Friday’s foreign policy lineup could have given Obama the grand slam he needed to secure victory in November. Already the voters’ choice on economic issues, Obama had 90 minutes to cure the Achilles heel of his candidacy by showing voters the knowledge and grasp of foreign policy issues needed in a commander in chief.
Instead, the POW standing a few feet away made Obama look naïve and anything but knowledgeable when he spoke of Iran, Pakistan, or Russia.
Late in the debate, Jim Lehrer asked each candidate about the threat Iran posed to the United States, which gave McCain an opportunity to criticize Obama’s previous statement that he would meet Ahmadinejad without preconditions.
“This is dangerous. It isn’t just naive, it’s dangerous.” McCain pointed out. Obama insisted he meant there would be “preparations” at lower levels before he met with Ahmadinejad, to which McCain answered, “Senator Obama is parsing words.”
This came after a heated exchange over comments Obama made on Pakistan prior to the debate.
“He said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan. Now, you don’t do that. You don’t say that out loud,” McCain said.
Obama fired back, “You’re absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But you know, coming from you who, you know, in the past have threatened extinction for North Korea and, you know, sung songs about bombing Iran, I don’t know, you know, how credible that is.”
But when Obama criticized America’s policy towards Pakistan over the past 10 years, McCain had only to respond,” I don’t think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power. Everybody who was around then and had been there and knew about it knew that it was a failed state.”
And when McCain observed Obama never called a hearing when he chaired a committee that oversaw NATO, Obama’s best defense was the qualifications of his running mate and a line about “Senate inside baseball”: “I’m very proud of my vice presidential selection, Joe Biden, who’s the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And as he explains and as John well knows, the issues of Afghanistan, the issues of Iraq, critical issues like that don’t go through my subcommittee because they’re done as a committee as a whole.”
Obama recovered afterwards, however, and undercut one of McCain’s vital talking points on foreign policy: the success of the surge in Iraq.
“John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007,” Obama said. “The war started in 2003. And at the time, when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shi’a and Sunni and you were wrong.”
While Obama’s youth worked against him in foreign policy, it gave him an advantage in presentation. McCain peppered his answers with reminiscences and often rehashed topics (such as earmarks) that the candidates had already exhausted on the campaign trail. Because of this, Obama’s answers seemed more on-topic and his talking points better disguised.
Obama was also effective when linking McCain to the economic policies of the current administration.
“John, it’s been your president, who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time, who presided over this increase in spending, this orgy of spending, and enormous deficits,” Obama said. “And you voted for almost all of his budgets. So to stand here after eight years and say that you’re going to lead on controlling spending and, you know, balancing our tax cuts so that they help middle-class families, when over the last eight years that hasn’t happened, I think just is, you know, kind of hard to swallow.”
Obama turned in a credible performance overall, but he missed a prime chance to write the Obama-Biden ticket to the White House. Obama performed well where he was expected to — presentation and economic issues — yet failed add gravitas to his foreign policy expertise. Obama needs to prove himself a respected voice on foreign affairs. Otherwise, the Achilles heel remains exposed.