Friday, September 12, 2008

Guest Post: VP Choices, Foreign Policy, and Leadership

[It is my pleasure to present a guest post from Benjamin Orbach, whose book was reviewed on this site - with a follow up interview.]

Jerusalem – I was in the U.S. the week that included the VP selections, the DNC convention, and the Sarah Palin media mushroom cloud. Courtesy of Delta, I had two full days to think about it all on my way back to Jerusalem and concluded that the respective VP choices spoke volumes about each candidate’s foreign policy approach and leadership style. I found Barack Obama’s pick of Joe Biden confidence inspiring and John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin troubling.

Until Obama chose Biden, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with his foreign policy credentials. Obama is intellectually curious, he understands the threat of Islamist terrorism, and his personal story combined with his communication skills could return America to a pre-Abu Ghraib standing in the world. Still, I wasn’t sold on how he would do in a Camp David negotiating session with Middle Eastern brinksmen or an 11th hour showdown with Iran on nuclear issues. But with the selection of Biden, my doubts have been alleviated on two levels. First, Obama added a foreign policy heavyweight to the team; Biden has decades of experience with dictators, crises, and conflict (lucky him). He also has original ideas about what to do with Iraq, Russia, and Afghanistan. Even better, he listens to other people who have ideas too. Listening to others – I like that as a concept.

Second, Obama demonstrated that he is someone who understands his own limits and takes steps to address them. A leader who recognizes his own deficits and works to fill those gaps is a leader who is accountable and who makes thought-out decisions. With the choice of Biden as an example, it isn’t a leap of faith to think that Obama would listen to differing viewpoints and then make a decision on what is best for the country. I like that he isn’t threatened by Biden’s experience – it reflects humility, confidence, and strength. Given Biden’s comments about Obama (“clean, articulate”) at the start of his campaign, I’m sure that there are others that Obama would have preferred, but Biden will advise him on the substance of foreign policy and help him govern.

On the other side, it is easy to see how Palin will help the McCain campaign, but I’m not sure what she would do for a McCain administration. She’s a choice to help him get elected. Social conservatives may love Palin, but if Hizballah baits Israel into another war in Lebanon, or Russia rolls into Georgia again, do you think McCain would ask her what she thinks we should do? In the same way that Palin has next-door neighbor appeal, she has next-door neighbor expertise. With the selection of Palin, McCain is sending a clear message: I don’t need help, I have the answers; just put me into the White House.

On Talk of the Nation earlier this week, Ted Koppel asked Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s main foreign policy guy to explain how McCain’s foreign policy staff was set up. Koppel prefaced the question by explaining that Obama has a core team of five or six advisors and then a couple hundred other experts who can be called upon as needed. Scheunemann answered that McCain, doesn’t have the same needs as Obama because he has 40 years in the military and Senate and is already “intimately familiar” with foreign policy issues. He actually said that “John McCain needs foreign policy advisors like Tiger Woods needs a golf coach.”

Confidence is an important quality in a leader, but conceit and smugness lead to disaster. The record of the decisions cooked up by the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal, who also didn’t think they needed golf coaches, speaks for itself. Trading the Cheney-Rumsfeld group for some combination that includes Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and others from the McCain fraternity has no appeal. After eight years of insular thinking and presidential decision making within a narrow scope of options, we need more information and more internal discussion than ever before.

The Bush White House should not become a model in standard operating procedures. I’m thrilled that Obama has that many substantive experts. Calling on experts and specialists with differing and credible viewpoints who debate their positions and the consequences of potential policies is not just a sign of personal strength but these are practices that should lead to the most informed decision making and hopefully better outcomes. Dissent is one of the finest forms of advice.

I wasn’t exactly on the fence before, but the Palin choice is a deal-clincher for me. It may have energized the conservative base and made a huge media splash – steps that could get McCain elected – but it leads me to believe that a McCain presidency would be characterized by unvetted, gut decisions by McCain, perhaps in consultation with a clique of like-minded thinkers. The Biden pick, on the other hand, tells me that Obama is going to take the extra steps to make well-considered decisions. It is true that McCain has more foreign policy experience than Obama, but Dick Cheney had a lot of foreign policy experience, too. Sometimes the process of making decisions is more important than the experience of the actual decision-maker. I’ll take Obama as “the decider” with his consultative approach over what appears to be a recasting of the status quo leadership.

Benjamin Orbach

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