Barack Obama is in the Middle East this week-end (CNN). He made a brief trip to Afghanistan, and is now in Bagdad. This is part of the ‘Educating Obama’ tour so that he will look more seasoned as he matches up against Senator McCain who’s major claim to foreign policy know-how is his unrelenting support for President Bush (besides being a POW during the Vietnam War).
This foreign tour thing happens a lot. In my old firm, bosses appear out of nowhere and claim that they are now in charge of some Pan Pacific Global initiative which requires them to meet with ten clients in ten days. We peons then scramble around, arranging for their travel itinerary, making sure they stay at comfortable Western hotels eating Westernized traditional Japanese cuisine while flying first-class.
We prepare briefing books for them so that they won’t embarrass themselves, but we spend more time coaching clients and apologizing beforehand for the intrusion our American bosses will impose upon them. The clients laugh with us, probably aware of the tight corner into which we international consultants are often pushed—stuck between a rock and a hard place, where our bosses’ desires to report to their bosses that they have a good handle over the Asian clients with whom they have no relationship.
But we are equally at fault, using our client’s weakness in dealing with foreign visitors to perhaps ask our gaijin bosses to say something that we don’t have the guts to say. Then we all shake hands, go out and have an expensive meal, get drunk at a hostess bar, and send around memos to the business leaders, the managing directors, the deputy chairmen, the supreme commanders, and the emperor himself to tell of how successful a trip this has been, and that we hope our US leadership will continue to pay this much attention to our little Asian practice. The boss who made the trip would always coincidentally have his family along, and they go visit another traditional city, and we all forget he was ever here.
If the boss is a go getter and later becomes a corporate big shot, our clients may congratulate him and see what they can extract from him on his next visit. Such is the way to make permanent friends—becoming a big shot, that is.
In a week or so, people in Iraq and Afghanistan would only remember Obama as the rock star politician who visited them, and then got shooed away, until he returns in a year, perhaps as the new Commander-in-Chief. Then, they would remember him as their best friend, and ask for favors and lots of money.
Whether it’s business or politics, it seems like these lessons really have very little to do with learning about foreign countries. Perhaps Jack Welch was right about winning. If Obama cannot win the general election, his agenda of change will be forgotten as fast as my boss who flew in for lunch.
I'm not sure Obama needed to fly to the Middle East to learn that lesson.