Middle East studies in the News
Voters Greet Obama Trip with Praise, Skepticism [incl. Rashid Khalidi]
by Julie Pace, Joe Mandak, et al.
Calculated political ploy. Timely foreign outreach. A dash of each? Ask voters across the country about Barack Obama's image-packed week of foreign travel and you'll get a mix of admiration, suspicion, even a couple of bored shrugs.
"I didn't know they could vote in our elections," Phil Wadlind, 62, deadpanned as he worked the children's train at The Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester, N.H.
Interviewed this week in bus stops and coffee shops, bookstores and shopping malls in six battleground states, these voters ranged from wide-eyed enthusiasts to gimlet-eyed skeptics and many viewed the trip through their own ideological lens.
Ronald Loring, a Miami Beach eye doctor, spoke for many when he observed that Obama had no choice, politically, to make a trip to counter Republican rival John McCain's perceived strength on foreign policy and national security.
"I'm impressed with his ability to communicate," he said. "I don't think that (the trip) will particularly make him a better president." Will he vote for Obama? "I'm sort of torn."
As a media event, Obama's trip has been a political coup. He's been photographed with troops in Afghanistan, flying virtual shotgun in the sky over Baghdad with Gen. David Petraeus, bowing his head in prayer at Jerusalem's Western Wall, and addressing a throng in the streets of Berlin.
No doubt, Obama's trip is politically motivated. His main challenge in his campaign for the presidency is to assure U.S. voters that he can be a commander in chief who can manage two armed conflicts and build alliances overseas.
What's more, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have elevated the status of international affairs in American politics.
"By him going overseas and talking with the Israeli government and the people who mean the most to the United States ... I think what he's doing is great," said 50-year-old Robert Lindenbusch, pausing as he rode his bicycle down a Miami Beach sidewalk. "What he's showing now is that he has the experience to go out and reach out to these people and to say to them 'Hey, this is Barack Obama. I'm here. Let's work together.' "
"It's important for us to see him interact and to see how people respond," added Meghan Gilliss, 25-year-old bookstore owner in the college town of Columbia, Mo.
Dale Whitesell, a teacher and registered Democrat in Washington's northern Virginia suburbs, was delighted to see Obama spend time with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I like the fact that he was around people in the military," Whitesell, 54, said as she finished running errands at a local strip mall. "I think he made an effort, as much as possible, to see what was really going on."
That Obama needs to fortify his credentials is not lost even on his supporters.
"He didn't serve in the military, so it's still important for him to touch base with the military and let them know his views on it," said James Hough, a 51-year-old nursing home dishwasher, as he waited at a downtown Pittsburgh bus stop on his way to work Thursday.
Yet others worry the exposure could backfire.
"It's showing his inexperience, which is a concern for a lot of people, especially Democrats like myself who liked Hillary Clinton," said George Londono, 42, from Merrimack, N.H., who said he now backs Obama.
If Obama was seeking to reassure doubting voters, among the more skeptical blocs have been American Jews. His Democratic primary rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had 66 percent support among Jews and Obama has been trying to rally them to his side since he secured the Democratic nomination last month.
It has not been an easy task. Jews, who vote heavily Democratic, do support Obama and he is well ahead of McCain, according to public opinion polls. But his support is not as strong as that enjoyed in 2004 by John Kerry, then the Democratic presidential nominee.
Ahron Leichtman, a Jewish writer and film producer from suburban Cincinnati, supports Obama, but wondered how well the senator knows the history and sources of strife for Israel and the Middle East.
"Does he really understand the hatred that exists there?" said Leichtman, 65, as he visited the new Jewish community center in Amberley Village on the Cincinnati outskirts. "I don't know if he's naive enough to believe that he can be the catalyst to make peace, but he's a charismatic person."
Obama may have had an answer to Leichtman this week, when he cautioned that it is "unrealistic to expect that a U.S. president alone can suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace in this region."
While some may harbor doubts, others are downright suspicious.
Bobbi Lopez-Albright, a 75-year-old independent attending a political affairs discussion at the Jewish community Center in Philadelphia, said she was disturbed by Obama's friendship with Rashid Khalidi, an advocate of Palestinian rights and the director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
"I think this is just a political move on his part," Lopez-Albright said of Obama's trip. "He has shown nothing in my eyes that says that he cares anything about Israel."
Brian Jaffee, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, pointed out that McCain also visited Israel earlier this year. That shows that pro-Israel American Jews maintain an effective voice in the political process, he said.
"It excites me that both are over there," said Jaffee, 34. "I feel blessed, as an American and a member of the Jewish community, that we have two presidential candidates who are so supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship."
But some voters expressed frustration with the media frenzy that they said has infected Obama's trip and said they didn't plan to vote on the basis of Obama's foreign policy experience anyway.
"What concerns me is what's going on inside the country. That's the first thing that has to be fixed," said Azzy Ram, who owns a Miami Beach toy store. "Foreign policy, he won't be able to change much anyway."
"I can't deal with all the hype," added Laura Caldwell, a 47-year-old registered Republican from Herndon, Va. Still, she's considering voting for Obama and doesn't worry about his lack of experience.
"I'm not sure any president ever has enough experience," she said. "We should expect that they are smart enough to hire good advisers."
Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Washington, Joe Mandak in Pittsburgh, Kantele Franko in Cincinnati, Sarah Larimer in Miami, Alan Scher Zagier in Columbia, Mo., and JoAnn Loviglio in Philadelphia contributed to this report.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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