Barack Obama has just completed a flawless trip abroad, beefing up his presidential credentials. Received by cheering troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 200,000 people in Berlin, he met with General Petraeus in Iraq, heads of state in Germany, France and England, in a manner that saw him operate at a high level of statesmanship. But his trip has met grudging acceptance at home.
Moreover, his policy leadership was burnished to the extent that his judgment about the 16-month time frame in which the United States should draw down its troops was confirmed by the Maliki government in Iraq, which also forced George Bush to issue a statement of his desire for a reasonable time "horizon" in which troops should be withdrawn. Obama has proposed that Afghanistan was the central front in the war against terrorism and as such, needed more troops – which forced the administration to suggest that it would draw down troops in Iraq and commit one or two more brigades to Afghanistan. Finally, Obama's position that he would meet with Iran without preconditions was bolstered by meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials recently.
Yet, race continues to be a powerful screen through which Barack Obama is evaluated. Several conservative, as well as liberal analysts, could not escape suggesting that in meeting with heads of state and giving a speech in Berlin at a prominent location that he was acting "too arrogant," as though he were already president.
Through the race screen they could not see the parallels to John McCain's meetings with foreign dignitaries since he won the nomination, nor the foreign trips taken by presidential contenders in other election cycles.
This evaluation of "arrogance" actually may be designed to cover up the base feeling of fear by some that not only that African American could be accepted on the world stage at such a high level, but that it eviscerates one of the primary barriers to conceiving of him as president as Obama get closer to the finishing line.
While international affairs are often complex, for many the presumption has been that Blacks did not – or could not, because of their focus on domestic problems, or their lack of intelligence – understand foreign affairs. That was the criticism of some Israeli sympathizers in the media about Dr. Ralph Bunche, the famed African American United Nations official who in the 1950s negotiated the first Arab-Israeli cease fire agreement.
Also, I remember hearing the same theme when Andy Young was fired from his job as Ambassador to the United Nations in 1979 and delegations of African Americans went to the Middle East to meet with officials and heads of state to "prove" that they not only had a right to speak about the Middle East, but were conversant with the issues.
Then, when Rev. Jesse Jackson prepared to go to Syria in 1984 to get Lt. Robert Goodman from prison, I heard the same refrain – Blacks don't know any thing about the Middle East.
Well, if the racial presumption has been that the issues in the Middle East are far too complicated for Blacks, then those in Europe must really be out of the realm of someone like Barack Obama, a Harvard-trained Constitutional law scholar.
For 12 years as a senator he was not immune from having to deal with some international issues that affected his state, such as money being drained from the budget by the war in Iraq. So, Obama took a position against the war as an Illinois state senator.
His speech in Berlin was criticized for not having been substantive, but this was not a lack of understanding the discrete issues. It was no doubt a strategy that delves into a laundry list of discrete substantive issues and offered proposals to fix them -- opens him up to the charge of negotiating in the place of the sitting president. The tradition is that this should not be done, even though George Bush criticized Obama on a foreign trip recently.
On the Black side, there also is a deep suspicion that what is at issue here is resentment of how Obama performed and that if the same kind of reception had been accorded John McCain or some other White candidate, there would not be the grudging acceptance we see, but there would be wild acclaim. The audacity here – and perhaps no little embarrassment – is the fact that a Black candidate holds out the prospect of reviving American standing in the global arena. Some just can't take it because it destroys the myth of racial inferiority that hides in the recesses of press critiques of this trip.
Dr. Ron Walters' latest book is "The Price of Racial Reconciliation."