Sen. Barack Obama's trip to the Middle East and Europe next week marks his first high-profile step onto the international stage, a campaign-season audition for a presidential hopeful pledging a new era in diplomacy and an end to the U.S. combat role in Iraq.
“The stakes are very high for Obama,” said Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a supporter of the Illinois Democrat.
While Obama leads in the polls, “foreign policy is one area where they (voters) have their doubts” about him, Hamilton said.
Campaign officials have announced stops in Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and England. Obama also has pledged to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan this summer, but aides have not said whether those war zones will be part of the same trip.
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The trip is planned to put Obama into settings often occupied by presidents, including meetings with foreign leaders, speeches and visits to historical sites.
“It's an opportunity for him to sit down with the international leaders with whom he would have to work as president of the United States, and discuss some of the issues,” said David Axelrod, the campaign's senior strategist.
Obama has been critical of Bush's foreign policy, but Hamilton said Obama must tread lightly. “Criticizing foreign policy in Washington is one thing. Criticizing it in Berlin” is another, he said.
“There will be a lot of eyes on him, and we know that,” Axelrod said, when asked about the risk of politically damaging errors.
In a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, 72 percent of those surveyed said Republican John McCain knew enough about world affairs to serve effectively as president, compared with 54 percent for Obama.
The two men were in a statistical tie when voters were asked who was more trusted to handle the situation between Israel and the Palestinians or the war in Iraq.
Whatever he says or does, Obama will be under scrutiny from Republicans eager to raise doubts about his readiness to handle foreign and defense policy.
“This trip is about politics. It's a way for Obama to try and compete on foreign policy,” said Jill Hazelbaker, McCain's communications director.
At home, Obama has struggled to consolidate his support among Jewish voters wary of his commitment to Israel. And while Obama is expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert, Palestinian officials have announced he will visit the West Bank. McCain did not meet with Palestinians in his most recent visit to the Middle East in March.
Obama stirred controversy in June with a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in which he endorsed a two-state Israel-Palestine settlement, yet said Jerusalem should remain both the capital of the Jewish nation and undivided.
Palestinian leaders quickly rejected the statement, and the next day, Obama backpedaled.