Leave it to Sen. Barack Obama to stir up an international incident by acknowledging something that everyone already knew.
His rivals in both parties pounced, calling his stance naive and a sign of his lack of foreign policy experience. Yet they didn’t disagree with the policy. They just didn’t like the way Mr. Obama said it.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton launched that theme earlier when he suggested that he would meet with dictators from countries such as Cuba, Iran, Venezuela or North Korea in his first year as president. First you need preconditions to such meetings, she scolded, like a wise teacher setting a prized pupil straight.
In this way, we see a new debate emerging in the dog days of summer. It centers on the issue of how much Mr. Obama has yet to learn about foreign policy. The former first lady and second-term senator, who has been widening her lead over Mr. Obama in polls, certainly has the edge on experience. But Mr. Obama has a big comeback of his own: If experience got us into the foreign policy mess we face today, that kind of experience is overrated.
Mr. Obama was criticized for declaring in a foreign policy speech last week, “if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” Various reports indicate bin Laden probably is holed up somewhere in the lawless borderlands of western Pakistan and Afghanistan, where tribal chiefs have more control than either country’s central government does.
Does anyone doubt that the U.S. would launch a missile strike or an attack by Special Forces if we had actionable intelligence as to bin Laden’s location? We’ve certainly conducted that sort of strike in other countries. In 2002, for example, the U.S. launched Hellfire missiles from a pilotless Predator that killed a top al Qaeda official and six other al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, another partner in our “war on terror.” Yemen’s president protested, but our relationship remained largely unshaken.
Yet Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama’s other leading Democratic rivals, Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, saw an opportunity to criticize Mr. Obama and they took it. So did former Massachussetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the Republican roster. Even so, his critics acknowledged that Mr. Obama’s policy is already the Bush administration’s policy. Further, none of the leading candidates disagreed with it.
So what was the problem? The issue quickly became a question of international etiquette. “You can think big,” Mrs. Clinton scolded Mr. Obama during a candidates’ forum in Chicago. “You can think big, but remember, you shouldn’t always say everything you think if you’re running for president, because it has consequences around the world.”
Indeed, halfway around the world, Pakistani officials had called Mr. Obama’s comments irresponsible, and hundreds of protesters chanted anti-U.S. slogans and burned an American flag in protest, according to the Associated Press. That’s how other countries often see our presidential campaigns. They mistakenly presume our elections are all about them. In fact, our election is about us, the American voters, and which candidate we think we can trust the most to look out for us, our families and our interests.
With that in mind, Mr. Obama is fortunate to be jousting over foreign policy during a time in the summer when voters tend to be least engaged with the campaign. It is a great paradox of this election in these times that foreign policy knowledge alone doesn’t get you very far. Otherwise Mr. Biden, whose foreign policy expertise wins praise from both parties, would be doing better than the 2 or 3 percent he usually gets in the polls.
I’d feel better about acting on “actionable intelligence,” as Mr. Obama put it, if I had more confidence in what our intelligence apparatus calls “actionable.” As Mrs. Clinton said, we’ve had some bad experience with actions taken on intelligence that proved to be faulty. Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction come to mind.
With that in mind, our foreign policy debate needs to be expanded into the question of how the candidates would improve our intelligence gathering. Too often we don’t know whether our actions based on actionable intelligence are justified until after we have already acted.
Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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