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The "Experience in Foreign Policy" Issue

Wednesday, September 10, 2008
While I believe that McCain has abandoned his right to use "experience" as a campaign issue, some people are still using it. Recently I was asked about responding to the argument that McCain is a safer choice because of his experience, because some friends had been making that claim. I was planning on posting about this anyway, and decided that the email was close enough to my idea for a blog that I should just cut and paste it. So here's what I wrote:

1) A preliminary question - Did they ever vote for Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter? Or George W. Bush over Al Gore? In both cases, they would have voted for the candidate with considerable less experience.

2) I think to a great degree McCain is a prisoner of his experiences. His formative experiences were all during the Cold War, when the U.S. faced a conventional adversary in which materiel was more important than morale, and one that was essentially bipolar. In his statements vis a vis Russia, China, Iran, etc., he has demonstrated a profound lack of understand of a multipolar world in which the U.S. faces nonconventional threats. In comparison, Obama has demonstrated a much keener appreciation of new dynamics.

3) I would contend that experience in and of itself is a contentless concept. The question is - what reason do we have to believe that a candidate can skillfully manage the significant challenges of the day? Yes McCain has a much longer track record than Obama, but it really isn't a very good track record. The reason you want an experienced hand in foreign policy is to prevent the country from becoming embroiled in a series of destructive wars that would endanger the nation's security - to use diplomacy and force in a restrained way so as not to exhaust the nation's resources. McCain's response to foreign policy challenges have always been of a single type - threats of force. As we've learned from the Bush administration, this policy tends to create far more dangers than it eliminates.

4) The other key element to evaluate in a candidate's handling of foreign policy is how they respond to pressure. Obama has demonstrated remarkable poise and an unwillingness to become rattled by the events of the day, whereas McCain is a disturbing mix of the erratic and the stubborn - in this respect, he is a great deal like Bush. I'd rather have the calm, calculating type running my foreign policy than the temperamental gambler, thank you very much.

5) To specifics: Obama has been consistently right in his approach to foreign policy questions, and McCain consistently wrong. Whatever time in Washington he has, McCain hasn't seemed to learn very much. McCain was wrong about going into Iraq, wrong about how difficult the task would be, wrong about not phasing out our commitment to Iraq, and wrong about neglecting Afghanistan. Most disturbingly, McCain is outrageously wrong in intimating war with Iran - an act which would exceed even Iraq as the biggest blunder in the history of American foreign policy.

6) Please do not underestimate the importance of the U.S.'s moral prestige in the world, which Bush has gravely undermined and which Obama's election and positions are explicitly designed to improve, . It is difficult to accomplish much when the world doesn't like you, in part because when we lack cooperation, we have to use force and intimidation to accomplish our ends - which just makes us less popular and makes the next task even more difficult. Successful intervention by the U.S. under the cloak of international authority gives the action far greater legitimacy and makes the task far, far simpler (and cheaper). McCain's policies and public persona would do nothing, and in fact would probably continue the decline, or our relative standing in the world. Remember Machiavelli: it is more important to be feared than loved, but avoid being hated.

6) Finally - and here is the really telling point - there is not a single substantive area in which McCain's prospective foreign policy differs from Dick Cheney and George Bush. If your friends truly believe that the strategy we've followed for the last 7 years is the smart one, if we are becoming more rather than less secure, in short if they think Bush and Cheney are correct - then vote for McCain. Because whatever his purported "reformism" in domestic policy, in foreign policy McCain really is more of the same.

One last thing - the fact that McCain is 72 years old and actuarily has about a 15% chance of dying in office should greatly undercut any greater comfort with McCain's experience relative to Obama. Palin's experience in foreign policy is precisely zero.

And that's how I would deal with the "experience issue" with respect to foreign policy.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:18 PM
  • Arbi, Well spoken(er..written!) You should crosspost this to a wider audience, say dKos. More people should see the light of your reasoning.

    By Blogger Will, at 10:26 PM  
  • Thanks Will. I've sort of given up on cross-posting, although maybe I should re-consider. The stuff I write usually disappears without comment, which is no fun.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 9:11 AM  
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