A Letter from the Provinces: On Foreign Policy Experience

by Patrick Baker                                                                                 July 16, 2008

In the provinces we hear a lot of talk about Barack Obama’s fitness on foreign policy. Actually, we hear a lot of doubt and snickering.

    Having just lived through what one might kindly describe as a two-term foreign policy debacle, we are happy to learn that Americans are finally taking an interest in this aspect of government.
Still, we are perplexed by the standards of excellence demanded by the voting public, or at least the standards that opportunistic politicians and greenhorn media operatives are now telling them are necessary.

    The big word is experience. Sure, who doesn’t want experience in a candidate? We want it in a doctor, a lawyer, a mechanic-so we should want it all the more in a politician. And yet we can’t help but think of Socrates’ alarming conundrum: that the political art, despite being (one of) the most important, seems to be the one for which there is no curriculum, no set of universal standards, and no absolute guideline for excellence. One either has a knack for it – like Pericles or Bill Clinton – or one does not. Even more maddening is the corollary: that there is no standard available to the people to help it decide to whom to entrust its country.

    Nevertheless experience does seem to be the closest thing we have to a reliable guideline. If a politician has been effective in office before, or if he has experience with certain issues, then it would seem that he should succeed in the future.

    Let us test this theory by looking to the past quarter-century of American history. Reagan was an actor with no foreign policy experience and still managed not to get us nuked. He also oversaw communism’s endgame and the final phases of the Cold War. Not bad for a rookie. The first George Bush was a foreign policy expert (if a career in diplomacy and Central Intelligence is good for anything), but was not as successful as we all might have hoped. His legacy is pockmarked by a gratuitous invasion in Central America and not finishing the job in Iraq. Bill Clinton, who had foreign but no policy experience, presided over the first and only grand period of American diplomacy and world humanitarian action since the Marshall Plan. Now we have the second George Bush. He had no foreign experience whatsoever, and his avowed policy was isolationism. To compensate he surrounded himself with the greatest foreign policy experts in the Republican Party: Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell. What did We the People get? Lies rather than truth, obsession instead of perspicacity, and a situation so dire that Americans have never been in greater danger around the world and at home.

    Having lived in the provinces for the last ten years, I will say that I have never felt greater unease at being recognized as a citizen of the Empire. This goes double when traveling. I will also say that I have come to doubt the value of expertise, or at least what passes for such in Washington and on American television. This is why I am glad that neither of this year’s candidates has any.

    That’s right, neither. The case has already been made for Obama, and so I won’t make it again. What about McCain? First, being a prisoner of war does not make you an expert on anything except your own internment. I will be kind to Sen. McCain and refrain from quoting the words he uses to describe that experience. Second, being on the Arms Services Committee makes you an expert on foreign war, not foreign policy. There is a difference, and it’s called diplomacy-the very thing we need after seven and a half years of forgetting all about it. Third, visiting foreign countries, even as a Senator, does not make you an expert on them. Thinking is also required, and although Sen. McCain may have done some, he has not shown any indication of it.

    So it looks as if the candidates are even on the experience side of things, and thank God. Maybe there is hope for the future, even in the provinces.

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