Obama Looks Forward, Sees Foreign Policy Path Strewn With McCain Mistakes

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There's a heady feeling in the upper reaches of Barack Obama's campaign, but not because of what the freshman senator has accomplished in an eight-day trip nearly around the world.

Yes, senior Obama officials believe, Obama acquitted himself ably in a trip that they divide into three component parts: war, peace, and trans-Atlantic aspirations.

They assert Obama navigated Afghanistan and Iraq well, drawing new-found emphasis on the need for more US and NATO troops there -- even winning the unqualified commitment from French President Nicolas  Sarkozy for Europe to step up to the plate in that theatre of conflict.

Obama officials also say the push from Iraqi politicians for troop withdrawal schedules roughly in line with his (with the exception of Sunni chieftains who still fret about a rapid US exit). The language of "aspiration time horizons" agreed upon by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and the Bush White House also gave Obama a glide-path in Iraq on the question of troop movements and nothing on they trip, they believe undercut that opening advantage

In Europe, Obama drew a huge crowd in Berlin and ebullient praise from Sarkozy.

Obama aides expect smooth-sailing here in Britain as the politically floundering Prime Minister Gordon Brown may well try to bask in the glow of Obama, a mere candidate for high office as Brown struggles against sagging poll numbers and recent election setbacks.

"The trip spotlights Obama's judgment, skill and expertise in navigating very difficult foreign policy, national security issues," a top Obama hand said. "It shows also how he has a strong team around him but how he clearly leads and sets direction."

All this feels good in the upper reaches of the Obama brain trust.

But that's not what has spirits so high in the Hyatt Regency Churchill hotel with an elegant bronze bust of Sir Winston in its wide, marble-floored and high-ceiling lobby.

What has them so enthused in what can only be described as a series of self-inflicted wounds on what before this week was indisputably John McCain's strongest suit - his ability to talk persuasively about the way to win the war on terror in the twin battles of Iraq and Afghanistan.

McCain made several errors this week in matters fundamental to understanding how and when both wars began and finished the week coming within a hair of embracing Obama's 16-month timetable for US troop withdrawals.

In the kinetic world of instant blog posts and furious back-and-forth between campaigns fighting like terriers on steroids over every miscue - real or imagined - it is sometimes hard to measure the damage done over the course of a week.

The Obama's inner circle, they believe McCain set himself back not only with the general public but also with top-flight Republicans who will have to try to clean up McCain's national security debris.

Here is what team Obama means.

* On July 21st, McCain said on Good Morning America that the situation was tough in Afghanistan, particularly, he said, "given the struggle on the Iraq-Pakistan border."

* On July 22 in an interview Katie Couric of CBS, McCain said the troop surge President Bush ordered in January 2007 and which didn't reach maximum tactical deployment for months after led to the so-called Sunni awakening or uprising against Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists. While the surge no doubt gave greater confidence to Sunnis over time, the awakening began in the fall of 2006 with the moves against AI Qaeda by a collection of high-profile tribal sheiks.

* On July 23, McCain said the surge wasn't really about more troops, but counter-insurgency tactics. And yet the political credit McCain seeks for the turn-around in Iraq is based principally on his advocacy if the surge - meaning more troops to carry out counter-insurgency missions. To say the surge wasn't really about more troops undercuts much of McCain has tried to tell the public about what has changed in Iraq and why.

* On July 24th, McCain called Iraq "the first major conflict since 9/11." Tell that to Hamid Karzai, current President of Afghanistan and brought to power by the US-led defeat of the Taliban in the months immediately following 9/11.

* And Friday on CNN, McCain said 16 months for a troop withdrawal from Iraq is "a pretty good timetable." His campaign said McCain meant it was good so long as conditions on the ground warranted troop withdrawals. But the damage was done. Just check the profusion of blog posts in the hours immediately after the CNN interview with McCain.

The Obama campaign and the DNC is preparing an easy-to-follow guide to these McCain fumbles to assist any and all Obama surrogates in the coming debate over national security, Iraq or Afghanistan. Contrasting one or more of these against McCain's contention that he alone "knows how to win wars" is likely to become a familiar TV jousting tactic.

The Obama camp believes, whether it's true or not, that the massive publicity the senator's trip inspired rattled and frustrated McCain.

The Obama team knew McCain and his allies would sift every word, gesture and footstep on the world stage for any blunder. Obama's team believes the senator made no clear-cut mistakes and that McCain did, meaning they turned the tables at a time when McCain and the GOP were hoping for Obama to stumble.

"Some people watched the trip from sidelines waiting for a big mistake or a diplomatic blunder" said a senior Obama adviser. "It didn't happen, frustrating the McCain camp which then escalated their rhetoric and lobbed increasingly desperate attacks."

All of this is, of course, largely tactical and subject to interpretation. Polling data this week from Fox and Gallup showed little or no "bounce" for Obama and Quinnipiac surveys in key battleground states revealed some tightening of the race in McCain's favor.

But Obama's crew believes they earned points in their own right and McCain cost himself points that will take time and effort to win back as the national security and foreign policy debate continues.