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 Americans.
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 much of it often sounds like a lot of 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 Clinton team.
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.
Contact Jonathan S. Tobin via e-mail at: [email protected] .