If it was difficult to see much difference between Barack Obama's first trip abroad since capturing the Democratic nomination and a genuine state visit by a sitting President, well, that was sort of the point of the whole exercise. Obama stopped in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank before heading to Germany, France and England. There was the extraordinary security at every stop: police in Baghdad set up new roadblocks and checkpoints to secure the Iraqi capital while he was in town. There was the picture-perfect stagecraft: speaking at a police station in Sderot, Israel, Obama was flanked by hundreds of mortar shells, stacked in silent witness to the attacks from nearby Gaza. And there were the close, personal moments that might make a difference later: after Obama joined King Abdullah II for dinner at the palace in Amman, the Jordanian leader hopped into his Mercedes and drove Obama to the airport himself. Obama even had a refurbished Boeing 757 for the occasion. In each country, satellite trucks and anchormen jockeyed for position as he flew by.
For U.S. voters, the trip was a chance to gauge how a 46-year-old Senator with relatively little Washington experience would perform on the world stage. He acknowledged along the way that, yes, Iraq was a safer, calmer place than it had been a year ago but refused to give much credit for that change to President George W. Bush's surge of some 30,000 troops. Instead, he noted in nearly every interview how the Sunni backlash against al-Qaeda in Iraq had begun before additional U.S. forces arrived. Pressed repeatedly, Obama insisted that his opposition to the surge had been correct--a claim that Republican Senator John McCain dismissed as "wrong then ... wrong now."
In part because there was a risk that voters might see the trip not as an audition but as a bold act of presumption, Obama spent much of the Iraq and Afghanistan portions of the trip joined at the hip by Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a West Pointer, and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Vietnam vet and onetime ally of McCain's. The sidemen, plus the images of combat-hardened troops greeting him, may have helped the campaign present Obama as a plausible Commander in Chief.
I caught up with Obama in the front cabin of his plane as he flew from Amman to Tel Aviv. His tie loosened slightly, he leaned his elbows on his knees as we talked. After four days in Afghanistan and Iraq, here is what the candidate says he saw and learned:
TIME: In The Audacity of Hope, you wrote that during your first trip to Iraq, the most enlightening conversations you had were not part of the official program. Were there any moments like that on this trip?
In Afghanistan, I think I was talking to the troops who were on the front lines day to day, and the absolute consensus was that without a solution to the [Pakistani] border problems, we're not going to solve the problems there. That I think I knew intellectually, but I think it was when you heard troops specifically talk about seeing people who are firing at them running across the border--knowing they may engage in a raid again the next day and the frustrations involved in that.
Were there any specific conversations?
I want to be careful not to talk about specific briefings where somebody tells a story that was part of a classified briefing. But you really did get a sense uniformly, [from] just the average guy out on patrol to the NATO commander, that this is a critical problem that has to be solved.
So that's one. The second thing was, I think, the degree [to which] Afghanistan has to start from such a deficit when it comes to development. You know, we're rightfully focused on narco-trafficking. But you've got a 30% literacy rate. We actually had dinner with a very fine Minister of Education who is genuinely committed to education for all children, but particularly for girls. Listening to him describe not only the barriers presented by the lack of women teachers--and you've got to have women teachers to teach girls in a traditional Islamic society--but also the fact that they have to produce enough schools so that girls don't have to travel a significant distance, because in that traditional society, for a girl to travel alone or even in groups is unacceptable. It really just gave me a sense, in microcosm, of all the barriers to development that are taking place there.
With respect to Iraq, I think the conversations we had at the end of the day with the governors in Anbar or elected officials in Anbar or the tribal leaders in Anbar really gave you a sense of how close to the surface the animosity between Sunnis and Shi'as remains. The way that the [Sunni] tribal leaders and the provincial officials describe the Shi'as in Baghdad was indicative of a deep-seated lack of trust. And the fact that the violence has lessened and that [al-Qaeda in Iraq] really has been routed does not answer the larger possibility of a return to sectarian violence unless that trust issue is resolved.
How would you describe the reason for that mistrust? Is it hatred? Is it prejudice?
It was more. It went deeper than just objective analysis.
President Bush has often said his whole view of Israel changed when he took a helicopter ride with Ariel Sharon and from the air could see how tiny and vulnerable the country was. Were there any moments like that for you on this trip--where seeing something in person changed the perspective you had on the issue?
I think in Afghanistan, looking at the landscape and the extraordinary poverty involved makes you realize what a daunting task our efforts there are going to be. And it redoubles my belief, or deepens my belief, that if we're going to get that done, we're going to have to put in more resources. Both issues [Iraq and Afghanistan] are very difficult. Both situations are very difficult, but it is not clear to me that in the long term Afghanistan isn't a tougher job than Iraq is.
Was there anything you saw on this trip that changed your mind? John McCain, as you know, is saying, "Well, he already knew what he was going to think before he got there."
Well, I thought John also suggested that I'm always changing my mind, so he's got to make up his mind about what he says about my mind.
But is there any area in which you really feel as if you've changed your mind?