National view: Democratic presidential front-runners not persuasive on foreign policy experience

Holiday Inn Express' commercials show Average Joe about to perform a job requiring training and skill when Joe confesses that he's not really qualified, "but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night."...

Holiday Inn Express' commercials show Average Joe about to perform a job requiring training and skill when Joe confesses that he's not really qualified, "but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night."

Translation: He may not know much, but he's that smart.

Barack Obama must have been taking notes. He may not have much foreign policy experience per se, but hey, he's traveled to visit his grandmother who lives in a tiny hut in Africa.

So Americans are thinking: Yes, this makes perfect sense -- especially if you squint your eyes really, really hard and hum "The Star-Spangled Banner" backward.

The hut came up as Obama was addressing the "experience" question that has dogged his presidential campaign, contrasting his get-down bona fides with those of a certain former first lady whose claim to experience in foreign matters also corresponds primarily to travel.


Hillary Clinton may have met dignitaries in her ceremonial role as first lady, Obama implies, but does she have a handle on real people?

"It's that experience, that understanding, not just of what world leaders I went and talked to in the ambassador's house [and] I had tea with, but understanding the lives of the people like my grandmother who lives in a tiny hut in Africa," Obama said.

Poor Grandma. Here she gave Obama good enough genes to get him through Harvard and a seat in the U.S. Senate, and still she's grilling wildebeest over a dung fire in the proverbial tiny hut? Tch, these kids today.

Later, when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, Obama adviser David Axelrod suggested that Clinton's vote on the Iraq War was connected to Bhutto's murder. Translation: Experience isn't all it's cracked up to be. Axelrod's explanation was that if not for the war (which Clinton supported, in case you missed that), the U.S. would have been more focused on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda and, therefore, lalalalalalalala.

Sunday on "Meet the Press," Obama said he was not trying to draw a causal relationship between any single vote and Bhutto, but "if we are going to take seriously the problem of Islamic terrorism, and the stability of Pakistan, then we have to look at it in a wider context. What we do in Iraq matters."

Terrible as it was, the timing of Bhutto's death just a few days before Iowans caucus reminded campaign-jaded Americans that this presidential election isn't about hair-poofing, cross-dressing or floating crosses, entertaining as those digressions have been. Until further notice, it's primarily about terrorism -- and what happens "over there" imposes harsh realities over here.

For her part, Clinton didn't miss the opportunity to note that she knew Bhutto personally. Otherwise, the Clinton campaign and assorted friends have fired back that Clinton has done more than partake of tea, inevitably breathing new life in the teapot-tempest cliché. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued a statement on Clinton's behalf:

"Sen. Clinton has been in refugee camps, clinics, orphanages and villages all around the world, including places where tea is not the usual drink. In addition to these experiences she has met with world leaders and has known many of them for years."


When it comes to exposure to foreign leaders, clearly Clinton has more experience than Obama. But just as clearly, there's a continental divide between meeting heads of state as a president's wife and meeting with them as leader of the free world.

The truth is that neither Clinton nor Obama has much foreign policy experience, but does having such experience necessarily qualify someone? The answer may be found in Bill Richardson's intemperate remarks upon hearing of Bhutto's murder.

The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations called for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to step down immediately. Whereupon a spokesman for Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that Musharraf's stepping down is "the last thing we need until we know what really happened and who's responsible."

Now there's a concept. Wait, watch, listen, learn, speak.

What happened in Pakistan may yet be unclear, but this much we do know: Every utterance from a president's lips matters.

Clinton was always wrong to claim her husband's experience as her own, while Obama sounds merely silly pretending that having family in another country qualifies him in foreign affairs. One presumes an electorate without memory; the other panders to an audience of none.

Neither inspires much confidence.

Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.

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