Who's Got the Foreign Policy Experience We Need?

For both Clinton and Obama, it's not only service in the U.S. Senate that matters. It is their other professional and life experience as well.
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It's getting wild out there.

Bill Clinton told voters in Muscatine, Iowa, yesterday that he had "opposed Iraq from the beginning." Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton claimed she was the "face" of US foreign policy throughout the 1990s. Then, Hillary Clinton said Barack Obama would be the least experienced president we've had since World War II.


With respect to the first two statements, the historical record speaks for itself. The latter charge does not hold up to scrutiny. When it comes to foreign policy, several post-war presidents, who were governors not Senators, had less experience upon taking office than will Barack Obama. They include the one who must have misspoken yesterday, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and, of course, George W. Bush.

Precisely what foreign policy experience would Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama bring to the Presidency?

The osomotic insights Senator Clinton gained from her time in the White House and her travels abroad can only be beneficial, but they are far from sufficient to qualify one for the Presidency, as surely Betty Ford, Rosalyn Carter, Barbara Bush, and perhaps even Laura Bush would concede. More important is the expertise Clinton has gained in her own right, as a Senator, especially through her service on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Still, that experience did not lead her to the same judgment as Senators Byrd, Kennedy, Levin (then Chairman of the Armed Services committee, or Bob Graham (then Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) to oppose the Iraq war -- the greatest strategic blunder in a generation - or to vote this Fall against the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which greased the skids for war with Iran.

Similarly, Barack Obama's service in the Senate, and notably his three years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including as Chairman of the European Affairs Subcommittee, afford him deep insight into national security issues. Working with Sen. Richard Lugar, Obama passed new measures to halt the proliferation of nuclear materials. Having opposed the Iraq war from the start, Obama was the first major candidate to propose a responsible and comprehensive plan to redeploy our forces safely and press Iraqis to achieve the necessary political progress. His Iraq War De-escalation Act introduced in January 2007 was embraced by the Democratic leadership in the Senate and remains their primary legislative vehicle for ending the war. Obama was also the first Senator to introduce legislation to address the risks posed by over-reliance on unaccountable military contractors, like Blackwater.

Obama has stood up against the march to war with Iran. Instead, he is committed to direct diplomacy, without preconditions, and to increasing pressure on Iran, including through his legislation that would allow states to divest their holdings in companies that do business with Iran. Obama has also led Senate efforts to improve U.S. preparedness for an avian flu pandemic, to halt the genocide in Darfur, increase resources to roll-back HIV/AIDS and to bring stability and peace to war-torn Congo.

But for both Clinton and Obama, it's not only service in the U.S. Senate that matters. It is their other professional and life experience as well.

Senator Clinton spent her formative years in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois, and went on to Wellesley College and Yale Law School. Senator Obama, born of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother, spent his childhood in Jakarta and Hawaii before graduating from Columbia with a degree in International Relations and Harvard Law School, where he was President of the Law Review.

Prior to becoming First Lady, Senator Clinton was a tireless and passionate advocate for children and an accomplished lawyer in public service and private practice. Senator Obama worked as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side. After law school, he shunned a lucrative legal career to practice at a small civil rights law firm and teach constitutional law. He served eight years in the Illinois State Senate where he consistently built bipartisan coalitions to tackle divisive issues such as tax policy and police interrogation techniques.

While their academic and professional paths are not dissimilar, Obama's youth in Indonesia, which Senator Clinton derides, is something very different from Park Ridge.

Those years in Jakarta gave Obama a rare appreciation of the complex and painful post- colonial challenges of South East Asia's giant and the world's largest Muslim country. It afforded him crucial insight into the ways that others see America - ways that too often differ from how we see ourselves. It enabled him to witness first-hand the effects of poverty, political repression, corruption and civil strife - among the most pressing issues of our day. In later years, Obama came to know his Kenyan family, including his grandmother who still lives in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria. These are no ordinary life experiences for an American president, few of whom have ever lived in the developing world.

Unlike any other candidate for President, Obama is a man of the world and the man for our times. He uniquely embodies the multiple strands of America's heritage. He exemplifies our nation's ability to overcome its tortured history of racial polarization and discrimination. His very election would speak volumes to the world about America's ability to change and grow and learn from past mistakes. At a time when the world is wondering if America even gets that it makes mistakes, Barack Obama personifies the promise of what America can still be.

And belief in that promise is precisely what we need to re-enlist international support to confront unprecedented global security challenges, ranging from terrorism to climate change, pandemic disease to nuclear proliferation. We need a leader who recognizes that we cannot go "back to the future" but we must build a new future born of ambitious vision and of hope not fear.

We need a unifier who will win with a mandate for meaningful change. At this pivotal moment in our history, we need a President with unique life experience, judgment and sensitivity to the rest of the world's aspirations and frustrations. Now is the time for that President who can renew trust in America's ability to lead not only for ourselves but also for the common good.

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