Why I Have More Foreign Policy Experience than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama
[NOTE: This post has been updated to fix an inadvertent mistake]
Not too long ago, Sen. Obama made this comment (emphasis mine, throughout this post - unless otherwise stated):
Probably the strongest experience I have in foreign relations is the fact I spent four years overseas when I was a child in Southeast Asia.
To which Joe Biden responded as follows:
"I think he's right," Biden said smiling. "That is his strongest [foreign policy] credential."
Yesterday, Sen. Obama upped the ante some more:
Barack Obama insists his experiences traveling and having family living overseas brings more to the table than, let's say, the job of a former first lady.
"It's that experience, that understanding, not just of what world leaders I went and talked to in the ambassadors house I had tea with, but understanding the lives of the people like my grandmother who lives in a tiny hut in Africa," Obama, D-Ill., told a crowd of would-be voters in Coralville, Iowa, on Friday.
Obama went on to argue that this difference led him to make judgment about the Iraq war.
"That's the experience that helped inform my opposition to the war in Iraq, that's the kind of experience that's rooted in the real lives of the American people," he said.
Taylor Marsh wrote about this yesterday (as did Jeralyn at Talk Left), but this is just wonderful to know because I spent many more years overseas as a child than Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton did. I also have traveled a reasonable amount overseas, have many friends and close family living overseas and I opposed the Iraq war. So, I am gratified to know that I have more foreign policy experience than Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton!
Back in the real world inhabited by people with a modicum of common sense, I am hoping that Sen. Obama's wealth of "experience" has informed him that the Republicans will plaster these statements of his on the airwaves for months and months if he wins the Democratic nomination because they sound like an SNL or Jon Stewart parody - only they're actual statements of his. Let me be very blunt. The GOP will use these childish and ill-considered statements that I would not even advise a high school kid to make in-jest, to paint Sen. Obama in the most negative way possible. For perspective, let me add that if Howard Dean was the one who had made these statements (and I'm sure he would not have), he would have been destroyed by the media yesterday. I understand that Sen. Obama wants to differentiate himself on the "experience" issue from Sen. Clinton - but there are far more intelligent ways to accomplish that goal. These statements are deeply embarrassing coming from someone who seeks to be President of the United States - so I would appreciate it very much if Sen. Obama uses a different approach to showcase his better "experience", especially if he becomes the Democratic nominee for President.
With respect to Sen. Obama's self-touted opposition to the Iraq war and how his "foreign policy experience" (for lack of a better phrase) has "helped inform [his] opposition to the war in Iraq", I see little evidence for this especially given that all of that Magnificent ExperienceTM didn't prompt him to block funding for the war or force a timeline based withdrawal from Iraq from 2004 through 2006*. Even in 2003, he was forced by the Black Agenda Report to republish his 2002 speech opposing the war on his U.S. Senate campaign website after they discovered it had been removed from the site and wrote that his campaign was largely non-responsive about their queries about the removal. Further, on more than one occasion, he gave the impression that he might have voted differently if he had actually been in the U.S. Senate at the time of the Iraq resolution. As the Common Ills blog noted (h/t B. Merry, emphasis in original):
..."But, I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports," Mr. Obama said. "What would I have done? I don't know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made."
Do you get that, do you grasp it? Barack Obama told the New York Times in 2004 that he didn't know how he would have voted on the resolution HAD HE BEEN IN THE SENATE.
"I opposed this war from the start"? The public record shows Obama gave a speech calling it a "dumb" war before it started. Then it started. He went on to then tell the New York Times that he wasn't sure how he would have voted had he been in the Senate.
He DID NOT oppose all along. He made some weak-ass statements before the illegal war started and then he got on board with the illegal war. "Dumb" war is not a position a lawyer should take. "Dumb" war might play well as a faux folksy talking point for Fred Thompson, but, as Patti Williams can't stop gushing, Barack Obama was the president of the Harvard Law Review. "Dumb" war is a "dumb" thing and a weak thing for a legal mind to state. And he admitted, in 2004, he didn't know how he would have voted if he'd been in the Senate in 2002. But that didn't stop him from calling out John Edwards and saying Edwards was "four and a half years late on leadership" in the New Hampshire debate this year.
