After a week spent assuring the world that he is the antithesis of his widely despised predecessor, President Barack Obama ended his first presidential overseas trip by doing a George W. Bush. In style, substance and photo ops, Obama's unannounced stopover in Baghdad was straight out of the Bush playbook. Even the rhetoric was familiar, with Obama saluting U.S. troops for their "extraordinary achievement" in Iraq, warning that the next 18 months will be a "critical period" and urging Iraqis to "take responsibility for their country."
Surprise stops on presidential journeys became the norm during the Bush era, with the U.S. engaged in two foreign wars where the Commander in Chief could not be guaranteed satisfactory security if his intention to visit the troops was announced ahead of time. Still, Baghdad was the wrong choice for Obama. Iraq is Bush's war or Bush's folly, depending on your point of view. Obama's main contribution to Iraq has been to criticize the war while on the campaign trail, and then to begin drawing down the U.S. troop presence as soon as he became President. (See pictures of the Obamas abroad.)
Afghanistan would have entailed a few more hours of flying time, but it would have been the more logical stop for a President who has taken ownership of the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Obama has just announced a major new plan for Afghanistan (and Pakistan) and is sending 21,000 additional U.S. troops there. A stopover in Kabul or even just at Bagram Air Base would have helped underline Obama's commitment to what he has called "the right war."
Obama's Baghdad visit got off to a bad start: dust storms, common this time of year, prevented the President from making the short helicopter ride into the city. Instead he was confined to Camp Victory, the giant U.S. military base adjacent to the airport. At first it seemed like Obama might even leave without meeting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the end, the Iraqi leaders agreed to go to the military base.
In the confines of Camp Victory there could be none of the adoring public, fawning politicians and over-caffeinated media attention that attended Obama's stops in London, Strasbourg, Berlin, Prague and Istanbul. Unlike the Europeans, Iraqis saw nothing in Obama's visit to distinguish him from Bush though there was no opportunity to see whether an Iraqi reporter would hurl a shoe at him.
Instead, Obama had to be content with a rapturous welcome from the troops at Camp Victory but even Bush got the rock-star treatment from that audience. Obama gave a boilerplate speech, thanking the troops and reminding everyone that important work remained to be done in Iraq. He broke no new ground in his discussions with General Ray Odierno, and his conversations with Talabani and al-Maliki appear to have been strictly boilerplate.
For Bush, that would have been a good visit. For Obama, it was an anticlimax.