Obama in the Middle East: No Easy Questions

Standing opposite the Roman ruins of a Temple to Hercules, Barack Obama did a public high-wire act on Tuesday: undertaking to answer a week's worth of complex foreign policy questions without making any campaign-threatening stumbles.

The press conference atop the ancient Citadel in Amman, Jordan, was Obama's first session with the press since he flew to Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq last week. In the last four days, he has enjoyed at least two measures of good fortune that have helped him stay on course.

First, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, effectively endorsed Obama's 16-month timeframe for withdrawing from Iraq, suggesting the end of 2010 as an end-date for U.S. troops to leave. Maliki's office half-heartedly tried to backtrack on that support for a similar timeline, under pressure from the White House, but then wound up talking anew about a date certain. His interjection makes it much harder for McCain to argue that Obama's withdrawal plan is reckless.

Second, Obama got some priceless photo ops-alongside Gen. David Petraeus on a helicopter tour of Iraq, and eating alongside the troops in the Middle East. Those images give Obama ammunition to use in combating one of John McCain's major criticisms of the Democratic contender-that he lacks the foreign policy experience necessary for success in the White House.

But those advantages didn't prevent Obama from looking wobbly once in awhile. He was pressed repeatedly by Jordanian reporters about his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ahead of his travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Wednesday. When asked about U.S. support for Israel, Obama intended to send a strong message that the United States would remain supportive of its ally. Instead his response came out this way. "Well let me be absolutely clear. Israel is a strong friend of Israel's," he declared. "It will be a strong friend of Israel's under a McCain administration. It will be a strong friend of Israel's under an Obama administration. So that policy isn't going to change."

Obama's most challenging question, asked in several different formulations, was about his approach to the commanders on the ground in Iraq. If the commanders, especially Gen. Petraeus, told him this wasn't the right time to leave Iraq, would he ignore them?

"In his role as commander on the ground, not surprisingly, he wants to retain as much flexibility as possible in terms of accomplishing that goal," Obama began. "What I emphasized to him was, you know, if I were in his shoes, I'd probably feel the same way. But my job as a candidate for president and a potential commander in chief extends beyond Iraq."

Obama repeatedly dodged the question. Instead of a choice between listening to Petraeus and taking his own advice, Obama spoke about the competing demands on a commander-in-chief: whether it would be more pressing to send more troops to Afghanistan or spend more money at home.

Seated beside him in the searing heat and dust were his two travel buddies, Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.). The two will not be traveling on to Israel and Europe; going forward, Obama exits the military aircraft (used as part of a congressional fact-finding tour) and takes a seat aboard his newly-repainted campaign plane.

But the bipartisan duo's presence in the battle zone helped to underscore Obama's call for the U.S. to move beyond political conflict-especially where national security is concerned. "Regardless of who becomes the next president, Democrat or Republican, I think we're all going to have to strip away the ideology, we're going to have to strip away the politics," Obama said. "The issues are too serious, and reality is reasserting itself."

Obama's balancing act won't get any easier as he heads to Israel Tuesday night. McCain has done his best to try to step on Obama's publicity; the Republican, mindful of the fact that a sizable chunk of the campaign press corps is paying special attention to his rival this week, has been pounding Obama for saying that if he had it to do over again, he would still oppose the Bush administration-backed surge. And McCain's camp has even let flower rumors that he may be on the verge of picking a vice-presidential candidate this week-a move that would certainly spin the spotlight back McCain's way.

But as rough as the American political drama can be, Obama knows Israel's realpolitik is rougher. A bizarre attack in Jerusalem near the hotel where the candidate will be staying was just the latest reminder of the policy stakes of the trip-and the ultimate decision Obama hopes it will influence come November.

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