Events have a way of clarifying even the muddiest political puzzles. As
Americans prepared to pick the finalists for the presidential contest,
the chaos in Pakistan served as a reminder of a simple truth about
electing our chief executive.
No matter what the candidates say about their priorities or even what
voters say they care most about, the one thing that a president can do
is to control foreign policy.
Most Democrats spent much of the past year discussing plans to deal
with health care, economic injustice and global warming, while the
Republicans danced around abortion, illegal immigration and taxes. But
for all the emphasis that's placed on domestic issues, we all know that
the president alone can do little about any of those issues.
As Bill Clinton proved, without the support of Congress, even if it is
controlled by his own party, no president (or first lady) can enact
universal health care. Similarly, as George W. Bush learned, a sane
plan for immigration reform hasn't a chance as long as Congress and
much of the public don't go along. And the Religious Right should have
noticed that having elected three pro-life presidents out of the last
four hasn't made abortion illegal.
AN UNTIMELY REMINDER
The president is merely one part of the complex machinery of government
designed by our founders. But when it comes to matters of war and
peace, the White House is not merely one of three co-equal branches of
government. That is even more to the point when one considers that we
are still in the middle of a shooting war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as
well as a worldwide fight against Islamist terror elsewhere. And it is
upon that fact of life that voters ought to be concentrating when they
choose a president.
For some candidates, the ghastly assassination of Benazir Bhutto last
week was an untimely reminder of this very point.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee held a double-digit lead in the
crucial Iowa caucuses going into the final days of that race. Would the
fact that he doesn't know one end of Pakistan from the other convince
enough Iowans to abandon him? We'll soon find out. Either way, a
President Huckabee would certainly test the power of prayer for many
On the other hand, there are those who while certainly not welcoming
the prospect of Pakistan coming apart were certainly glad of the
opportunity to remind everyone that this was the subject on which they
knew a thing or two.
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware has never been considered to have a
chance to be the Democratic candidate, but he is a certified foreign
policy wonk. If Americans want a guy who will enter the White House
knowing who's who and what's what abroad, he is the top choice, as
anyone who has ever heard him declaim (usually interminably) can
attest, even though a lot of it often sounds like the conventional
wisdom parroted by the State Department. Indeed, I have always
suspected that Biden is running not so much because he thinks he has a
shot, but because he thinks it is only fair to give Americans one more
chance to do the right thing and elect him.
But even in the unlikely event that voters take the advice of Biden's
many admirers in the national press and catapult him into the race as a
real contender, he will labor under the burden of having too much
knowledge and be all too willing to impart it. Redacting a lifetime of
foreign-policy experience into digestible sound bytes may still be
beyond the capacity of the loquacious senator.
Nevertheless, experience is no guarantee of being a good president
during a crisis, let alone having a reasonable point of view. The
rationale for the candidacy of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is that
the Democrat served as Clinton's U.N. ambassador and special envoy in
other trouble spots.
But as valuable as Richardson's experience may be, his positions are
not always smart. The Bhutto assassination prompted him to call for a
complete cut off of U.S. aid to Pakistan. That may have been a better
sound byte than Biden's insight, but it also made as much sense as
fellow candidate Sen. Barak Obama's idiotic call for war on that
country earlier in the year.
You needn't be a scholar of international affairs to understand that
America is presented with a host of unpalatable choices in both that
unhappy country and in the rest of the world. Electing a person who
might actually destabilize even further a nation that has nuclear
weapons is the last thing we should consider.
STRENGTH OF CHARACTER
The Pakistan tangle also should also remind us that as much as many of
us (principally the Democrats) have been urging Jews to keep the Israel
issue out of the debate, we should still ponder what support for it
means in the context of current events.
In 2007, the Bush administration succumbed to the inevitable temptation
of trying to manufacture a peace process between Israel and the
Palestinians, despite the fact that the chances that talks will lead to
anything productive or peaceful are nil.
Bush spent his first years trying to break the "realist" strategy
predicated on repeated and fruitless attempts to force Israel into
concessions for the sake of a peace that the Palestinians had no
interest in. Foolishly searching for a foreign-policy triumph that will
gain them credit in the Arab world, Bush and Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice are now having a go at repeating the folly of the
Though their government is always ready to talk, Israelis paid the
consequences of similar efforts in the past in blood. Yet this is but
one example of how presidents can alter events or become the captives
of foreign-policy conceptions that they feel helpless to change.
All of which should lead us to think that among the most important
credentials the next president should have is the strength of character
to resist foolish diplomatic endeavors, even if the entire
foreign-policy establishment is telling him that this is what he or
she must do.
Most of all, serious voters must think hard about a would-be
president's ability to see the big picture, in which America remains
locked in a long-term war with Islamists. They should carefully gauge
which of the candidates is merely mouthing pro-forma platitudes about
backing the Jewish state, and which are likely to carry out policies
that will strengthen Israel and weaken those who wish to destroy it and
our own nation.
The person who takes the presidential oath in January 2009 will like
it or not be a wartime president. None of us can know for certain
which of the candidates will be the best foreign-policy chief. But
anyone who votes for any one of them on any basis but that is
sleepwalking into a minefield.