The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Challenges and VP Joe

Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the UN, does a good job of summarizing the challenges that face the next President of the United States:
He [the President] will have to reshape policies on the widest imaginable range of challenges, domestic and international. He will need to rebuild productive working relationships with friends and allies. He must revitalize a flagging economy; tame a budget awash in red ink; reduce energy dependence and turn the corner on the truly existential issue of climate change; tackle the growing danger of nuclear proliferation; improve the defense of the homeland against global terrorists while putting more pressure on al Qaeda, especially in Pakistan; and, of course, manage two wars simultaneously.

To make progress on this daunting agenda, the president must master and control a sprawling, unwieldy federal bureaucracy that is always resistant to change and sometimes dysfunctional. He will also need to change the relationship between the executive and the legislative branches after years of partisan political battle; in almost all areas, congressional support is essential for success. So is public support, which will require that the next president, more effectively than his predecessor, enlist help from the private sector, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and the citizenry as a whole.

The presidency of the United States is the most extraordinary job ever devised, and it has become an object of the hopes and dreams -- and, at times, the fears, frustration, and anger -- of people around the world. Expectations that the president can solve every problem are obviously unrealistic -- and yet such expectations are a reality that he will have to confront. A successful president must identify meaningful yet achievable goals, lay them out clearly before the nation and the world, and then achieve them through leadership skills that will be tested by pressures unimaginable to anyone who has not held the job. A reactive and passive presidency will not succeed, nor will one in which a president promises solutions but does not deliver -- or acts with consistent disregard for what the Declaration of Independence called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."

This week, we’ll hear speaker after speaker at the Democratic Convention suggest the Barack Obama, and his newly named VP candidate Joe Biden, can solve all of these problems through some amorphous concoction of “hope and change.” Well, maybe they can, but if you spend just a second to consider the backgrounds of both men, you’ll begin to question the glowing praise that you’ll hear from every speaker at the Convention.

Obama lacks the experience on the international and domestic fronts to fully and effectively address the challenges that Holbrooke defines. He has had no executive experience, making his ability to “master and control a sprawling, unwieldy federal bureaucracy that is always resistant to change and sometimes dysfunctional” highly questionable. He has been predictably partisan on virtually every important political matter during his painfully short career as a senator, suggesting that he’ll do nothing to mitigate the Democratic-Republican bottlenecks that cause real change to languish.

Joe Biden is a man with considerable foreign policy and legislative experience and a stark counterpoint to Obama. Unlike Obama, Biden does have a record, and some (but not all) of it may cause concern in the Center of the electorate. Amir Tehrani outlines some of his mistakes:
Biden has the experience of more than three decades in the US senate, at least two of them dealing with foreign affairs and defense. But experience is no guarantee of good judgment. And Biden has been wrong on almost every key issue.

  • In 1979, he shared Carter's starry-eyed belief that the fall of the shah in Iran and the advent of the ayatollahs represented progress for human rights. Throughout the hostage crisis, as US diplomats were daily paraded blindfolded in front of television cameras and threatened with execution, he opposed strong action against the terrorist mullahs and preached dialogue.

  • Throughout the 1980s. Biden opposed President Ronald Reagan's proactive policy against the Soviet Union. Biden was all for détente - which, in practice, meant Western subsidies that would have enabled the moribund USSR to cling to life and continue doing mischief.

  • In 1990, Biden found it difficult to support President George Bush's decision to use force to kick Saddam Hussein's army of occupation out of Kuwait.

  • A decade-plus later, the senator did vote for the liberation of Iraq from Saddamite tyranny. But as soon as terrorists started challenging the new democratic system in Iraq, he switched sides and became a critic of the whole war effort. He claimed that the Iraq war was lost and suggested that the US partition the newly liberated country into three or more mini-states.

In fairness. Biden is a seasoned, lifelong politician and he has also had his share of successes and accomplishments. The problem, I think, is that he has been wrong on important foreign policy issues and has, overall, exhibited the “reactive and passive” geopolitical approach (reminiscent of Jimmy Carter) that Obama will undoubtedly embrace and that Holbrooke warns against.