Obama's Foreign-Policy Problem

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Neal Hamberg / Landov

Foreign policy experience — or rather his lack of it — has been one of the chief arguments used against Barack Obama in his run for the Democratic Presidential nomination. In endorsing his rival Hillary Clinton this week, the Des Moines Register called Obama "inspirational," but worried that "with his relative inexperience, it's hard to feel as confident he could accomplish the daunting agenda that lies ahead." Clinton herself has criticized Obama sharply for his suggestion that the four years he spent living in Indonesia as a child helped him develop a world view and gives him credence on the world stage. "Voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next President will face," Clinton, the former First Lady who has spent seven years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told supporters Nov. 20 in Shenandoah, Iowa. "I think we need a President with more experience than that."

But should Obama's multicultural background and his early years living abroad be dismissed so easily? To what degree should those experiences be considered in judging whether he's prepared to deal with the complexities of the world today?

Some would argue that his childhood experiences, as well as his mixed heritage (his father was Kenyan, his mother from Kansas), gives him a better inner compass on foreign policy than most Americans. They cite the pioneering work of Ruth Hill Useem, the late sociologist of Michigan State University, who spent her career studying what she called Third Culture Kids — the millions of U.S. children (an estimated 20 million since the advent of mass air travel) who have been carted abroad by their missionary, diplomatic, corporate or military parents. These frequent-flier kids don't spend enough time in their adopted countries to become fully bicultural, but they take pieces and add it to their home values and traditions — creating millions of "Third Cultures." Studies have shows that kids who have spent time abroad are more likely to go to college, to relate to one another despite the influences of vastly differing cultures, and to latch on to one aspect of their culture — in Obama's case African Americanism.

"Living abroad does give you a wider view of the world," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser under Jimmy Carter, and a Polish-American who spent four years as a child living in Germany with his diplomat father. Obama is "a person with genuine sensitivity of world affairs," says Brzenzinski, who is supporting Obama. "It's not the conventional mouthing of culture sensitivities." Brzezinski points to Obama's greater willingness to meet leaders of hostile nations and his early resistance to the war in Iraq as examples of his superior intuition on foreign policy.

"The day I'm inaugurated, not only will the country look at itself differently, but the world will look at America differently," Obama told an audience in Audubon, Iowa, last month, "because not only do I have the experience of working at the highest levels of government on foreign policy but also because the leaders of others counties will know that I've got family members that live in small villages in Africa that are poor so I know what they're going through." It is an argument he has made in most of his stump speeches lately, as he tries to show that his judgment trumps the years of foreign policy experience of men like Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who led us into the war in Iraq. In an effort to underline his foreign policy credentials, Obama called a foreign-policy forum today in Iowa with three former Clinton Administration officials who have endorsed his candidacy.

Obama's multicultural background has, of course, been used against him in other ways, notably with a barrage of e-mail attacks that charged (inaccurately) that as a child living in Indonesia Obama was a practicing Muslim. Two Clinton volunteers have been fired for their role in forwarding the e-mails. But Obama has tried to turn the issue around to his advantage. "I've lived in Muslim countries, even while I'm Christian, so I know how they're thinking about issues," Obama says in his typical stump speech. Electing a President that has lived in a Muslim country "could not be a more effective message that we are breaking from Bush and Cheney policies. And it will make us more safe. It will give me more credibility on the world stage than any other candidate that is running."

Obama's years living in Indonesia, moreover, have made him the most popular U.S. politician in Southeast Asia. When prominent Indonesians visit the U.S., the first person they want to meet is Obama, says Parnohadiningrat Sudjadnan, the Indonesian ambassador to the U.S. "Back home people think of him as one of us, or at least one who understands us," he says, adding that they are delighted to find that Obama speaks passable Bahasa, the language spoken in Indonesia and Malaysia. The international fascination with Obama was on full display when Obama launched his campaign last February and media from more than 60 countries flew in to Springfield, Ill., to cover the event.

And, while his biography still leaves many skeptical of his foreign policy credentials, at least some voters are drawn to Obama because of his time abroad. "I lived abroad as a young child and I know what a lasting impact on the way I looked at the world," said Rebecca Hutchinson, 54, from Deerfield, New Hampshire, after attending a house party for Obama in August. Hutchinson, who works on the Democratic staff of the New Hampshire House Minority Leader — a Clinton supporter —spent third and fourth grades in Pakistan, and she sees Obama as the only candidate who can undo the damage done by the Bush Administration to America's reputation in the world. "Life experience is a really important factor for me. And the fact that he's lived abroad and the fact that he has family in different arenas gives him perspective and will help him makes decisions on the world stage."