Obama: Not So Diplomatic

by James Kirchick | April 8, 2008

At a fundraiser last week in San Francisco, Barack Obama uttered this about diplomacy:

I think a lot of people assume that might be some sort of military thing to make me look more Commander-in-Chief-like. Ironically, this is an area--foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton or Senator McCain.

It's ironic because this is supposedly the place where experience is most needed to be Commander-in-Chief. Experience in Washington is not knowledge of the world. This I know. When Senator Clinton brags 'I've met leaders from eighty countries'--I know what those trips are like! I've been on them. You go from the airport to the embassy. There's a group of children who do native dance. You meet with the CIA station chief and the embassy and they give you a briefing. You go take a tour of a plant that [with] the assistance of USAID has started something. And then--you go.

You do that in eighty countries--you don't know those eighty countries. So when I speak about having lived in Indonesia for four years, having family that is impoverished in small villages in Africa--knowing the leaders is not important--what I know is the people...

I actually covered Obama on one of these visits not long ago (to a USAID-supported furniture plant, actually) and he didn't seem as dismissive of the experience as he does in the quote above. In fact, Obama's trip to Africa two years ago was hardly the routine, photo-op driven junket he makes public diplomacy out to be: particularly memorable was the HIV test he took with his wife before a crowd of thousands of Kenyans. Never mind how out of character this is for an American politician, the public taking of an HIV test sent an enormously important message on a continent where so much stigma is attached to this disease and people deliberately avoid knowing their status.

But it is silly for Obama to suggest that he knows more about the ins and outs of foreign policy than either John McCain or Hillary Clinton because he lived in Indonesia from ages 6 to 10. And it is politically foolish for him to use this personal history as a talking point, as John McCain can simply reply that he spent 5 years being tortured, and that imprisonment at the ends of the North Vietnamese (not to mention nearly two decades on the armed services committee) gives one a better perspective on world affairs than trekking through Pakistan as a college student. Given Obama's emphasis on his unique ability to mend America's supposedly broken alliances, I find that this wholesale denigration of congressional trips, USAID, CIA station chiefs, the foreign service et al. speaks to his quasi-messianic belief that, by dint of his very presence, he will be able to solve any problem brought before him. The last president who oozed this trait was Jimmy Carter (and, to some extent, George W. Bush). Look where that got us.

--James Kirchick 

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-plank/obama-not-so-diplomatic