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The Toronto Star

Obama Already Setting Tone for US Foreign Policy ...

Haroon Siddiqui

Unless he blows it today in Berlin, Barack Obama has made a successful debut on the world stage. Rarely has an American presidential candidate walked taller abroad than he.

Poised, polished and well-informed, he has marched through the political minefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel. He looked and sounded presidential ("as president, I would ..."; "as commander-in-chief, it'd be my job to ...").

Compare this with John McCain's visits to Ottawa, Iraq and Europe, which created little excitement.

Think back also to the disastrous 1979 trip of Tory leader Joe Clark to Asia and the Middle East. Designed to establish him as PM-in-waiting, it stamped him instead as a bumbler, his staff losing luggage and he himself littering the landscape with ill-advised comments.

With Obama, we are witnessing a rare phenomenon. Long before the election and even before becoming the Democratic nominee, he's coming across as president-presumptive, and already setting the tone and direction of U.S. foreign policy.

Almost overnight, his agenda - pull out of Iraq, concentrate on Afghanistan - is accepted wisdom.

George W. Bush, after consistently characterizing a withdrawal as a sop to terrorists, has agreed to "a general time horizon" for leaving Iraq.

It helped Obama that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pulled the rug from under Bush - first by refusing to sign an open-ended agreement to let American troops stay on indefinitely and then backing Obama's 16-month timetable.

Obama's long-standing call for engaging Iran has also been adopted. After insisting for years on isolating Iran, Bush sent a diplomat to Saturday's multi-party talks in Geneva.

Never before has a lame-duck president looked so lame and hobbled his party's presidential candidate as much as Bush has McCain.

Not all of Obama's policy positions are perfect, obviously.

His call for an additional 10,000 American troops for Afghanistan, welcomed by Canada and other NATO allies, is not a long-term solution. A military surge is less likely to work there than in Iraq. Just as he is advocating a political solution for Iraq, he needs one for Afghanistan - in fact, more so.

To the West, more troops mean more resources to beat back the Taliban. To many Afghans, however, more Western troops mean more of a foreign military stranglehold on their country and, more immediately, more civilian deaths.

NATO troops, especially Americans, have lately been involved in a steady stream of incidents in which civilians have been killed.

Some of these incidents don't even make it to our media and, when they do, dutifully echo NATO claims that so many "militants" or "Taliban" were killed. Within hours comes word that either all or many of the victims had been civilians. This is fuelling widespread anger and eroding NATO's legitimacy.

Similarly, Obama's position, repeated on this trip, that he'd bomb Pakistani hideouts of the Taliban is a recipe for igniting more anti-Americanism in Pakistan, which, in turn, will make it nearly impossible for the newly elected, still teetering, government to do much.

On Israel, Obama's previous comment that Jerusalem should be Israel's "undivided" capital is the same one that got Clark into much trouble. Since then, the governments in both Washington and, lately, Ottawa have become more pro-Israeli. But the trend elsewhere in the world has been in the opposite direction.

If Obama is to be the change leader that he aspires to be, not only domestically but across the world to restore America's good name, it is essential that he be more even-handed. That would be in Israel's long-term interest as well.

Haroon Siddiqui's column appears Thursday and Sunday.

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