Foreign Policy Blogs

Mac is Back — in Iraq


Think of it as fence-mending, image-building and playing his strong suit.

With the Republican nomination now in hand, John McCain is making the overseas trip he was forced to delay earlier this month when he still faced opposition from both Mike Huckabee and from conservatives unreconciled to his being the Republican standard bearer.

Now he's got a chance to show the world a new face of the Republican Party, a party that has been synonymous for the past eight years with George W. Bush and, before that, with George H.W. Bush.

We do well to remember that during most of the past two decades, apart from the Bushes, there have been no prominent Republican envoys as far as foreign publics are concerned. Ronald Reagan in his post-Presidency was well known but infirm and did not travel overseas, except for a controversial speaking engagement in Japan a few months after leaving office. Nixon wrote and commented on foreign affairs until his death in 1994, but was a disgraced political figure.

During this long period, a handful of Republicans — such as Richard Lugar, Newt Gingrich and McCain — became very well known to foreign elites but remained unknown to the international public at large.

Ironically, the contentious and precedent-setting nature of the Democratic race this year means that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are much better known to world audiences than the internationally-seasoned McCain.

The stops on McCain's itinerary — London, Paris, Israel and Baghdad — are logical places for a Republican presidential nominee to visit first. Our oldest allies, the French Republic and the United Kingdom, are eager to see a Republican leader disown, once and for all, Donald Rumsfeld's quip about "Old Europe." French President Sarkozy has clearly signaled a new era in Franco-American relations.

These two stops should be easy, fence-mending visits.

That leaves Israel, a symbolic show of support, and Iraq, McCain's signature foreign policy talking point. What sort of message does this send?

The first, positive message this visit sends is seriousness. Voters at home see a Presidential nominee reaching out to key foreign allies and to our troops overseas — a stark contrast to the never-ending Democratic mudfest.

The second impression is that the trip shows off McCain's fluency in international affairs and distracts from the disturbing economic news at home. He may need to dodge questions about the economic cost of the war and its impact on the U.S. economy, but better to face that question than to face the overall disquiet at home about the state of the economy.

Even if McCain chooses to delay discussing the grave economic indicators in the U.S. in favor of overseas travel, the fact of his foreign visit should help reverse declines in U.S. standing among foreign publics. This first post-Bush Republican overseas tour does not have to have all the answers, it simply needs to show that foreign opinion matters to John McCain.



Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy