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Archive for Thursday, September 4, 2008

Experience doesn’t trump understanding

September 4, 2008

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In his Denver speech, Sen. Barack Obama tried to lay to rest the issue of whether he has the experience to become commander in chief.

He was helped by Sen. John McCain's choice for vice president, Sarah Palin. Her experience mainly consists of two years as governor of Alaska and a stint as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, population about 8,000.

It's sobering to think of Palin, however feisty, being a heartbeat away from the top job. McCain, who is the oldest man ever to run and has had health problems, turned 72 on Friday; this makes the choice of vice president more key. Palin, 44, might be suited for the presidency in a remake of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the 1939 Jimmy Stewart movie, but in the real world, the thought is bizarre.

McCain clearly puts more value on galvanizing his pro-life base (and a few angry Hillary voters) than on providing backup for his age risk. His move undermines the claim that Obama's resume is too slim for the White House.

Indeed, McCain's choice puts new focus on just what kind of qualifications are required for the next commander in chief.

The next president will face a very different world than did George W. Bush. In 2000, the United States was strong economically and unchallenged militarily. We still basked in a post-Cold War glow, where it appeared that America could exercise virtually unlimited power.

A prime qualification for the next commander in chief is a mind-set that grasps the stark changes of the last decade - and how they affect the options we face.

Over the last eight years, our surplus was squandered and America plummeted deep into debt, its foreign IOUs held in large part by China and Arab states. The middle class has become fearful, as most Americans watch their real income slide, oil prices rise, job creation drop, and health care become less available.

A country fearful for its economic future is less able to lead abroad; it no longer serves as a global model. To restore America's inner economic strength, the next president must be willing to challenge the policies that led us to where we are.

Obama's acceptance speech recognized the central problem - the need to restore middle-class faith in the future. McCain shows little sign he grasps the seriousness of the issue, or would abandon Republican policies that created an American wealth gap unknown since the 1920s. Maybe that's because he defines middle class as someone making less than $5 million a year.

Equally important, the next commander in chief must recognize how our foreign-policy options have shifted. It is no longer the "axis of evil" world, where a Bush team assumed it could unilaterally eliminate unfriendly regimes without a causus belli.

After five years of an Iraq morass created by huge White House mistakes, our military options abroad are far more limited. Our chief security threat - the war with jihadi terrorists - cannot be waged by military means alone, but requires a far bigger arsenal of diplomatic and economic tools.

Obama may have limited experience, he may be too wedded, for now, to an unrealistic Iraq exit timeline, but he gets the overall picture - in a way McCain doesn't. Big land wars are out. We aren't going to invade Georgia, or Pakistan or Iran.

Nor are we going to rally the world, as McCain suggests, with a new "League of Democracies." McCain's mindset was shaped by the U.S.-Soviet conflict, but this is not the Cold War redux with America as general of the "Free World"; huge democracies such as India and Brazil will confer with us but won't automatically follow our lead. Also, Bush policies gave "democracy" a bad name in large parts of the globe.

The world we face is far more complex than the post-World War II era. U.S. leadership in the future will depend on keen diplomatic skills, with military help in the background. Examples: the next president needs to persuade Pakistan's military to stand up to Islamist jihadis; he must rally Europeans to create a common energy policy that makes Europe less dependent on Russian natural gas.

And the next U.S. leader will have to restore respect for America in the world; poll after poll shows how far our reputation has plummeted, because of Bush policies on Iraq, Guantanamo, global warming, etc. The United States cannot lead if the publics in Europe and Turkey and the Middle East disdain the White House. McCain cannot afford to admit Bush failures caused America's reputation to plunge.

We face a choice between an experienced candidate with a Cold War mind-set, and a less-experienced candidate who understands the new era. An imperfect choice, but one where expertise doesn't trump.

- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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