Building A Case Against Obama With Un-Gaffes

Political headlines all week, when not focused on Alberto Gonzales, Karl Rove, Harriet Miers et al. legal woes, have gravitated around what started out as a couple of minutes of verbal sparring between the two front runners for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

During the now infamous Youtube debate, easily not the most interesting but quite possibly the most talked about, Obama had the first swing at a question that asked if he would meet without precondition with the leaders of anti-American states such as Iran, Syria, or Cuba.

He said yes, and that’s about where the world stopped.

Hillary Clinton, coming right back behind him made it pretty clear how naive such an approach would be, saying she wouldn’t not without significant groundwork being laid out long before.

The resultant barbs have been continuous, the stories non stop since those fateful few minutes. Hillary Clinton has been spending much of the week painting Obama as “naive” and ” irresponsible,” conversely, Obama has come back by illustrating Clinton as “Bush-Lite”. And throughout the entire ordeal, the blogosphere has been all abuzz trying to make a case that one of the candidates has clearly showed up the other.

From WaPo’s hawkish op ed columnist, Charles Krauthammer, this was “strike two. And this one was a right-down-the-middle question from a YouTuber in Monday night’s South Carolina debate.”

A big swing and and the freshman senator misses! This was, obviously, a gaffe of the highest order, proving that Obama simply doesn’t have the experience to lead our nation in foreign policy. When coupled with his apparent gaffe in a previous debate about a hypothetical attack on two American cities, Krauthammer writes:

The first occurred in another unscripted moment. During the April 26 South Carolina debate, Brian Williams asked what kind of change in the U.S. military posture abroad Obama would order in response to a hypothetical al-Qaeda strike on two American cities.

Obama’s answer: “Well, the first thing we’d have to do is make sure that we’ve got an effective emergency response — something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans.”

Asked to be commander in chief, Obama could only play first-responder in chief. Caught off guard, and without his advisers, he simply slipped into two automatic talking points: emergency response and its corollary — the obligatory Katrina Bush-bash.

Jeez! What’s this guy doing running for president? “First-responder in chief”?

Except, instead of doing like we always do and just engage in a knee jerk reaction deconstruction, let’s take a second look at the blatant first gaffe from Obama. During the real al Qaeda attack on September 11th of 2001, three thousand Americans died, a hole was ripped into the side of the Pentagon, and the twin towers came crashing down.

To be sure, a grievous crime was committed and should be punished (which has yet to happen, if you want to get technical), but before that, what’s happening? You are having lots of people in severe distress, rescue efforts must be coordinated, traffic redirected, fires put out, etc. When 9/11 occurred, the single number one priority was not capturing Osama bin Laden (not done yet, probably not that big of a priority I suppose) but seeing to the safety and well being of as many people as possible not already killed in the initial attack.

So, while Obama’s answer may not be warmongering enough for the likes of Krauthammer, it does speak volumes of the pragmatism offered by an Obama aministration: Why are we even thinking about waging war before we look to the safety of our own?

On to the topic at hand. Krauthammer goes through great lengths to make Hillary’s case for her, pointing out the naivity of Obama’s answer, and how wise Hillary’s was. Funnily enough, and I wonder if this was intended, Krauthammer actually goes to making Obama’s point as well:

Just to make sure no one missed how the grizzled veteran showed up the clueless rookie, the next day Clinton told the Quad-City Times of Davenport, Iowa, that Obama’s comment “was irresponsible and frankly naive.”

To be on the same stage as the leader of the world’s greatest power is of course a prize. That is why the Chinese deemed it a slap in the face that President Bush last year denied President Hu Jintao the full state-visit treatment. The presence of an American president is a valued good to be rationed — and granted only in return for important considerations.

Did you catch it? If not, I’ll spell it out for you. What makes Clinton the “grizzled veteran” is that she would, in essence, engage in a foreign policy not unlike that put forth by President Bush… the current one… the one that Obama is accusing Hillary of emulating.

Hmmm… Of course, if I were running for president under the Democratic banner, I would probably start worrying if I were being cheered on by neocon such as Krauthammer in the first place. I mean? Haven’t we had enough of these guys already?

Okay, so maybe Krauthammer isn’t exactly the place to go looking for a solid opinion of Democratic values in the first place. One that is, on the other hand, may just be an old favorite of mine; Kevin Drum’s blog for the Washington Monthly.

Quoting Brian Beutler:

I think the escalating rhetorical battle the two senators is perhaps the only helpful instance of campaign jousting I’ve ever seen. At the same time, I only think I’ll believe that as long as Barack Obama wins, or at least puts up a good show. Because what we are seeing is, in as close to an unfiltered way as possible, a standoff between a status quo foreign policy and a much more constructive (though I hesitate to say new) direction.

Certainly what you’re hearing from Clinton and Obama is a healthier debate than what you’re hearing from journalists. Clinton’s basic position is that Obama has, by announcing his intent to engage enemy leaders, proven that he’s too naive to set the country’s foreign policy. Obama, on the other hand, contends that Clinton’s foreign policy ideas are too similar to George Bush’s for comfort. As far as I’m concerned, I think Obama’s argument is basically correct and Hillary’s argument is totally nuts, but in any case both arguments are pretty close facsimiles to what the two candidates actually believe about foreign policy.

Kevin continues on his own:

Hmmm. So not silly season stuff after all? That’s an interesting thought, though it’s worth pointing out that Obama’s original answer to the debate question included the following caveat: “One of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they’re going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.” Is there really a substantive difference between Obama’s plan to “send a signal” and Clinton’s plan to “use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters”? If there is, it’s a mighty small one.

Still, I take Brian’s point. It’s rare to have a discussion about foreign policy that actually revolves around a concrete point, and by foreign policy standards this one counts as at least a mud brick point. Basically, do you think the United States should, as a routine part of its foreign policy, say that it’s willing to talk to any country that’s willing to talk to us? That the mere act of talking isn’t a tacit capitulation to a rogue regime’s demands?

Here’s the deal. I’m not a foreign policy wonk, but I know this much. As a rule the United States either stonewalls foreign heads of state that are dictators, or, like with Saddam, we actually end up supporting them logistically and then kicking ourselves in the ass later on down the road.

That’s about when we end up having to make war on them, and then you have messes not unlike Iraq on your hands. Or al Qaeda. If anything, what we are seeing now should stand as glaring and blatant warning signs that what has been the conventional wisdom, what has been the status quo does not work.

Was Obama saying he was going to gather the world’s dictators into a group hug? No, but it was a clear call for a true change of course in foreign policy, one that might actually produce net positive results, as opposed to staying the neocon course, which as we have seen, produces net horrendous results.

Which is it going to be?

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