Commentary Magazine


Might Experience Matter?

Kimberley Strassel reviews the last week or so of the presidential foreign policy debate:

And so it goes, as Mr. Obama shifts and shambles, all the while telling audiences that when voting for president they should look beyond “experience” to “judgment.” In this case, whatever his particular judgment on Iran is on any particular day. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Democrats entered this race confident national security wouldn’t be the drag on the party it has in the past. With an unpopular war and a rival who supports that war, they planned to wrap Mr. McCain around the unpopular Mr. Bush and be done with it. . . . .Then again, 9/11 and five years of Iraq debate have educated voters. Mr. McCain is certainly betting they can separate the war from the urgent threat of an Iranian dictator who could possess nukes, and whose legitimization would encourage other rogues in their belligerence. This is a debate the Arizonan has been preparing for all his life and, note, Iranian diplomacy is simply the topic du jour.Mr. McCain has every intention of running his opponent through the complete foreign-policy gamut. Explain again in what circumstances you’d use nuclear weapons? What was that about invading Pakistan? How does a policy of engaging the world include Mr. Ahmadinejad, but not our ally Colombia and its trade pact?

It may have been that in the fog of “Yes we can”-mania and Hillary Clinton’s phony foreign policy credentials many pundits grossly underestimated the importance of “experience,” at least in the realm of national security. Clinton didn’t have any more real experience than Obama with regard to national security, so one can hardly fault Democrats for choosing him. The contrast was simply not great enough, nor was Clinton a credible enough candidate to convince voters that Obama simply wasn’t up to the task of being commander-in-chief. And, of course, we have been in a primary dominated by voters in the Democratic base pushing the candidates ever farther to the Left.

But in the general election, the voters, including independents and non-primary voting Democrats, may still expect the next president to clear the national security bar in terms of knowledge, competence and, most importantly, toughness. 9/11 punctured the fantasy for many Americans that the world is a benign place, simply waiting for our good deeds and open hand.

And that, I think, is where Obama may have faltered this week. Somewhere between the muddled history lessons (no, the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit isn’t an argument for unconditional talks and no, Roosevelt never met with Hilter or Tojo) and the flip-floppery on unconditional negotiations with state sponsors of terror, Obama raised more questions than he answered. What does he hope to gain from these face-to-face encounters? Could he rhetorically carry the banner for the West on the world stage? And as a former competitor of McCain for the GOP nomination lays out here, are Obama’s instincts (he is, after all, running on “judgment”) sound when it comes to assessing and counteracting the threats America faces?

His supporters are shifting in their seats, trying to cover for the slips and bobbles, but sometimes they make it worse. Senator Joe Biden says Obama “has learned a hell of a lot.” That would be swell if this were all a graduate course in international relations. But at some point he’ll have to demonstrate he’s cleared the bar to be president.