Friday, April 11, 2008

experience to be president


(Photo Credit: All Posters.com, the Jimi Hendrix "estate")

This whole "experience" debate has annoyed me more than usual this year, even though the same debate happens every four years. Perhaps it is because the media has decided that 2 out of the remaining three candidates have the necessary "experience," and have agreed that Obama does not. What experience, exactly, is good training for being President of the United States? Obama has a point that "years in Washington" does not necessarily translate into good decision making while in office. But then again, it does matter how (but not necessarily where) you spend those years between running for president and being born.

Obama's case for having the necessary "experience" is two fold: (1) experience doesn't matter, judgment matters, and he was the only remaining candidate who had the requisite judgment to be against the Iraq War from the beginning; and (2) living and traveling abroad with "real people" and not just meeting with foreign dignitaries, means he has a real sense of countries that one doesn't get by meeting with ministers and presidents.

Having lived abroad myself for a year and a summer, I am sympathetic to his second point. Then again, I wouldn't say I know what the Italians or Swiss or Norwegians, or Dutch, or Danes, or French are like just because I briefly visited their countries (like Obama did with Pakistan in the early 1980s).

I definitely think that sitting on some congressional committee is the exactly wrong kind of experience to prepare oneself for the presidency. All one does as a committee member is listen to testimony (and try to sound clever with questions), get red carpet tours of foreign countries, and vote on bills that (other than military spending bills and the rare treaty) have little impact on the world. So the fact that John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, or John McCain are members of the Foreign Relations or Armed Services Committee is wholly unimpressive in my view.

But McCain and Clinton aren't pointing to their time in the Senate in actuality. McCain is really trying to say that being a Navy pilot and POW in Vietnam makes him wise, and Hillary is saying living in the White House for 8 years as the closest aide/advisor to the President makes her wise.

However, despite being tortured for years, McCain still caved on the torture issue in Congress. Having experienced the horrors of war firsthand, he seems eager not only to continue the current one for 100 years, but start another in Iran. He doesn't get the difference between Sunni and Shia, nor why it is critical to understanding the dynamics of the middle east (why, for instance, the terrorist group named "Al Qaeda in Iraq" would never have anything to do with Iran). Just as the war in Vietnam was not about Communism for the Vietnamese, but about nationalism. So either he is ignoring his experience, or didn't learn the valuable lessons from it.

Hillary likewise saw her husband work hard to build coalitions in military actions in Haiti and Bosnia/Kosovo and him commit errors in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia/Croatia, and Rwanda. Yet she voted for the Iraq war and against amendments that would have watered down the AUMF. The truth is, like John Kerry, she listened to people who said "If you want to run for president, you have to look tough, and voting for the Iraq War is how do it."

Really, the only jobs that give a person any sense of what it will be like to be President is a 3- through 5-star general (who have to deal with not only waging war but with diplomacy, politics, and peacekeeping), anyone who got to be in the Situation Room on a routine basis (not the Beard's show), or a high-level diplomat with either a key ally (NATO itself, Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Korea, etc.) or a key "adversary" (Russia/USSR, China, North Korea, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, etc.). Only these few people know how hard it is to make snap decisions that have lasting impact, and know which ones ended up being wrong, and hopefully thought about (and correctly diagnosed) why those wrong choices were made.

So by that standard, only Bill Richardson--who was a Congressman, Energy Secretary, UN Ambassador, Governor of NM, and unofficial liason between North Korea and the US--was adequately "experienced" to be president of the people that ran this cycle (for last cycle, it was Wes Clark, who reccomended going into Rwanda while working for the Joint Chiefs; helped negotiate the Dayton Accords; and lead NATO to a zero casualty victory in Bosnia/Kosovo).

Given with the choices that we are left with, who then is the most "experienced?" Since I have formulated experience as learning from bad decisions and/or making the right call the first time, I would say Obama. But I am interested to see what my readers think of my overall proportion.

1 comment:

Brian Watkins said...

I mostly agree with your idea of qualifications. I'd add that governors of states could also be qualified, because domestic leadership is as important to a presidency as foreign.

On that count, Huckabee and Romney would have to be considered possibly qualified. Last cycle Dean and Graham might have been.

Of course, it would just reinforce the top position of Bill Richardson. He wasn't good enough on teevee to be president, though. That's the qualification that actually gets you elected today.