Democratic vice- presidential candidate Joseph Biden has a well-earned reputation for malapropisms and misstatements. Bidenesque pronouncements such as what President Franklin D. Roosevelt would have told the American people in a televised address about the stock-market crash of 1929 are legion. Another remarkable gaffe, made in the debate with his Republican counterpart Sarah Palin, was that the United States and France had driven Hezbollah out of Lebanon - when in fact Hezbollah remains a force to be reckoned with in the Lebanese parliament.
Yet, once in a while, the loquacious senator from Delaware finds a kernel of truth. It was he who during the Democratic primaries gave us the line that the U.S. presidency is not the place for “on-the-job training.” And now Mr. Biden has hit on another extraordinarily important fact about the upcoming presidential election, i.e. that the world is more than likely to see another “major international challenge” within six months if the election is in fact won by Democratic candidate Barack Obama and himself.
Terrorists and enemies of the United States are likely to want to try the mettle of the new and untested president, Mr. Biden said, and he even drew the comparison between Mr. Obama and President Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy, because of his youth and relative inexperience, invited Russian adventurism in the Cuban missile crisis - which brought the world as close to a nuclear standoff between the superpowers as it ever came.
Interestingly enough, Mr. Biden has now joined a number conservatives who have been urgently warning of exactly this scenario over the course of the presidential campaign. An inexperienced leader gives the impression of weakness and always invites trouble, and it is rather hard to see how Mr. Biden can find this a reason to encourage voters to come out for the Democratic ticket.
However, Mr. Biden’s reasoning seems to be that Mr. Obama will show the world that he has steel in his backbone and will therefore save the day, so not to worry. Echoes of President Clinton’s wistful longing for a major foreign-policy challenge he could prove himself against may be accidental here. (In any event Mr. Clinton was in fact challenged by al Qaeda on numerous occasions, but failed to recognize the challenge for what it was).
The potential for trouble is very real. Iran might well reveal the full extent of its nuclear program, for instance, flaunting it in a test that would send shivers down spines here in Washington and especially in Tel Aviv. North Korea could well follow the path of Iran, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez can be counted on to cause trouble, encouraging populist take-overs in Latin America. Russia might well take a harder line against its former republics.
Al Qaeda might launch another terrorist attack on the United States, and the Taliban may make an even more concerted effort to make a comeback in Afghanistan. As U.S. troops began to leave Iraq, insurgents there could be counted on to revive their cause. Or something entirely unforeseen might challenge the new president, whose international exposure seems to have been mostly acquired in the course of his childhood.
But it is not just inexperience that invites testing. In Mr. Obama’s case, there has to be real concern about the number of inconsistencies in his stated positions (sometimes dictated by the audience he is addressing) that leaves it entirely uncertain how he will react on the number of crucial issues. Within a relatively short timeframe, he has reversed himself time and again, leaving foreign actors to guess what his reactions might be - if any - when challenged.
Consider the status of Jerusalem, a dealbreaking issue for Israelis and Palestinians, and one that any U.S. president hoping to facilitate Middle East peace has to understand. On June 4 Mr. Obama stated that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” While this sounds quite definitive, he pronounced the next day that its status must be decided by negotiation between the two parties, and later he reversed himself completely, blaming his initial statement on “poor phrasing.”
Similar reversals can be found on the effectiveness of the surge in Iraq and on troop withdrawals; on meeting without precondition with the leaders of Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Syria; on whether or not Iran is a grave international threat or a “tiny country” - to name a few.
But at the very least, no one can accuse Mr. Biden of not having warned the American electorate of an Obama victory. With weeks remaining of the campaign, one only hopes for more of Mr. Biden - unleashed.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.