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McCain's Trans-Atlantic Trip Appears to Serve Domestic Purpose

After visiting Iraq this week, US Senator John McCain will go to Paris and London, but not Berlin. The omission can be read in different ways, but the key may be not to read too much into it at all, some experts say.

Arizona Senator John McCain at his primary election party in Dallas, Texas Tuesday, March 4, 2008

How would trans-Atlantic ties develop with McCain in charge of US policy?

Germany is well-charted territory for the presumptive Republican presidential candidate McCain. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he is a longtime attendee at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, an annual powwow of international policymakers.

So the fact that the high-profile politician is giving Germany a miss when he swings through the Middle East and Europe this week could be seen as a snub or could simply reflect that he is so well known to Berlin that he doesn't have anything to prove, one expert said.

The trip is being called a fact-finding mission for the Armed Services Committee, but "this visit has more to do with domestic politics in the US than anything else," said Josef Braml, a US-expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), an independent foreign-policy think tank.

"It is more for McCain to demonstrate his foreign policy credentials -- that he can talk to Europeans," he said. "That is the message they want to drive home to the domestic audience."

High ranking ministers observers and economic leaders assemble at the Conference on Securitiy Policy in Munich, southern Germany, Saturday,Feb. 9, 2008.

McCain is frequently at the Munich security conference

McCain's visit to Iraq and the Middle East is even more important than his visit to Europe, Braml added.

"He is visiting Iraq and his electoral fortunes are heavily linked to the situation there. Europe is just the side story," he said.

A lot is at stake for McCain's in terms of Iraq -- his political standing "is linked to that war," Braml added. "One can see that as the surge materializes, the situation has gotten somewhat better, and the Americans are a little less pessimistic."

Campaign stop in disguise?

Meanwhile, his decision to stop in France and England could indicate that he wants to take the opportunity to improve ties with those countries, relative to his already well-developed, links to Berlin.

In the end the decision to avoid Berlin either means that relations are so good he doesn't need to spend time in the Chancellery, or that Germany is totally out of the loop.

"There are both readings, and that is important, Braml said. "But which one would be true -- that is just speculation."

Observers in the US have begun complaining that the trip, repeatedly billed in the media as a routine fact-finding tour, is being turned into an overt campaign stop. Indeed, the senator from Arizona plans to hold a fundraiser luncheon at London's Spencer House on Thursday, the Los Angeles Times newspaper reported.

Be careful what you wish for

But whether the campaigning is overt or covert, Europeans are watching closely, with many fervently hoping for a new wind in Washington. However, Braml warned that "people should be careful what they wish for -- they just might get it."

Until now, McCain has sent mixed signals about what kind of foreign policy his administration would run. His wide-ranging statements have vacillated between old-fashioned Republican realism, and a neoconservative idealism. One of his advisers, Mark Salter, told Bloomberg news service McCain is a "realistic idealist."

McCain may sound hawkish when he talks about committing to staying in Iraq for 100 years. But it could be better than the alternative, Braml argued.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. acknowledges supporters during a primary night rally Wednesday March 5, 2008 in Columbus, Ohio.

Both the Democratic contenders said they would also go-it-alone if needed

"I'm not so sure Europeans would be so happy if the US left Iraq and simply left the mess behind," he said. "Whether they admit it or not, Europeans hope the US will not fail in its obligation to stabilize the region. It's in all our interests."

Close to Germany on many issues

On other issues, such as his commitment to fighting climate change, his promise to close down the detention centers at Guantanamo Bay and his strict anti-torture stance, Europeans are on the same page as McCain, according to Braml.

Moreover, McCain's Democratic competition is no better when it comes to the question of American hegemony.

"On the question of unilateral action there isn't much difference between all the candidates," Braml said of the candidates' foreign policy agendas. "Even [Democratic candidate Barak] Obama says he would do it."

But Ivo Daalder, an Obama adviser, told Bloomberg news service he thought McCain was emphasizing his moderate stance on detainee policy and climate change in order to cloak his "hawkish position on nonproliferation, China and Russia."

"This is a man who hasn't seen a country he doesn't want to invade," Dalder told Bloomberg.

Russia likely to be a sticking point

McCain has, indeed, been tough on Moscow. He has disparaged former President Vladimir Putin, loudly criticized the political processes in the country, and called for Russia's ejection from G8 talks.

John S. McCain III is escorted by Lt. Cmdr. Jay Coupe Jr., public relations officer, March 14, 1973, to Hanoi's Gia Lam airport after the POW was released.

For many, McCain's POW history gives him credibility

McCain also said he would create a "League of Democracies," which would decide on issues independently of United Nations and exclude Russia, in his first term, if elected president.

McCain was also harder on Putin and his successor Dmitry Medvedev than was the current US President, George W. Bush.

"Bush looked into Putin's eyes and 'got a sense of his soul'", Braml noted wryly. "I'm not sure if John and Medvedev will get along that way."

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