Obama's lack of foreign-policy experience won't hurt

Some of the strongest U.S. presidents came to power knowing less

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, January 9, 2008

One of the arguments against Barack Obama's candidacy for the U.S. presidency is that he doesn't have any foreign-policy experience. A president, argues Hillary Clinton, has to be "ready on Day 1." As in ready to respond to terrorism or a major international crisis.

Well, it's true Obama has no foreign-policy experience in government. Which isn't to say he doesn't have any experience, or any ideas about America's leadership role in the world.

In any event, it doesn't really matter. And it's certainly not a ballot question in the primary season that began yesterday in New Hampshire and will roll on to more than 20 states on Super Tuesday in early February. If voters in New Hampshire and Iowa were concerned about his inexperience, they would have moved to Clinton in the days following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, with all its ominous implications for further destablizing a state with nuclear weapons. Instead, Obama broke both races open.

As to why it doesn't matter, just look at the presidents elected since Franklin Roosevelt. Many of them were state governors, with no experience of foreign policy. None. FDR, a former governor of New York, went on with Winston Churchill to forge the great alliance that won the Second World War. Jimmy Carter, a former governor of Georgia, won the White House in the backwash of Watergate by promising a government "as good as the American people." Ronald Reagan, a former governor of California, went on to win the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton, who calls Obama's candidacy "a roll of the dice" on foreign policy, was a governor of Arkansas who ran entirely on domestic issues.

And George W. Bush was the governor of Texas, totally untested on foreign policy. Bush could be the exception that proves the point. But Roosevelt, Reagan and Clinton were among the most successful presidents on foreign policy in the 20th century. So far, the 21st century hasn't been so hot. But none of those four had any foreign-policy experience.

Obama, at least, has three years of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a seat that provides both a view of the world and a sense of America's role in it. He has worked across the aisle with the former chairperson and ranking Republican, Richard Lugar, the Senate's leading authority on nuclear non-proliferation. He's travelled extensively in Africa - from South Africa, where he urged the local government to end its state of denial on the AIDS epidemic, to his father's native Kenya, where he and his wife gave a good example for the public by taking the HIV test. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, which also provides a broader view of the world.

Even in the Illinois state senate back in 2002, he spoke out against the imminent invasion of Iraq as a very bad idea, that would take the United States' eye off the ball in Afghanistan and western Pakistan, where the Taliban were resurgent and Osama bin Laden and the bad guys were hiding out. In the Democratic candidates' debate last Saturday, he said he'd withdraw from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, and reinforce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. That's very welcome news for NATO forces, including Canada's, which would presumably benefit from a stepped-up U.S. presence beyond the 20,000-odd troops they have there now. "When we send our men off to war," he said in his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, "we need to make sure we are sending them off to the right war."

So he didn't know Canada has a prime minister rather than a president. First, nobody in the United States cares. Second, he won't make that mistake again. His foreign-policy team is led by former Clinton national-security adviser Tony Lake, and includes a rising star of the NSC from the Clinton years named Susan Rice (no relation to Condi), who knows Canada well from her marriage to a Canadian television producer. They have things called briefing books for leading presidential candidates. It would be very surprising, as a senator from a northern Midwest state, if he didn't appreciate how important trade with the United States is for Canada.

The first responsibility of the next U.S. president will be restore U.S. claims of moral leadership in the world. In a 2006 visit to Africa, Obama had some thoughts on that, quoted in a new biography (Obama: From Promise to Power by Chicago Tribune journalist David Mendell):

"You hear a lot of discussion that the United States dictates its foreign policy as opposed to co-operating with other nations. So I think there is a lot of work that we're going to have to do in the coming years to recover the legitimacy that I think we had."

Friends of the United States, including Canada, would find that a refreshing change after the presidency of the second George Bush.

 
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