Republicans Should Be Careful Criticizing Obama’s Foreign Experience

By Garry South

June 2, 2008


Now that it’s obvious Sen. Barack Obama will be the Democratic candidate for president, GOP nominee-apparent Sen. John McCain and the Republican attack machine predictably have already started in on the Illinois senator as a callow youth with scant foreign policy experience and a resultant na?ve view of the world.

Hillary Clinton herself tried that same exact tack (remember the 3 a.m. phone call ad?), of course, and it clearly didn’t work. And if I were the Republicans, I’d be a mite careful myself about such a line of attack. Clearly, their aim is to contrast McCain’s long military service and 26 years in the Congress and Senate vis-?-vis Obama’s less than four years as a member of the world’s most exclusive club.

But the danger is that the criticisms might just provoke an unwelcome retrospective on the inexplicably scrawny foreign policy credentials and international exposure of the man Republicans put up for president the last two times, and who the Gallup Poll says 60 percent of them still think is doing a bang-up job – George W. Bush himself.

Yes, the same George Bush with a record-high 71 percent disapproval rating among Americans; who is viewed by citizens of our closest ally, Great Britain, as being a bigger threat to world peace than the leaders of Iran or North Korea; whose ratings in putatively friendly Saudi Arabia are lower than those of Osama bin Laden; and whose foreign policy blunders and reckless unilateralism have driven American credibility and prestige around the world to all-time lows (a 15 percent U.S. approval rating in Pakistan, and 9 percent in Turkey, according to the Pew Research Center).

Unlike many of my fellow Democrats, I don’t think Bush is a complete moron. (I know, I know, damning with faint praise.) A favorite bumper sticker on Democrat-owned Volvos and Priuses says “Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot.” Actually, I believe Bush is serviceably bright, rather clever in some ways, and a better overall politician than his father.

What I believe is also crystal clear and incontrovertible, however, is that Bush has demonstrated a lifelong intellectual laziness and lack of curiosity, especially about the larger world. They’ve made a public television series about a super-inquisitive monkey named “Curious George,” but it’s not likely there will ever be a similarly named show about George W. Bush. He was the least qualified and most inexperienced president in terms of foreign affairs in the lifetimes of most Americans today – and largely because of Bush’s own self-imposed blissful ignorance of the world. This, as we all now know, has cost the U.S. dearly.

Think this is just harsh Democratic spin? In his newly minted book about life in W.’s White House, Bush’s fellow Texan, long-time aide and former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, criticizes Bush’s “lack of inquisitiveness.” In my book, that’s a euphemism for self-imposed blissful ignorance.

Consider the undeniable facts. Bush ran for president in 2000 as a 54-year-old, middle-aged man, with both Yale and Harvard degrees, the scion of a wealthy, well-known and well-connected family. His granddaddy had been an internationalist U.S senator from Connecticut, his daddy the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., American representative in China and CIA director – all before serving eight years as a globe-trotting vice president and as a one-term president with an extensive foreign rolodex.

Yet George the Younger, even while gearing up to run for commander in chief, displayed a shocking lack of interest in foreign travel. Just last year, Gordon Johndroe, press spokesman for Bush’s National Security Council, was asked to provide a list of countries visited by Bush prior to being sworn in as president in 2001. “Off the top of my head,” Johndroe said, all he could come up with were seven countries – China, Japan, Mexico (which, of course, borders Bush’s adopted Texas), Spain, Britain, Ireland and Israel.

The trip to China was in 1975, when Bush was nearly 30, to visit his dad when the elder Bush was posted in Beijing. There is also, mysteriously, one long-rumored but never-explained jaunt to Guatemala in Bush’s youthful past. Reportedly, Bush also traveled to Gambia in Africa in 1990, representing his president father at that nation’s independence day celebration.

