McCain vs Biden: Not All "Foreign Policy Experience" Is Created Equal

Denver -- Here at the Democratic Convention there are two conversations going on. One is about the Clintons and their supporters (did Bill really insist that his speech be about the economy and his legacy instead of national security? What stage of the grieving process are Hillary's supporters at? And will that process be complete before or after November 4th?).

The other conversation is about Joe Biden: "He'll really have Barack's back." "The labor unions are giddy about the choice." "He's a foreign policy homerun."

But all foreign policy experience is not created equal.

Of course, the pick adds foreign policy heft to the ticket. Three decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including a pair of stints as chairman, will do that. But Biden's value to an Obama administration in this crucial arena extends well beyond time-served.

The past seven-plus years have shown us that "foreign policy experience," in and of itself, isn't all it's cracked up to be. For Exhibit A of this look no further than George Bush's most "experienced" foreign policy advisor: Dick Cheney. How's that working out? And Don Rumsfeld had spent lots of time on foreign policy practice field too.

What's great about the Biden pick isn't just that he has "foreign policy expertise," it's what kind of expertise he has, how he uses it, and how useful his expertise is for the unique challenges we currently face around the world. His approach favors diplomacy and engagement - backed up by a toughness that allowed him to confront Milosevic face-to-face.

Contrast that with the approach of John McCain, who also has "foreign policy experience": looking at his track record, McCain's experience has apparently taught him that pretty much every problem in the world has a military solution.

Back in 2000, during a GOP debate, McCain was asked by Larry King, "What area of American international policy would you change immediately as president?"

McCain's reply? "I'd institute a policy that I call 'rogue state rollback.' I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically-elected governments.... As long as Saddam Hussein is in power, I am convinced that he will pose a threat to our security."

In other words, he was a believer in democracy at the end of a loaded gun even before Bush was.

But as the subsequent years have proven, there is a limit to what the military -- even one as skilled and powerful as ours -- can achieve on its own. Just this past week, the New York Times reported how Iraq's Shiite-controlled government is now going after the American-backed Sunni leaders of the "Anbar Awakening," the movement of tribal sheikhs that banded together to fight Al Qaeda and bring security to the Anbar region. The Awakening began to bring levels of violence down in Iraq months before Bush even announced his plans for the surge - a fact that McCain, despite his experience, failed to grasp.

As the Times puts it, the move against the Awakening by the government "is causing a rift with the American military, which contends that any significant diminution of the Awakening could result in renewed violence, jeopardizing the substantial security gains in the past year."

"If it is not handled properly, we could have a security issue," said Brigadier Gen. David Perkins.

These kinds of sectarian hatreds -- many of them hundreds of years old -- will not be fixed by military means, particularly a military that has as its commander in chief a man who's a bit shaky on the whole Sunni/Shia thing.

Yes, he voted for the war (a decision he says he regrets), but he made it clear that our goal in Iraq should be limited to ending Iraq's weapons programs -- not achieving "rogue state rollback."

What's more, right before the war vote, Biden reached across the aisle and, with the help of Dick Lugar and Chuck Hagel, two of his Republican colleagues on the Foreign Relations committee, helped craft a proposal that would limit the president's ability to wage war on Iraq, forcing him to seek UN approval. And, if the UN had said no, Bush would have had to return to Congress and prove that the Iraqi WMD threat was so "grave" that only military action could eliminate it.

That bipartisan effort was torpedoed by Bush (with an assist from Trent Lott and Dick Gephardt) -- the last thing he and his administration wanted was diplomacy. We can expect more of the same from McCain.

So, by all means, let's use the occasion of the Biden selection to have a foreign policy debate. But let's start by acknowledging that all "foreign policy experience" is not created equal. And let's have the election be a referendum on which kind of experience the American people think will make the United States safer.

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