Just got off a conference call with Susan Rice talking about the contrasts between her boy Barack Obama and John McCain on national security policy. One key point of emphasis was the strange notion coming from the McCain campaign that talking about focused counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan is irresponsible, whereas randomly threatening to start new wars is the height of good sense. As she put it “it’s a strange contrast — he says that somehow it’s naive for a presidential candidate to outline how he would deal with that crucial national security challenge, but it’s appropriate for him to joke about starting another war.” A reporter from the Washington Times challenged her on the “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” business saying McCain was joking. Rice responds that “if he wants to say that he was joking and that’s the kind of joke he thinks is funny, that’s his perogative.”
I see McCain as basically losing on this round. It’s bizarre of his campaign to be trotting out talking points that didn’t work for Hillary Clinton, and already before the Obama campaign’s official counterspin got underway we have Spencer Ackerman kicking McCain’s ass and, indeed, Joe Klein calling McCain soft on al-Qaeda in the MSM.
More broadly, on experience there’s a three-pronged attack. First, Obama does have experience, with Rice citing the fact that he authored “crucial legislation to secure the United States from the threat of loose nuclear materials” and serves on committees and subcommittees dealing with foreign relations, veterans affairs, and homeland security. Second, this means that Obama has actually “acquired more traditional washington foreign policy experience” than most presidents including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter (Carter in fact served on a nuclear sub and I’m told this gave him a better understanding of nuclear issues than presidents before or after).
Third, there’s more to life than being a prisoner of DC conventional wisdom — “McCain, like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney may have years of Washington experience” but they’ve all made “flawed judgments and as a consequence we’re less safe.” In a crucial point, Rice observed (emphasis added) that a McCain administration would be “very much a continuation and intensification of the failed Bush policy, remaining in Iraq indefinitely not investing adequately in Afghanistan.” According to Rice we need to “show that we have learned from our mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere and are prepared to cooperate and collaborate on the challenges we face,” namely al-Qaeda, nuclear proliferation, and climate change.
I know Steve Clemons has expressed some concerns that Team Obama may have a problematic unwillingness to set priorities in foreign policy, but I thought Rice was admirably clear here. The question of cooperation and the question of priorities goes hand-in-hand. When you’re willing to define what it is you think is really important, then the stage has been set for other countries to work with you. The kind of deterioration in America’s ability to cooperate with other countries that we’ve seen over the past seven years stems not just from “cowboy diplomacy” but from Bush’s grandiosity and lack of focus.