In 1998, after his re-election as governor of Texas and while considering a run for president, Bush also went to Italy to visit his daughter briefly before heading to the Middle East (that’s when the Israel trip came in) where, among other things, he spent exactly two hours in Egypt having dinner with President Hosni Mubarak. In Bush’s diary from that trip posted by his Texas gubernatorial press office, Bush said the reason for the tour was to “enjoy myself, to get out of Texas, have a chance to relax.” When it was over, he wrote “I’m really glad to be home. There’s nothing like sleeping in your own sack!” [emphasis his]

Bush’s curious lack of significant foreign travel was also mirrored in his general ignorance about the state of affairs in the world. There was the celebrated instance in 1999, when presidential candidate Bush was asked by a political reporter from WHDH-TV in Boston to name the leaders of four countries much in the news, including nuclear-armed antagonists India and Pakistan. Bush not only failed to come up with the names of their leaders, but completely muffed an attempt to describe the then-leader of Pakistan:

“The new Pakistani general, he’s just been elected – not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think it’s good news for the subcontinent,” Bush averred.

“This guy,” of course, was none other than Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who earlier had launched a military action against India without even informing his own civilian government, then staged a coup d’etat in ‘99 to gain control of Pakistan. He then forthwith proceeded to have the elected prime minister arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment on “hijacking” charges for attempting to divert the plane on which Musharaff was coming back into the country to stage the coup. All that was good international news to Bush?

Bush also displayed a shocking – not to mention embarrassing – lack of familiarity with the rest of the world during his 2000 presidential run. Inter alia, he confused the newly free Eastern European nations of Slovenia and Slovakia, infamously referred to Greeks as “Grecians,” and called citizens of Kosovo “Kosovarians” instead of Kosovars. And the geographical putziness didn’t stop once he became president. In Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2001 he referred to the continent of Africa as a “nation.” In Romania recently, he even bollixed up NATO as “MATO.”

Amazingly, Bush’s first-ever trip to both France and Germany was in 2002, as a 56-year-old sitting president of the United States. It’s no wonder that one cartoon prior to Bush’s attendance at his first Group of Eight summit meeting showed the other G-8 leaders standing in a receiving line awaiting Bush’s arrival, with one whispering to another, “Let’s have some fun with George and switch our name tags!”

Then, of course, there are also the instances of Bush’s tone-deaf and downright gauche behavior on the international stage that has raised eyebrows and tempers around the world. Returning to the White House right after 9/11, he pledged to launch a “crusade” to find the perpetrators – apparently clueless as to how this historically loaded word would play on the Arab and Muslim street.

At the G-8 confab in 2006, he sneaked up behind an obviously startled and irritated German Chancellor Angela Merkel and began massaging her shoulders and neck – an unwanted act that would have constituted sexual harassment in a typical American office environment. This earned Bush the sobriquet “groper in chief” on Web sites around the world. At this same summit, Bush let loose with the word s— in front of an open mike while talking to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Just last month, Bush violated the long-held protocol against U.S. presidents launching attacks on domestic political rivals overseas by making a not-so-veiled, and also loaded, reference in a speech to the Israeli Knesset to Obama’s pledge to talk to our enemies as “appeasement.”

In contrast to Bush’s obvious longtime disinterest in global travel, Obama looks like a veritable Gulliver. Born in Hawaii to an American mom and a Kenyan father, he lived in Indonesia for four years with an Indonesian step-father, attended both Catholic and Muslim schools there, went to college in California and Massachusetts, traveled to and around both Pakistan (with a side trip to India) and Africa while still in his 20s and had a Pakistani roommate when he lived in New York. He returned to Africa in 1992 after graduating from Harvard Law School – at the same time Bush was still functioning as the glad-handing front man for the Texas Rangers.

Obama’s multi-racial, multi-cultural family looks like a little U.N., including a half-Indonesian half-sister (by his mother), six other living half-siblings by his African father (two of whom also had an American mother), a Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law and a half-Chinese niece. His African step-grandmother still lives in a Kenyan village, as do many other relatives. His wife Michelle and her family, of course, are African American.

But hell, forget Barack Obama. His mother, for God’s sake, had more international experience than Bush did when he was elected president. A Ph. D. anthropologist, she studied Russian in college in Hawaii, lived for years in both Indonesia and Pakistan, spoke fluent Indonesian, and worked for both the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Ford Foundation on micro-credit programs for the poor and for women.

Even though Clinton’s attacks against Obama as being inexperienced and lacking foreign policy heft fell flat, you can be sure McCain and the Republicans will continue on that same flight path. But I’d advise them to take another close look at the laughable pre-presidential foreign credentials of their own sitting – and widely internationally discredited – president before making that the staple of their campaign against Obama.