Joe Wilson Rips Obama, Ignites Debate Over Candidates' Experience

03/28/2008 02:45 am 02:45:35 | Updated May 25, 2011

Writing on the Huffington Post today, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who has endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton for president, took one of the hardest swipes to date at Sen. Barack Obama's foreign policy credentials.

Pivoting off a Thursday article in the London Times, Wilson argues that Obama's "intuitive grasp" of the world is no match for his lack of travel and "dearth" of international experience.

"Intuition may be a laudable quality among psychics and palm readers," the Ambassador writes, "but for a professional American diplomat like myself, who have spent a career toiling in the vineyards of national security, it has no relevance to serious discussion of foreign policy. In fact, Obama's supposed "intuitive sense" is no different from George W. Bush's 'instincts' and 'gut feeling' describing his own foreign policy decision-making. We have been down this road before."

Wilson's criticism is uniquely sharp and reflects a growing acrimony between the Democratic frontrunners as the primary season nears its end. In the past, Clinton allies have been more inclined to play up their candidate's strengths (noting, often, her experience as first lady), rather than point out the competition's weaknesses.

To be sure, Clinton herself has called Obama's promise to talk with dictators "naïve", and asserted that his childhood in Indonesia did not qualify as a diplomatic credential. In his post, Wilson repeats these critiques, but also takes them a step further, noting, as the London Times did, that as chairman of the Senate European subcommittee, Obama failed to convene a single policy meeting and made only one official visit to London, none to Western Europe.

But Obama's lack of travel to that region of the world has been, to a certain extent, offset by fact-finding explorations elsewhere. As noted first by Steve Clemons on the Washington Note, in 2005, the Senator went to Russia and toured several post-Soviet countries, working with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-IN, on issues of nuclear proliferation. In 2006, he traveled through the Middle East, including tours of Iraq and Israel. That same year he ventured to Africa, where he had his much-discussed homecoming in Kenya. And, despite traveling only once to London, Obama has met at least three times with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The argument put forward by Wilson underscores, for many, a far greater debate being waged on the periphery of the presidential campaign: what constitutes the foundations of a good foreign policy, intuition or experience?

For certain, both campaigns have operated within this frame, with Obama frequently touting his autobiographical details and Bill Clinton going so far as to contrast his wife's "35 years" of experience to Obama's "one year" in office prior to running for the White House.

Clemons, writing for both the Huffington Post and the Washington Note, weighed in on this issue a few days ago, arguing that Obama wasn't lacking experience but merely had a different frame of reference.

I want to be clear to friends on all sides of this political campaign that I know Barack Obama has international experience, but it is not wrong to note that there are deficits in the profiles of the people we are considering to live in the White House... If I'm being asked to support Obama because of innate instinct, I refuse. I would say the same about Hillary Clinton if asked. What we need to know about all of these potential candidates is not only how they operate and work but what the basis of their experience is.

While Fareed Zakaria, writing at Newsweek, put forth the argument that one's identity serves as an instrumental, almost irreplaceable, role in crafting foreign policy, thereby benefiting Obama.

Hillary's case is obvious and perfectly defensible. She's been involved in foreign policy for eight years in the White House (though in a sideways fashion as First Lady) and then seven years as a senator. Most of the Democratic Party's blue-chip foreign-policy advisers support her. Plus, she has Bill... Obama's argument is about more than identity. He was intelligent and prescient about the costs of the Iraq War. But he says that his judgment was formed by his experience as a boy with a Kenyan father--and later an Indonesian stepfather--who spent four years growing up in Indonesia, and who lived in the multicultural swirl of Hawaii... I never thought I'd agree with Obama.

In the end, the travel and foreign policy records of Clinton and Obama may prove over-scrutinized. As Clemons notes, the differences between the Democrats pale in comparison to those that exist between Democrats and Republicans.

"Hillary is on Armed Service Committee and has traveled all over the world," Clemons told the Huffington Post. "Barack has been an attentive member of the Foreign Relations Committee. There are differences between them but they are 10 to 15 percent difference. Whereas, the differences between the Obama or Hillary and Rudy [Giuliani] or [Mike] Huckabee are a 40 to 60 percent difference, just a staggering jump."

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