Obama: 'We Have a Daunting Task'

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama

If it's 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's sort of the point of the whole exercise. Obama has stopped in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and plans to visit the Palestinian territories, before heading off to Germany, France and England. Not everyone has treated Obama like a Commander in Chief, but some did him one better: 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.

For U.S. voters, the trip is a chance to gauge how a 46-year-old Senator with relatively little Washington experience might fare on the world stage. That was the promise in making such a high-profile tour in the middle of a tight presidential contest, but there was some risk, too: the danger of a gaffe or, perhaps worse, that voters would see the foreign swing not as an bold audition but as a supreme act of presumption. To help guard against that, Obama spent the Iraq and Afghanistan portions of the trip flanked by Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a West Pointer, and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a onetime ally of Senator John McCain.

I caught up with Obama as he flew from Amman to Tel Aviv aboard his newly remodeled campaign plane. As we talked in his front cabin, his only nod to comfort was that he loosened his tie slightly and leaned his elbows on his knees as we talked about what he had seen and learned so far. More than anything else, he said, the four days he had spent in Afghanistan and Iraq had been a validation of what he already believed.

TIME: First of all, how do you like your new plane?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I was just thinking how lavish it is, although it is an old plane, so the shocks are still a little shaky — you'll hear it when we land.

In The Audacity of Hope, as you wrote about your first trip to Iraq, you talked about how the most enlightening conversations that you had were not part of the official program, and I was wondering if there were any moments like that on this trip.

Well, you know, 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 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; they're in their sights across the border, not being able to go into 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 among 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 that 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. And finally 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'ites remains. ... The way that the tribal leaders and the provincial officials describe the Shi'ites in Baghdad was indicative of a deep-seated lack of trust. And the fact that the violence has lessened and that AQI [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 it? Was this hatred? Was it prejudice?

It was more; it went deeper than just objective analysis.

President Bush has often said that his whole view of Israel changed back when he was governor of Texas and he took a helicopter ride with Ariel Sharon and from the air he could see how tiny and vulnerable it was. Were there any moments like that for you on this trip — where seeing something was able to get you past intellectualizing it?

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 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 that 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 anything where you really feel like you've changed your mind?

Look, I feel as if I had a good grasp of the situation before I went. It confirmed a lot of my beliefs with respect to the issues. I will tell you I was reminded — I think this is an important reminder, because you forget on the campaign trail sometimes — just how high troop morale remains despite the difficulties. I spend a lot of time talking to families who are trying to work through the mom or dad being gone for the third time, and it creates a huge burden on them at home. But when the troops are in the field, they are energized and they are working hard and they believe in the small slice of work that's been given them. And that, I think, at least gives me some hope that if we get our strategy right, we still have the most valuable possible resource to get the job done, and that's our men and women in uniform.