Hysteria alert: Barack Obama starts world tour

By Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 18/07/08):

You have to go back to the Beatles’ first US tour to find a transatlantic trip freighted with the sort of pregnant excitement that attends the one Barack Obama is about to make next week.

The faces of the crowds expected in Berlin when he arrives on Thursday will be portraits of the same devotional ecstasy that greeted the Liverpool quartet on their way from JFK to Manhattan that February day in 1964. In London next weekend Gordon Brown will play Ed Sullivan to the Fab One, hoping to borrow, just for a day, a little of the superstar charisma to bolster his own ratings.

The parallels between the former Quarrymen and the son of the Kenyan goatherd don’t stop there. Both built their success on a pleasing facility for the harmonious marriage of words and cadence. (“We have a righteous wind at our backs and we stand on the crossroads of history”, says the Senator. “Please please me, whoa yeah, like I please you!” sang John and Paul.)

Just like the Beatles, Mr Obama is a prodigiously talented revolutionary, the tribune of a rising generation, whose evident talent is only slightly compromised by an unsettling precocity. He hasn’t claimed to be more popular than Jesus yet, but looking at the latest opinion polls in secular Europe, it might just be plausible.

The Beatles were invested with such mystical significance that they were the repeated object of conspiracy theories and so is Mr Obama. (I’m told, that if you play his victory speech last month backwards you will hear the first half dozen chapters of the Koran. Go on. Check it out.)

It’s easy to be cynical about the global hysteria for the Democratic presidential candidate, as I fear I may have just demonstrated. To wizened hacks, next week’s roadshow (which starts in the Middle East) will offer mostly another opportunity to marvel at the perennial victory of the public’s hope over experience.

It’s already the new consensus, in fact, that Mr Obama is not quite the messiah he was once thought to be. The diplomatic substance of the trip will surely underscore this.

He will be sure, for starters, not to offer direct public criticism of President Bush. The unprecedented foreign campaign swing is already generating enough criticism in the US that to breach the longstanding protocol that you don’t attack your country while you’re overseas will be especially carefully adhered to.

And he will go further. He will remind Europeans that they have obligations as noisy supporters of multilateralism as well as rights. In Afghanistan, over Iran’s nuclear programme and in the broader war on terrorism, he will tell weak-willed European publics (and some governments) that the soft power they value so highly is not enough, and that a bit more hardware is needed.

Of course, he will do his utmost to emphasise his affinity with European values on the great defining cultural issue of our times – global warming. But it will be impossible to ignore the fact that the senator himself, and even his political opponents, seem to be going out of their way to emphasise convergence in the US over the big foreign policy questions.

A couple of weeks ago in this space I noted that Mr Obama had quickly dropped whole chunks of his political programme overboard – from pro-Palestinian rhetoric to votes on the Bush Administration’s domestic wiretapping of suspected terrorists.

In the interests of fairness it behoves me to point out that the despised Bush Administration is clearly doing its best to meet him half way. A few weeks ago it struck a deal with North Korea that would have brought tears to the eyes of any diplomacy-loving Democrat, even bringing Pyongyang in from the cold by taking it off the official list of terrorist-sponsoring states.

The Administration has begun to suggest that, as the situation on the ground in Iraq continues to improve, it’s possible that a significant reduction in US troops there could occur even before a putative Obama presidency. And this week, it stole a page straight from the Obama foreign policy playbook by opening a diplomatic channel with Iran, sending the number three official at the State Department to sit down with the Iranian nuclear negotiator for the first time in Geneva this weekend.

And so everything suggests that continuity will guide US foreign policy after January 20, 2009, even if, as seems likely, the world’s prayers are answered and the Democrats take charge.

So what’s all the excitement about? Is it just European ignorance about the realities of American politics and the challenges the world faces? Is it the ultimate victory of image over substance: grown human beings swooning like teenage Beatles fans for a fresh, attractive new face?

Perhaps. But there’s something a bit deeper, a bit more meaningful about the enthusiasm that will be on display next week. Part of it is doubtless that Europeans simply think they recognise one of their own – the closest thing America can produce to a social democrat. They may be right about that. For all his recent flip-flops there remains a reasonable and persistent question mark over the widening gap between his rhetoric and legislative record of his distant past – which would put him to the left of even the European political centre – and the rapidly evolving promises of his present campaign. And in this respect, too much European enthusiasm may not play so well back home.

But there is something else in the enthusiasm for the Illinois senator that should not be lightly disdained by Americans, even those of a conservative mind.

As even his opponent, John McCain, graciously put it this week, it suggests there is still something about America that can inspire the rest of the world. I’ve never really bought the argument that the hostility of the past eight years was simply anti-Bush, rather than, anti-American sentiment. And I still don’t believe it. What people dislike about President Bush is what they think they know about America – its ignorance, its arrogance, its narrow-mindedness – all caricatures duly fed by the media coverage of the country and its culture and its politics. But there was, it’s true, always the other side to the ambivalence of the world’s thoughts about America. The rise of Senator Obama is a reminder of what the rest of the world still admires – sometimes very grudgingly – about America: a constant capacity to renew itself.

And when you think about it, if, as seems quite likely, America under the next president is going to proceed in a direction that is not markedly different from what it has done in the past few years, is it really such a bad thing if the world actually quite likes the man leading it?