Yesterday the London Times reported central questions about Senator Obama’s shocking dearth of international experience: “Fresh doubts over Barack Obama’s foreign policy credentials were expressed on both sides of the Atlantic last night, after it emerged that he had made only one brief official visit to London – and none elsewhere in Western Europe or Latin America.” It also reported: “Mr. Obama had failed to convene a single policy meeting of the Senate European subcommittee, of which he is chairman.”
These basic facts, coming from a major foreign newspaper, are a sobering counterpoint to a gushing Boston Globe editorial that endorsed Obama for having “an intuitive sense of the wider world with all its perils and opportunities.” Intuition may be a laudable quality among psychics and palm readers, but for a professional American diplomat like myself, who have spent a career toiling in the vineyards of national security, it has no relevance to serious discussion of foreign policy. In fact, Obama’s supposed “intuitive sense” is no different from George W. Bush’s “instincts” and “gut feeling” describing his own foreign policy decision-making. We have been down this road before.
During my tenure as Senior Director for African Affairs in the Clinton Administration, I had the responsibility for helping to plan and execute President Clinton’s historic trip to that continent. It was a trip that forever changed the way American administrations think about Africa. I spent eleven days with President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton traveling to six countries and meeting with leaders from many more. She was a full participant in all of our activities and a key adviser–and for good reason. Hillary had previously traveled to Africa, leading a prominent U.S. delegation to several countries. On her return she was instrumental in persuading the president that he should invest that most precious of presidential assets–time–in his own trip. People who are now senior advisers to Senator Obama were involved in both of those trips. So it is mystifying to me that they have allowed themselves to “forget” the key role Hillary played in such a major shift in approach to that part of the world and have participated in a negative campaign tactic on the part of the Obama campaign to demean her significant contributions to foreign policy of which they are well aware.
Barack Obama attended elementary school in Indonesia before the age of 10, his chief period of time abroad. I, too, spent years overseas in my formative school years. While the experience certainly whetted my appetite for international relations, it did not provide me either with “intuition” or expertise in the conduct of my nation’s foreign policy. My understanding of international affairs came from twenty-three years of professional diplomacy, much of it spent overseas dealing at senior levels on crises such as serving as the acting U.S. ambassador to Iraq stationed in Baghdad during the first Gulf War.
In the Spring, 2003, I happened to debate William Kristol, one of the architects of the neoconservative agenda and an enthusiastic supporter for Bush’s invasion of Iraq and subsequent policy. He blurted out his judgment that “on the ground experience was highly overrated.” That arrogant assertion of ideology and preconceived ideas over practical experience has precisely led to the quagmire we find ourselves in today in Iraq and the Middle East.
Now, Senator Obama echoes and reflects the same attitude of contempt for “on the ground experience.” Acting on his superior “intuition” he has proposed unilateral bombing of Pakistan and unstructured summits without preconditions with adversaries such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il. As we have learned, the march of folly is paved with good but naïve intentions.
A number of us, like then Illinois state senator Obama, opposed the second Gulf War. My own opposition from the beginning has been well documented. I fought the fight in the arena itself, Washington DC, against a ruthless administration and its supporters while the senator’s opposition came from a far distance and carried no risk, given that he represented in Springfield, Illinois the district encompassing the University of Chicago. As an obscure but safe provincial political figure, he never was granted access to the distorted intelligence that was used to drive the Congress and the media. When I looked to the left or to the right for support, I never saw the state senator. In fact, I never heard of Barack Obama until he announced his intention to run for the Senate in the 2006 election.
After he came to Washington, Obama’s views were thoroughly conventional and even timid. In 2004, he said about the 2002 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force: “I’m not privy to Senate intelligence reports. What would I have done? I don’t know.” On Iraq-related votes in the Senate, Obama’s record identically matches Senator Clinton’s–with the exception that Senator Clinton voted against the confirmation of General George Casey as Army chief of staff. Obama’s vote was typically passive.
In the run up to the war and thereafter, I was in frequent discussions with senior Democrats in Washington, including Senator Clinton, and I was keenly aware of her demand for the full exercise of international diplomacy and allowing the weapons inspectors to complete their mission. Many of the most prominent early opponents of the war, including former General Wes Clark and former ambassador to the United National Richard Holbrooke support Senator Clinton for President, as do I. We do so because we know that she has the experience and the judgment that comes from having been in the arena for her entire adult life–and from close personal participation with her in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. And we have trust in her to end the war in Iraq in the most responsible way, consistent with our national security interests.
We know that she has won and lost but always fought for her beliefs, which are widely shared within the Democratic Party. The battles she had been in have been fierce–and the battles in the future will be no less intense–and she has proven her steadfastness and is still standing. She does not have a cowardly record of voting “present” when confronted with difficult issues. She does not claim “intuition” as the basis of the most dangerous and serious decision-making. What she has is deep and vital experience, more important than ever in restoring our country’s place in the world.