08/22/2007 11:15 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Passing the Test

It's hard to predict whether Barack Obama's stumble over a question
about the use of nuclear weapons will have any lasting impact on his
candidacy. But stumble he did.

His mistake was not necessarily substantive, for many think he is
right to suggest that this country is both ready for and in need of a
shift from the tired old ways of thinking about national security
policies that have led us down many wrong paths. Instead, his mistake
was personal and political. He raised the question of whether be was
yet surefooted enough to be to be president, and he gave his opponents
the opportunity to draw attention to his 'inexperience,' his
acknowledged Achilles heel.

What's been lost in this whole discussion, however, is something more
profoundly important than who scored which political points, i.e., the
American voters know almost nothing of any of the candidate's views on
national security policy, including, but not limited to, the use of
nuclear weapons. And the suggestion by this crop of presidential
candidates that a discussion of views on the use of force including
the use of nuclear weapons is out of line is preposterous. Is there a
more important issue that voters are entitled to know?

We currently have a president who neglected to inform us prior to
taking office that he intended to abandon long standing bipartisan
foreign policy doctrine and make prevention and pre-emption, with use
of nuclear capacity as an option, a central principle that guides his
foreign policy decision-making. And just recently, on July 20th, 2007,
the administration delivered to Congress a three-page statement
reiterating that US policy continues to rely on the long-standing
bipartisan consensus that deterrence remains central to our national
security policy. Really? Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War,
in world where nation states no longer present the gravest threat to
our security, deterrence remains our central doctrine?

When I was in graduate school, the final exam question for a course on
foreign and defense policy went something like this: Assume you are a
newly elected president. Describe what you see as the central national
security threats ahead and the doctrine that will guide your thinking.
Then design a defense policy that would be an effective strategy for
achieving national security goals.

Obama's stumble may or may not have a long lasting impact on his
campaign, but let's hope it leads us to stumble onto a changed set of
expectations about what candidates should be compelled to tell us. We
have probably heard everything we are going to hear about each
candidate's view on Iraq. Let's move the national security
conversation to a different place and see whether each candidate can
pass not only a college foreign policy exam, but a test that makes
them qualified to lead in way that makes sense for the national
security challenges we face today.