I was taking pictures alongside other tourists at the Temple of Karnak in Egypt earlier this month when a member of the national police marched across 50 yards of sun-blasted terrace to talk to me. He was wearing the black uniform and beret of the security forces, and he had an assault rifle strapped acoss his chest.
"Where from?" he asked me.
"America," I said.
"Obama!" he shouted, suddenly beaming and nodding.
It might have been startling, except that something similar happened every day of the dozen I was there.
It's a commonplace that President Obama has altered the perception of the United States around the world. But meeting people in an Arabic-speaking country brings that statement to life in compelling ways.
Shopkeepers and cabbies, students and business people, young and old are eager to signal their interest and approval. America, an old and well-known actor on the world stage, has undergone a character transformation overnight.
The author cautions however that this may be more of an "Obama Moment" than a lasting changing in perceptions.
It is impossible to escape the sense of something opening all around you. If it is not a new era, it is at least a new window of possibilities. Perhaps the "clash of civilizations" paradigm that dominated after Sept. 11 will not prevail indefinitely.
Yet, alongside that glimpse of hope there are shadows of caveat and doubt. For one thing, the impressions Americans receive in foreign countries are often formed inside a tourism bubble, where people have a strong interest in courting our friendship.
Beyond that, the sheer intensity of the Obama phenomenon suggests impermanence. Having dazzled his way from London to Istanbul to Baghdad, the American president is a starburst over the global consciousness -- much as he was on the U.S. political scene late in 2007. He maintained altitude well enough in 2008 to be elected, and he remains popular after three months in office. But staying aloft this well as a world figure will be more difficult.
The international version of the Obama Moment is unlikely to survive the first international crisis in which the Obama administration must defend the U.S. interest. And sooner or later, that crisis and choice will come, forced by the complexities of world problems and the simplicities of domestic politics.
For now, the Obama administration is doing all it can to postpone the day of reckoning. The White House maintains that the national interest can be redefined to harmonize with the global good. It's an inspiring vision, but it contends with powerful impulses deep in our political nature.
Again we see the issue of the say-do gap. There is a distrust of what the difference between what Obama says now and what the US would do then if a crisis did occur. America's credibility reserve with the rest of the world has been spent and seems that it will take some time and actions to build it back up.