Vladimir and Barack

Watching Obama, listening to Putin.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

A few hours before Barack Obama announced his candidacy Saturday in Springfield, Ill., Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke to the 43rd annual Munich security conference, where I was. Obama chose his location for the historical linkage with Abraham Lincoln. Putin’s speech had historical linkages too: It sounded like something we would have expected from the middle of the Cold War. Putin didn’t bang his shoe, but he blamed the United States for its illegitimate actions and making the world more dangerous by starting a new arms race. The temperature in the room decreased. As Putin spoke, I remembered President Bush’s famous first assessment of him. If Bush looked into his soul and approved of what he saw, he needs better X-ray glasses.

Though Obama couldn’t be more different from Bush, he suffers from a similar liability when it comes to foreign affairs. Bush arrived at the White House with insufficient experience  and was almost immediately in over his head. If Obama becomes president, what personal experience is he going to draw on when he sits across from blunt and tough leaders like Vladimir Putin? What is his plan for the other major issues brought up at the security conference in Munich: Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan? The world is a mess, and the next president is going to have to spend a lot of time cleaning up the one the current president will leave behind. But when I listened to Obama’s announcement a few hours later, I heard only a hint of answers to these questions. In a stirring speech about setting priorities, Obama devoted only a few paragraphs to foreign affairs.

On the other end of the experience continuum is John McCain, who sat in the audience in Munich watching the Russian president. McCain has security and foreign policy credentials that date back  almost 30 years, to the time he traveled  the world with John Tower and Scoop Jackson as the Navy’s Senate liaison. He spends a lot of time visiting foreign leaders and attending conferences like the one in Munich. Though his opponents are anxious to brand him a hothead, McCain’s response to Putin was measured. ”Will Russia’s autocratic turn become more pronounced, its foreign policy more opposed to the principles of the Western democracies and its energy policy used as a tool of intimidation?” he asked in his speech given a few hours after Putin. ”Moscow must understand that it cannot enjoy a genuine partnership with the West so long as its actions, at home and abroad, conflict fundamentally with the core values of the Euro-Atlantic democracies.”

McCain’s staff had written up a stronger denunciation, but McCain didn’t want to say anything more. He assumed Putin’s attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies would backfire and remind the Europeans why we were allied in the first place (a point the Czech foreign minister later made explicit). To capitalize on that effect, McCain thought it was better to “look coolheaded and make Putin look all the more “retro,” said an adviser.

Obama has more experience than Bush did in 2000, but not nearly as much as McCain does. He is on the foreign relations committee and did talk in his Springfield speech about his serious effort to curb the spread of nuclear materials. But Obama is in part making a pitch against experience when he talks about foreign policy. Answering a question about Iraq in a press conference after his announcement, he suggested that judgment can exist without extensive experience: “I think [opposition to the war] demonstrates that even at that time it was possible to make judgments that this would not work out well … and that [speaks] to the sort of judgments I might make as president.”

If experience is defined by Bush foreign policy veterans and the long-serving senators who gave Bush authority to invade Iraq, then Obama is saying let’s try going without it. And as if to confirm this theory, Obama’s opponent John Edwards told Tim Russert early this month that Obama was able to call the Iraq war correctly because he wasn’t distracted by all of the official intelligence briefings Edwards was given as a senator.

But Obama still has to explain how his good judgment about Iraq would be repeated on the other security issues discussed in Munich. Though he sounds mostly like a dove as he approaches the primary electorate, he has had his hawkish-sounding moments. As a Senate candidate in 2004, he said he would use missiles to keep extremists in Pakistan and Iran * from getting control of nuclear weapons. When John Edwards said a similar thing about Iran recently at the Herzliya Conference in Israel, it caused considerable concern among some anti-war Democrats.

The best foreign policy argument for an Obama presidency was found outside the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in the streets of Munich. As U.S. officials attending the conference explained, while European leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel are sympathetic to U.S. foreign policy, the European people increasingly object to the role America plays in the world—and even to America itself. Obama would improve our image abroad in an instant—at least that’s the feeling I get from Germans I talked to. In diplomacy, tone, style, and symbolism matter a lot. (Think of the damage Donald Rumsfeld’s “old Europe” crack did.) Electing a man with a Kenyan father, whose middle name is Hussein, and who has lived in a Muslim country would instantly change the image of the United States overseas. So, while Vladimir Putin might behave like a Cold War relic, his American counterpart wouldn’t.

Correction, Feb. 13, 2007: The article originally and incorrectly stated, as an example of Barack Obama’s hawkishness, “As a Senate candidate in 2004, he said he would use missiles to attack Pakistan and Iran to keep them from getting nuclear weapons.” Pakistan already has a nuclear capability. Obama’s position was that he would use missiles to keep extremists in Pakistan and Iran from getting control of nuclear weapons. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)