Legitimate Questions of Judgment, Experience

In recent weeks Americans have been subjected to a litany of outrageous statements from Sen. Barack Obama's pastor of 20 years, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. While Obama was finally compelled to distance himself from his radical preacher, the relationship raises legitimate questions about Obama's judgment and naivete.

Obama, after all, wants to be president of the United States, and in that quest has proposed unconditional summit meetings with some of our country's most determined enemies, including Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Obama's campaign has been built upon his supposed transcendent qualities and intuitive judgment. His foreign policy experience is limited to having lived in Indonesia between the ages of 6 and 10, and having traveled overseas briefly as a college student. He further claims that a speech he gave against the war in Iraq six years ago to extremely liberal supporters in a campaign for state senator in Illinois is sufficient proof of his superior judgment in national security matters and qualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief of U.S. Armed Forces at a time when we are fighting two extraordinarily difficult wars. As with his relationship with Wright, a closer examination is warranted.

In the U.S. Senate, to which he was elected in 2004, a year after the launching of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he has done little to act on his asserted anti-war position, and has said repeatedly that had he been in the Senate at the time of the vote on the authorization for the use of military force he doesn't know how he would have voted. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe, with jurisdiction over NATO, he has held not a single oversight meeting because, as he admitted, he was too busy running for president, even though NATO's presence in the Afghanistan war is critical to success in that venture.

Obama repeats the incorrect and politically irresponsible mantra that Sen. Hillary Clinton voted for the war and that therefore he is more qualified to be president. Unlike Obama, as the last acting U.S. ambassador to Iraq during the first Gulf War, I was deeply involved in that debate from the beginning.

President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell made it clear publicly and in their representations to Congress that the authorization was not to go to war but rather to give the president the leverage he needed to go to the United Nations to reinvigorate international will to contain and disarm Saddam Hussein, consistent with the resolutions passed at the time of the first Gulf War.

With passage of the resolution, the president did in fact achieve a U.N. consensus, and inspectors returned to Iraq. Hans Blix, the chief U.N. inspector, has said repeatedly that without American leadership there would have been no new inspection regime.

Saddam was a serial violator of human rights, had started two wars in the region in the previous decade, continued to threaten his neighbors, including Israel, which he once said he would destroy with weapons of mass destruction. We may not have fully understood how little remained of his WMD arsenal, but were we really willing in the aftermath of 9/11 to give him a free pass, as Obama's rewriting of history suggests he might have done?

The approach of tough diplomacy backed by the threat of military action was the correct one and it yielded exactly the desired results, a unanimously passed U.N. resolution and the capitulation of Saddam when he readmitted the inspectors.

The betrayal occurred not when the president was given the tools he needed to secure international support for inspections, but rather when Bush refused to allow the inspectors to complete their work and decided preemptively to invade, conquer and occupy Iraq.

That decision and power was his alone -- not the Congress' and certainly not Hillary Clinton's. Obama is wrong to turn Bush's war into Clinton's responsibility. And Obama is dangerously na•ve in failing to understand the need in international crises to blend tough diplomacy with the other foreign policy tools at our disposal to achieve a strong national security posture.

Judgment and leadership in foreign policy are not intuitive. They are learned through experience. Obama's long and close relationship with the anti-American hate-monger Wright, his inattention to his responsibilities in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his careless approach to Iraq all suggest that he would benefit from more experience. We should ask whether we want those lessons to be learned in the White House.

Originally published in the Raleigh News and Observer.