I cannot recall foreigners ever calling an American presidential candidate â€œcoolâ€ â€“ until Senator Obama strode onto the world stage. Young people might have used the word to describe President John F. Kennedy, but the term â€œcoolâ€ in that sense was mostly applied in those days to hipsters and jazz musicians, not politicians. So to hear Israelis and Germans and even the French call Obama cool is something new ... even a little startling for an American foreign correspondent who has gotten used to hearing his president called just about every derogatory name in the dictionary.
Obama was greeted like a rock star when he gave his big foreign speech in Berlin. The crowd of 200,000 â€“ both young and middle-aged â€“ adored him more for who he is, rather than what he said. As Obama pointedly noted, he does not â€œlook likeâ€ the other Americans who have given speeches in Berlin (although he hoped all would see the parallel with Presidents Kennedy and Reagan).
Except for the latter part of his address, when he let rip with some of the rhetoric that turns on crowds back home, the speech was disappointingly routine. It was an amalgam of all the key points the candidate wanted to make about his foreign policy â€“ from the need for Americans and Europeans to tear down the walls of mutual incomprehension to the need for greater global cooperation in a dangerous world. Some of it was not the sort of thing Germans wanted to hear. Most of them are opposed to sending more of their soldiers to Afghanistan. But of course Obama was really speaking to the voters back home, and this was his way of getting them to listen to a foreign policy speech that they might otherwise ignore.
Obama's offer of â€œexclusiveâ€ interviews to get the big television networks to send their star anchors to cover his trip was a public relations coup. Somewhat ashamed at having been so easily manipulated, the networks made an effort to give Senator McCain â€“ if not equal time â€“ at least time for a rebuttal.
Senator McCain had attracted only modest coverage when he visited Europe and the Middle East earlier this year. I heard him speak at a fund raising lunch in London. He is pleasant, even though not always sure of his facts when conversing with small groups. There were no big crowd events on his tour. I doubt that he could have attracted a turnout like the one in Berlin, even if he had tried.
Beyond the fact that most of the rest of the world responds more positively to Obama, there is another aspect of their foreign policies that is worth mentioning. It's the problem about getting the facts straight.
Senator Obama only rarely puts a foot wrong when talking about foreign policy, but he has had trouble trying to square his stand on Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel with his stand that the status of the city must be negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Senator McCain seems to have occasional trouble remembering the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and more recently seems to have confused the sequence of events in Iraq's Anbar province â€“ whether the â€œsurgeâ€ came before the Shia â€œawakening,â€ or vice versa. That's a potentially worrying sign in a candidate who boasts of his superior knowledge and experience in foreign affairs.
Fortunately, both candidates will be able to draw on the expertise of a wide variety of highly qualified foreign policy advisors if they win. As the Obama campaign team keeps pointing out, it will be the winner's judgement rather than his experience that will count the most once he takes office. Ronald Reagan was no foreign policy expert, but his gut instincts proved to be correct in the long run.
Which, if any, of the two contenders is a potential new Reagan is one of those judgements Americans must make in November. Europe may have already made up it mind about this election, but it has no vote.