And here's the thing, Bambi didn't just make the "I don't know how I would've voted in 2002 if I'd been in the Senate" statement once. And he was still making it in late 2006. Speaking to David Remnick (The New Yorker, November 2006), he was asked about differences between himself and Hillary Clinton. He responded:
I think what people might point to is our different assessments of the war in Iraq, although I'm always careful to say that I was not in the Senate, so perhaps the reason I thought it was such a bad idea was that I didn't have the benefit of U.S. intelligence. And, for those who did, it might have led to a different set of choices. So that might be something that sort of is obvious. But, again, we were in different circumstances at that time: I was running for the U.S. Senate, she had to take a vote, and casting votes is always a difficult test.
The conversation with Remnick is also available as an audio download. Casting a vote can be 'difficult.' Chicago's WBEZ reported (link has text and audio) last week that Obama "missed more than 160 votes on the Senate floor" as a result of "campaigning" and that "Obama's missed more than a third of the Senate's votes this year, about the same tally as two other senators running for the president: Joe Biden and Chris Dodd. Hillary Clinton has missed significantly fewer votes than Obama, while Republican John McCain has missed far more." Bernie Tafoya (WBBM) narrowed it down, "During September and October, Senator Obama missed 71 -- or nearly 80 percent -- of the 89 votes that have taken place in the Senate." That included the Iran resolution, the one Bambi wants to hiss, "Bad Hillary! You voted for it!" But he was a member of the Senate and he knew about the vote and chose not to show up. He says Iran says something about Hillary Clinton. It says a great deal about him: He didn't vote one way or the other. Is that what he would have done in 2002? Ducked the vote?
Given Sen. Obama's strong tendency to vote "present" on - or otherwise duck - controversial votes, I wouldn't have been surprised if he had "ducked" the 2002 Iraq vote as well. What's worse, Sen. Obama's childish statements yesterday are completely at odds with what his own foreign policy advisor Susan Rice had to say to the New York Times this week. Recall this critique of Sen. Clinton's alleged lack of experience that I wrote about yesterday?
But other administration officials, as well as opponents of Mrs. Clinton, are skeptical that the couple’s conversations and her 79 trips add up to unique experience that voters should reward. She was not independently judging intelligence, for the most part, or mediating the data, egos and agendas of a national security team. And, in the end, she did not feel or process the weight of responsibility.
Susan Rice, a National Security Council senior aide and State Department official under Mr. Clinton who now advises Mr. Obama, said Mrs. Clinton was not involved in “the heavy lifting of foreign policy.” Ms. Rice also took issue with a recent comment by a Clinton campaign official that Mrs. Clinton was “the face of the administration in foreign affairs.”
“Making tough decisions, responding to crises, making the bureaucracy implement decisions that they may not want to implement — that’s the hard part of foreign policy,” Ms. Rice said. “That’s not what Mrs. Clinton was asked or expected to do as first lady.”
[Note the part about "...was not independently judging intelligence" - which is the one part that Sen. Obama has been in agreement with in two interviews where he said that if he had been in the position of a U.S. Senator, weighing all the intelligence he was shown, he was not sure how he would have voted.]
This is not the first time that Sen. Obama and his key surrogate and Washington Establishment foreign policy advisor Susan Rice have been totally at odds - giving the impression that he has no control over what he or his campaign is saying - another big no-no if he hopes to survive the general election. You may all recall how Sen. Obama said the U.S. should take unilateral military action against militants inside Pakistan if the Pakistani Government was unwilling to act - i.e. he made it clear that if Pakistan is unable to do what is needed, we should act. As Big Tent Democrat points out at MyDD:
At this point, I think Barack Obama should just be quiet about Pakistan. After his FP advisor Susan Rice earlier today said:
"Senator Clinton's view has been closer to Bush's, which is to see Musharraf as the linchpin but democracy as something that is desirable, but not necessarily essential to our security interests," said Rice, "Whereas Obama feels that democracy and human rights in the context of Pakistan are essential to our security."
Now in a complete aboutface, Obama disagrees with Hillary Clinton's suggestion of an international commission to investigate the Bhutto assassination, saying:
Clinton also called for an independent, international investigation into Bhutto's death, "perhaps along the lines of what the United Nations have been doing with respect to the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in Lebanon." Obama said he doesn't share that view. "It is important to us to not give the idea that Pakistan is unable to handle its own affairs," he said.
Maybe Susan Rice and Obama need to try and get on the same page when they are making utterly contradictory statements about their faith in Musharraf ON THE SAME DAY!
This just gets more and more ridiculous with every passing day - and this is the campaign that is allegedly the one with the best "foreign policy" experience. One last point.
