Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Obama's Bambi problem

Five foreign policy experts allied with Barack Obama want to reassure you that the candidate has the right stuff to be commander-in-chief. They sent out an email message, late yesterday afternoon, saying it was so. They said that Obama would engage in “tough-minded diplomacy,” in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, who “personally negotiated arms agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev.”

If you’re wondering why these Obama allies suddenly felt compelled to laud their man as Reaganesque, here’s the explanation:

Damage control.

Obama screwed up big time in the CNN-YouTube debate on Monday night, by leaving the impression – during a response to a crucial foreign policy question – that he would not be sufficiently tough-minded when dealing with America’s adversaries. That’s a fatal error for any Democrat, given the party’s traditional image. And it’s a potentially special problem for Obama, because he is still new on the national scene, and is stuck with the task of demonstrating to skeptical voters that his commander-in-chief instincts might at least compensate for his lack of experience.

But he might’ve hurt himself on Monday might, when he left the impression that he would be Bambi in a forest of predators.

(He has done this before, by the way. I’ll get to that in a moment.)

In the latest debate, a YouTube questioners asked: “Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”

Obama replied: “I would.”

He went on to explain that, as a matter of principle, it’s “ridiculous” for America not to talk to hostile countries, but the damage had been done: He had basically said he would break bread with people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Fidel Castro without any preconditions, such as whether they were merely going to use a presidential summit as a grandstanding opportunity.

Hillary Clinton listened to Obama, spotted the rhetorical opening, and drove a Hummer right through it. She said that it would be wrong to “promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse….I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.”

Translation: Obama, by his own words, is a naif who would be rolled by the bad guys.

Gee, do you think the Republicans would have a field day with something like that, if Obama won the nomination? All they’d need to do is quote the Hillary camp, which said yesterday: “Senator Obama has committed to presidential-level meetings with some of the world’s worst dictators without precondition during his first year in office.” Or they could just quote Hillary, who called Obama’s remarks “irresponsible and frankly naive.” As for Hillary, she now has a potential weapon for the Florida primary; Cuban-Americans might not look kindly on a candidate who says he’d talk to Fidel without any preconditions.

Maybe a case can be made that this is unfair to Obama, that perhaps in his remarks he only intended to signal his general affinity for diplomacy as a foreign policy tool, and that, in doing so, he simply overlooked the more specific question at hand – whether it’s wise, in the name of diplomacy, for a president to simply talk with the bad guys under any or all conditions. Yet, if that’s what happened, then at the very least Obama showed he might not be sufficiently sensitized to the nuances of delicate national security questions. And, arguably, that connects back to his lack of experience.

Obama tried to recoup late yesterday, by contending that Hillary was trying to create a "fabricated controversy" and that she was really the naive one, because she voted to authorize the Iraq war. Then he said: "What she’s somehow maintaining is that my (debate) statement could be construed as not having asked what the meeting (with the bad guys) was about. I didn’t say these guys were going to come over for a cup of coffee some afternoon...I think that is absolutely wrong.”

Then why didn't he respond that way at the time, when he took the question? Obama has brought this on himself. His first instinct, during all these debates, is to speak in stirring generalities. One of his favorite phrases (I heard it again on Monday night) is, “Let me go to the broader issue here.” For a candidate, eloquence can be a powerful asset. But a candidate with a thin track record in Washington needs to demonstrate an instinct for nuance as well.

And a Democrat in particular, fairly or not, needs to demonstrate toughness, at least rhetorically. Obama’s problem is that he has also whiffed on that test before. In a debate back on April 26, he was asked: “If, God forbid a thousand times, while we were gathered here tonight, we learned that two American cities have been hit simultaneously by terrorists, and we further learned, beyond the shadow of a doubt, it had been the work of al Qaeda, how would you change the U.S. military stance overseas as a result?”

Note that he was specifically being asked how he would command the military in response to a homeland attack. But his first instinct was not to talk about how he would command the military. He talked instead about something else – the home front.

He replied: “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.” And, much like what we witnessed on Monday night, Hillary Clinton spotted that opening as well, and spoke like a commander-in-chief: “I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate.”

Politically, Obama can’t afford to keep flubbing these national security questions. If he somehow wins the nomination, yet is widely perceived as a naïf, the Republicans will put him in a tank with Mike Dukakis.