One of the nagging questions that has trailed Barack Obama on his meteoric rise to the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates took on new import this week after the YouTube debate on CNN. Obama's assertion that he would meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-Il, and Fidel Castro drew a sharp rebuke from Hillary Clinton and most others as "irresponsible and naive," which drew attention once again to the very thin resumé Obama brings to the race.
Charles Krauthammer points out that Obama made the same mistake in an earlier debate, and concludes that Obama is no wartime president:
To be on the same stage as the leader of the world's greatest power is of course a prize. That is why the Chinese deemed it a slap in the face that President Bush last year denied President Hu Jintao the full state-visit treatment. The presence of an American president is a valued good to be rationed -- and granted only in return for important considerations.
Moreover, summits can also be traps if they're not wired in advance for success, such as Nixon's trip to China, for which Henry Kissinger had already largely hammered out the famous Shanghai Communique. You don't go hoping for the best, as Hillary's husband learned at the 2000 Camp David summit, when Yasser Arafat's refusal of Israel's peace offer brought Arafat worldwide opprobrium -- from which he sought (successfully, as it turned out) to escape by launching the second intifada. Such can be the consequences of ill-prepared summits.
Obama may not have known he made an error, but his staff sure did. In the post-debate spin room, his closest adviser, David Axelrod, was already backpedaling, pretending that Obama had been talking about diplomacy and not summitry with rogue state leaders.
Obama enthusiasts might want to write this off as a solitary slip. Except that this was the second time. The first occurred in another unscripted moment. During the April 26 South Carolina debate, Brian Williams asked what kind of change in the U.S. military posture abroad Obama would order in response to a hypothetical al-Qaeda strike on two American cities.
Obama's answer: "Well, the first thing we'd have to do is make sure that we've got an effective emergency response -- something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans."
In both cases, it shows that Barack Obama doesn't have the mindset of an executive. Like Tom Hagen in The Godfather, he doesn't have the cunning instinct necessary for success in understanding the layers of communication and symbolism that goes into becoming a good Commander in Chief. He doesn't even have enough of those skills to present a credible threat to Hillary Clinton for the nomination.
Initially, though, Hillary's response wasn't all that much better. She didn't really rule out meeting with the same people. She said, "I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be." Only after the debate, while Obama's people tried to convince people that Obama didn't say what he said, did Hillary realize the opening she had and drove her rhetorical Mack truck straight through it.
Obama has wrongfooted himself twice now on national-security questions, and the pattern Krauthammer highlights paints a picture of an amateur trying desperately to become a master overnight. No one doubts Obama's ability as a communicator, but the national healer schtick has run thin. People don't want to elect a Dr. Phil to the White House in a time of war; they want someone who knows how to protect America and keep our enemies at bay.
If Obama can't turn this around, he may wind up risking his shot at the bottom half of the ticket At one point, he seemed a natural for Hillary's running mate, but a VP has to have a grip on foreign policy and national security. Hillary may have to look elsewhere for her running mate, especially if the two keep sniping at each other the way they have this week.