Earlier this month, another one of Sen. Obama's key Washington Establishment foreign policy advisors, Anthony Lake, had this to say:
Lake pointed to one perceived vulnerability, Obama's short tenure on the national stage. "I know he gets attacked on this, but I think it's a positive, his experience," said Lake. "The fact is, that having served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Veterans Affairs Committee, Homeland Security, etc., -- he has more experience already in our area than did Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton, George Bush."
Wow, more experience already than all the past Presidents even though he's never been an executive or President himself! Other than the complete absurdity of this claim, [UPDATE: My mistake here. Upon re-reading this, I believe Tony Lake was actually comparing Obama's experience with that of the past Presidents before they became President, not after. So, I struck out my earlier, incorrect comment]. I'd like to point out something about Sen. Obama's great "experience" with respect to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As Steve Clemons wrote at The Washington Note (emphasis mine):
That said, there is a great deal I do admire in Hillary Clinton -- and one of the things that simply can't be disputed is her work ethic. I've met her a number of times, usually at receptions -- and each time I decided not to waste the moment with trivial banter but to throw an idea at her or mention a person or issue that would help me understand how real, how informed, or alternatively -- how contrived -- she was.
Every single time she jumped on the issue I brought up and expressed two or three dimensions to the issue that showed she was deeply steeped in this or that policy. In my New America Foundation role, I helped build and support programs as diverse as debates about genetic scientific advancements to family work issues, health care, and wireless spectrum -- not to mention my own core interests in foreign policy, national security/defense issues, and international economic policy. Hillary Clinton and I have had quick encounters that involved her sharing incredibly diverse and serious policy commentary.
The last time I had such a discussion with her was after she had won her last Senate race in New York, and she and Bill Clinton were a bit early to a UN Foundation reception honoring Muhammad Yunus. We had a really interesting discussion about what should be on a roster of 21st century threats and how our national security and foreign policy resources should be reorganized to deal with future challenges rather than keeping vested interests tied to old threats well funded. Her quick grasp of what I was trying to get at -- and a detailed response that was serious and level-headed -- really surprised me as I'm used to politicians who typically have to fake their way through detail.
I get the sense that Barack Obama is also extremely intelligent, though I've not had the same kind of encounters with him that I have had with Hillary Clinton and thus can't give personal commentary.
But I am convinced of something about Hillary Clinton's commitment to use every lever and every aspect of government machinery to push her legislative and policy work that I'm disappointed to say that I can't find as strongly in Barack Obama's profile. My concern has to do with the fact that as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations' Subcommittee on Europe, Obama has held zero hearings -- at least that is how the record appears to me.
Compare this to the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe, which is having constant hearings -- or to the Senate Subcommittee's work before Obama became Chair -- or to a comparative commitment of Hillary Clinton on a Subcommittee she chairs, and the zero hearing detail is disconcerting.
By the way, I have to praise the Environment and Public Works Committee for its website. I wanted to know what role Senator Clinton had played in the Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health and not only found testimony of all involved but found photos showing who was there.
I'm not trying to find a minor, nuanced difference between Obama and Clinton and inflate that to inappropriate levels. I am a fan of some of Obama's foreign policy positions -- though I think that I tend to appreciate his speeches influenced by Zbigniew Brzezinski that reflect tough-minded thinking and hard choices rather than those influenced by former Clinton National Security Adviser Anthony Lake that seem to want America to rush into every global cause without clear delineation of priorities and an accounting of potential costs and consequences to our national interest.
But the question of how a Chief Executive would utilize the machinery of government towards the public good has always been of interest to me. Senators do have the opportunity to demonstrate executive-style leadership (or not) in how they deploy the resources taxpayers provide them in pursuing or informing legislative process.
Senator Obama has a great team. Some of his staff are friends and former colleagues of mine -- though i can say the same about every one of the presidential candidates in both parties.
But his not calling any hearings in a Senate Subcommittee he chairs ought to raise some questions that he needs to respond to. His Subcommittee deals with Europe, with NATO, with various related political and security matters -- and he's got the gavel and can set the agenda.
Given the stress NATO is experiencing today on many fronts -- from the question of Europe's evolving security identity, to NATO's deployments in Afghanistan, to the evolving question of how to deal with Russia, Kosovo, and other common challenges -- it seems inconceivable that Senator Obama would not want to highlight important policy concerns by way of hearings.
Of course, Steve is simple-minded and doesn't realize that according to Sen. Obama's definition of "foreign policy experience", I am more experienced than Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama.
P.S. *Sentence reworded to eliminate my confusing formulation in my original version ("didn't prevent him from blocking funding for the war or forcing a timeline based withdrawal from Iraq from 2004 through 2006").