Leading article: Mr Brown must replace confusion with clarity

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The Middle East and its environs have been a busy place in recent days, as a Prime Minister who is (perhaps) in the sunset of his power, and a presidential candidate who is (perhaps) entering the dawn of his, negotiate highly political itineraries. Gordon Brown is in the middle of a two-day trip to Israel, where he will today address the Knesset. And Barack Obama has been in Afghanistan, where he visited a military base and met the President, Hamid Karzai.

These visits are separately substantial and telling in themselves. Their sequence is surely also testimony to the efforts made by both staffs to stop their bosses treading on each other's toes. But it is the Prime Minister's previous stop and Mr Obama's next which says most about what draws them to the region.

Iraq has arguably been the centrepiece of Mr Obama's embryonic foreign policy since the day he declared his candidacy. For Mr Brown, it has been an inherited burden he has had to bear. The contrast in their approaches – as leading representatives of a close military alliance, it should not be forgotten – could hardly be greater.

Mr Brown seemed to treat his trip to Baghdad and Basra almost as a form of self-punishment. Why else would a pallid Scot visit Iraq at the height of summer, and conspicuously wearing body armour, too? Tony Blair, at least for the public's benefit, always seemed blithely oblivious to the war-zone around him; he was all snow-white shirt and cheerful pleasantries.

Thanks in part to the US troop surge, in part also perhaps to Iraqis' war fatigue, security in the country may finally be improving. But a grim-faced Mr Brown – whose visit coincided with a video reminding him that Iraqi kidnappers still hold five British contractors, one of whom may no longer be alive – was doing and saying nothing that might suggest he took British involvement lightly. At the same time, however, he offered nothing which even hinted that the present, clearly unsatisfactory, situation could be changed in the very near future.

He said he favoured reducing British troop numbers further, but would not set an "artificial timetable". It all depended on the training of local army and police, the level of general security and local elections – in other words, the same seemingly elastic criteria that permitted the troop reductions last autumn and stalled further planned reductions this spring. Early hopes that that Mr Brown's arrival at No 10 would presage a change in Iraq policy slide further into the distance almost by the day.

For all the doubts that may attend Mr Obama's wider foreign policy expertise, he will arrive in Iraq with a clearly defined policy for what he calls a "responsible" US withdrawal. He is also proposing a timetable of 16 months, starting from the date he would assume office, if elected. Given that the US is currently discussing with Iraqi leaders what will happen when the agreement on the foreign troop presence expires at the end of this year; given also that the US has already had to make concessions on the status of American civilian contractors and restrict its ambitions for extraterritorial rights, Mr Obama could well find that he is knocking at an open door – not just with large swathes of the US electorate, but with the authorities in Iraq.

Now Mr Brown is in office and Mr Obama is not. And there is an enormous difference between holding power and aspiring to do so. Yet the British Government seems still to be juggling the competing claims of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in both cases the priorities and objectives seem no better defined than they were a year ago. Holding office imposes many obligations, but it need not preclude clarity of purpose.