama was criticized for being too aggressive when he declared last August, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President [Pervez] Musharraf won't act, we will.") Obama, who has called for two extra U.S. Army brigades to be deployed to Afghanistan, says that in places like Pakistan, America must do both—win over the people by supporting democracy and hit the terrorists harder.
His supporters know that's a fine line, though. "He's not saying, 'Gee, I should go talk with Al Qaeda and I can persuade bin Laden not to go to war with us.' He's saying 'I'll move in two brigades and if the Pakistanis don't get him, I will'," says former Navy secretary Richard Danzig, another top adviser. "This is not a soft position." At the same time, Danzig admits, "the feeling that there is a common humanity," even with adversaries, "is deep in his own personal experience and his DNA. And there's always the risk that you don't quite get [the balance] right."