Q&A: Obama on What He Learned During World Trip

Even if he wins the election this fall, Barack Obama will have a hard time matching the rock-star reception he received in Europe last week. More than 200,000 fans came to hear him speak in Berlin, while heads of state who are more skeptical of the Democratic candidate were still eager to be photographed with him. Obama spoke to NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe as his plane neared Paris, one of the last stops on his trip. Excerpts:

Wolffe: Based on what you've seen and heard on this trip, is there anything that has led you to review any policy, tweak things, rethink anything?
Our success in Afghanistan is going to be deeply dependent not just on getting more troops there, which we need, but also some sustained high-level engagement with Pakistan—something that I discussed before but I think is significantly more urgent than even I had imagined. Basically there doesn't appear to be any pressure at all being placed on Al Qaeda, on these training camps, these safe havens, in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas].

In Iraq, it's not new that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has wanted to take control of his own country. But there's always been this gap between his assessment of his abilities and American commanders' saying he's not up to it. As president, faced with that difference between what he says he can do and what the commanders say he can do, how would you choose between them?
Iraq is a sovereign country. Not just according to me, but according to George Bush and John McCain. So ultimately our presence there is at their invitation, and their policy decisions have to be taken into account. I also think that Maliki recognizes that they're going to need our help for some time to come, as our commanders insist, but that the help is of the sort that is consistent with the kind of phased withdrawal that I have promoted. We're going to have to provide them with logistical support, intelligence support. We're going to have to have a very capable counterterrorism strike force. We're going to have to continue to train their Army and police to make them more effective.

You've been talking about those limited missions for a long time. Having gone there and talked to both diplomatic and military folks, do you have a clearer idea of how big a force you'd need to leave behind to fulfill all those functions?
I do think that's entirely conditions-based. It's hard to anticipate where we may be six months from now, or a year from now, or a year and a half from now.

When you went to AIPAC you called for a freeze on settlements. As president, what would you be prepared to do to persuade the Israelis to freeze the settlements, something people have talked about for a long time but never achieved?
I wouldn't have a discussion about settlements in isolation from the larger issue of peace. So at the same time I was seeking observance of the settlement pledge that the Israelis have already made, I'd be insisting on the Palestinians to follow through on the commitments they made for security. Our leverage in the region has diminished, and the most important way to convince the Israelis to stop building settlements is to give them a sense that they're getting something back in return that is worthwhile, that is the prospect that rockets won't be raining down and their borders will be secure—the borders of an Israel side by side with an independent Palestinian state.

The Roadmap and other peace plans have ground to a halt over the last several years not just because of a lack of involvement from mediators but also because of an insistence on security first, which may be understandable for the Israelis, but the Palestinians have not had the capability or maybe the willpower to deliver security. Wouldn't that still be a stumbling block, even with the added attention that you would bring? How would you deliver security without having the Israelis come in and try to clean things up themselves?
That's why the experiment that is being conducted to more effectively train the Palestinian security forces is very important. We need to give them an increased capacity.

But other efforts have failed.
It's conceivable that the international community would be interested in bolstering security efforts during a transition phase as part of a larger peace package. I don't think that's an inherent barrier.

When you say bolster, would they come in as an international force?
There are a range of things that are possible. But the point is that if we've got a serious deal that addresses final status issues as the Annapolis conversation has begun to do, and the parties are deeply invested in that, then I think the international community can help the parties muster both the resources and the capacity to make the deal stick.

You wrote in your first book about the seductive nature of talking to big crowds, getting them moved by your words. How does speaking to 200,000 people in Berlin not go to your head?
[Laughs] Because most of them can't vote in a U.S. election. My overriding mood during the course of this trip is a sober one. When you look at the very difficult problem of Iran, the very difficult problem of Afghanistan and Pakistan, continuing difficulties in Iraq, the challenges of Middle East peace, the next president is going to have his hands full. And that's before you start talking about climate change, the economy, relationships with Russia, China and North Korea. The point is it doesn't take much to puncture any euphoria you may feel because of a speech you've given.

Your conservative critics have suggested that with your focus on your own story, and this campaign's focus on you, there's a narcissism in how you've been campaigning.
How so?

Because you tell your story so often.
When have I mentioned my story over the last week?

Yesterday you started with it.
I had, what? Two lines? [Laughs] I think to some degree every presidential race has a biographical aspect to it. John McCain, I think people understand, has been profoundly shaped by his war experiences in Vietnam. And it's right for him to talk about that and it's right for the American people to draw conclusions from it. I'm trying to describe to people who I am. Ultimately I don't think that's a plausible criticism.