Susan Estrich: Obama's Big Risk

Barack Obama’s "big trip" is also a big risk.

The obvious risk, the risk that is being much discussed, albeit in careful tones, is that something could happen to him. The world is a dangerous place.

The places Sen. Barack Obama is visiting — Iraq, Afghanistan, the West Bank — are among the most dangerous places in a dangerous world. And Obama, himself, is the sort of leader who attracts adoration and hatred and zealots of all stripes; part politician, part mega-watt celebrity, he is the sort of superstar who, security people will tell you, is the most challenging to keep safe.

No one releases such counts, nor should they, but I have absolutely no doubt that Obama receives many more threats on a daily basis, and more serious ones, than Sen. John McCain. He is, for want of a better term, "hotter."

But as he travels abroad, Obama is surrounded by Secret Service agents trained to provide security at the highest level. He is the guest of foreign governments who afford him the same level of security and protection that they would an American president.

He is following a schedule and a route that has been carefully planned with his safety in mind, with access to him tightly controlled and chance encounters all but eliminated. To be sure, there is no such thing as perfect security, but the precautions being taken to protect Obama and his entourage are as close to perfect as humans can get.

There is no reason to believe that Obama is at any greater risk in leaving the country than he is every day on the campaign trail. In fact, he may well be safer.

Political risk is another matter.

Conservatives have been outspoken about what they see as the unfair media attention that Obama’s trip abroad is attracting. Did the big three anchors drop everything to go abroad with McCain? Or with the president of the United States, for that matter? Absolutely not.

So why are Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams taking the bait of personal, if not exclusive, interviews to be part of the Obama Summer Tour? There goes the liberal media! Score one or 10 — for Obama.

Not so fast. The big feet, as we used to call them, aren’t packing their bags because they’re "for" Obama, although no one who’s being fair can deny there has been plenty of romancing between Team Obama and the media, mainstream and otherwise.

They’re going because they’re looking for ratings, and they think, probably rightly, that there will be a great deal of interest in Obama’s first trip to Afghanistan, his second trip to Iraq, his first major speech in Germany and the rest of it.

Usually during the long, hot summer, each candidate gets only one chance to have the eyes of the nation, not to mention all the network cameras, upon him: the Convention. Obama’s big trip means he gets two rounds of attention.

The problem is that attention is not always a good thing. Obama is going to Afghanistan precisely because he has never been there; he is going to Iraq because he has only been there once; he is trying to show off his foreign policy stripes precisely because of the questions that voters and commentators have raised about his qualifications to be commander-in-chief.

The point is not to learn something by traveling abroad. He could probably learn more holed up in his house in Chicago with his hundreds of actual and wannabe foreign policy advisers. As my friend Bob Beckel, veteran organizer of numerous overseas Congressional fact-finding missions (we used to call them "junkets") has said, you could learn more watching the Discovery Channel than you do on one of these trips.

Obama isn’t going abroad to learn about policy or to change his own; indeed, his suggestion (which seemed more logical than it really was) that his policy on ending the war on Iraq might actually be influenced by his trip there led to a Fourth of July firestorm, with Obama forced to call multiple press conferences to reassure my friends on the left that he wasn’t really suggesting that he was going to change his mind on anything.

Don’t expect it. Don’t even think of it. As Susan Rice, his foreign policy adviser, made clear, the purpose of this trip is not to make policy. Heaven forbid.

So if you’re not going to learn anything and you’re not really going to say anything, why go?

Why give McCain the chance to remind everyone how few such trips you’ve made, what a big deal this is for you when it would be no deal for him? Why focus the attention of the world, or at least the political portion of it, on the area of your greatest vulnerability?

The obvious answer is that, balancing these cons against the possible pros, all those pictures and images of Obama in "presidential mode" — meeting with world leaders, deftly addressing foreign policy issues, being briefed by (or at least photographed with) military leaders — might increase his own ratings on questions like, "Is he qualified to be commander-in-chief?" It’s an effort to address perceived weakness. It’s also a big risk.

It could work. It could work spectacularly well. Unless he makes a mistake. Unless he says or does the wrong thing, makes the wrong move or gets on a tank and fastens his helmet.

When you’re playing your strong suit, mistakes don’t matter so much: McCain can gets the Sunnis and the Shiites mixed up, more than once, and no one asks whether he knows enough about the world to be commander-in-chief. The Arizona senator can’t afford to slip and fall; he can’t afford to look old or sick. But foreign policy mistakes? Missteps with military types? Laugh it off.

There was no hat that Mike Dukakis could have put on in a school or a hospital that would have cost him the way that that helmet did, precisely because his knowledge and experience on health care and education were so firmly based, while there were real questions about whether he was tough and experienced enough to be commander-in-chief.

The debate within the campaign had been about whether to stick to hospitals and schools or try to address the weak spot. The Sam Nunn school, as I used to call it, said you couldn’t win the election unless you answered the public’s questions about your credentials as commander. Thus, the tank factory. Maybe it would’ve worked if he hadn’t put on the hat. Obama would be well-advised to keep away from helmets on his trip abroad.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for