Commander in Crisis
Fast forward to 2008. Vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, speaking at a fundraiser in Seattle this past Sunday, warned on an imminent attack on the United States should his youthful and relatively inexperienced running mate win on November 4. Biden said, “Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We’re about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember, I said it standing here, if you don’t remember anything else I said. Watch, we’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.” The Delaware senator went on to reassure his audience that Senator Obama is certainly up to the task.
This verbal gaffe, or backhanded compliment, drags the debate over foreign policy credentials back into the limelight during a time when domestic issues, namely our sagging economy, stand front and center. While Biden made a similar parallel to President Kennedy, the fact of the matter is that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred nearly two years into his presidency. True, the Bay of Pigs incident landed in his inaugural year, but this was manufactured by the CIA and approved by Kennedy himself. A stronger parallel lies with President George W. Bush, who faced the horrific attacks of September 11 a mere eight months into his presidency.
The McCain campaign was quick to pounce on the opening provided by Biden. McCain uttered echoes of Senator Hillary Clinton's now famous 3am phone call during the Democratic primaries, suggesting that “We don't want a president who invites testing from the world at a time when our economy is in crisis and Americans are already fighting in two wars.”
At the same time, he also flaunted his own foreign policy bona fides: “Sen. Biden referred to how Jack Kennedy was tested in the Cuban missile crisis. My friends, I have a little personal experience in that. I was on board the USS Enterprise. I sat in the cockpit of the flight deck off of Cuba. I had a target. My friends, you know how close we came to a nuclear war. America will not have a president who needs to be tested. I've been tested, my friends.”
McCain, as I've said many times before, is more comfortable talking about foreign policy issues. Indeed, his call for additional troops in Iraq, the so-called surge, has been a defining staple of his second run for president. Poll numbers show Obama with a decided advantage on virtually every issue with the exception of the Iraq War and foreign policy more generally.
Obama's pick of Joe Biden was an acknowledgment of his weaknesses on this issue, reassuring voters that Biden will serve as a steady hand when the international chips are down as they inevitably fall during the first four years. However, Obama, too, based his campaign on issues of foreign policy, namely his early opposition to the Iraq invasion. He has continually cited this as evidence of his superior judgment, which in his mind, matters more than experience.
Biden's aside reminds us of the dual roles that our president serves. Not only is he head of government, helping to guide us through tumultuous economic times, but he is also head of state, managing our relationships with foreign powers. Our next commander-in-chief will face dual challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention an ever volatile Middle East more generally. He faces ripe political crises in Africa (Zimbabwe and Sudan top the list) and continued strides toward nuclear disarmament in North Korea. He must address a powder keg in Pakistan, and a rising nuclear power in India.
This is but a short list of the challenges awaiting either Senator McCain or Obama. A bright, sunny October morning brings back memories of a similar one 46 years ago when the world watched nervously as President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev clashed diplomatic swords. Thankfully, a young, charismatic chief executive stood firm and rose to the occasion. Here's hoping that our next commander-in-chief will continue this legacy, wherever and whenever duty calls.