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On Foreign Policy, Clinton Has Edge

By Trudy Rubin

Back in 1991, when Bill Clinton was running for president, he came to talk with the Inquirer Editorial Board.

After wonkish discussions of domestic issues, I asked him about the Middle East. He started talking and wouldn't stop, even as his handlers dragged him to the elevator and his car. Clearly, he was new to foreign affairs; his ramble indicated he hadn't yet mastered the big picture even as he reveled in the details.

I've thought about that discussion as Americans debate how much foreign-policy experience matters for the next commander-in-chief.

Clearly, a smart leader can bone up on foreign policy over time. Although Clinton failed in his effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace, he came closer than any previous president and ended up as something of a Middle East expert.

Our next president, however, won't have time for a learning curve. He or she will take office at a point in history far more challenging than when Clinton stepped in.

In the early 1990s, the United States was riding high, at the apex of its global influence - the Cold War won, the Soviet Union in pieces. Our army was triumphant in the first gulf war. The whole world was looking to the United States to lead.

What a difference 15 years make. The Bush administration's errors and arrogance have severely undercut U.S. influence abroad and provoked a level of anti-Americanism, even in allied countries, that I've never seen before. Such sentiments help mobilize jihadi recruits.

Such a dismal Bush legacy will require the next president to make crucial foreign-policy decisions from the get-go. So yes, experience will matter.

But in these extraordinary times, other qualities also will be key. The next president must possess the long-term vision to grasp how the world has changed and what must be done to restore the country's global standing. This will require a sharp adjustment to U.S. military and diplomatic approaches to the Middle East.

It also will require a leader who can project a fresh image of the United States.

Experience, new vision, fresh image: None of the leading candidates combines all three qualities. That would require an Obillary with a dash of McCain. But here's my very general ranking of Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain.

No question McCain has the most experience. And he has distanced himself from the Bush administration's lack of concern about global warming and condoning of torture - policies that sullied the country's reputation. But on the Middle East, McCain has tied himself to the militaristic outlook of the Bush team.

The senator is right to warn against precipitate withdrawal from Iraq. But he lacks the vision thing. Like President Bush, he confuses Iraq's future with past occupations of Japan and South Korea.

His famous quote, about staying in Iraq for 50 or even 100 years, betrays an ignorance about the region and realities at home. Neither Iraqis, the American public, nor the U.S. military will accept a large and endless U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

In his heavy focus on military means, McCain seems unaware that robust U.S. diplomacy is crucial to leaving Iraq and dealing with Iran. The image McCain projects to the world is of failed Bush Iraq policies past.

Both Democratic candidates start with the advantage that they can't be blamed by the world for Bush's mistakes. This is a tremendous plus, and offers the chance to refurbish the United States' global leadership role.

A President Obama would stun the world by showing that in the United States, a talented black man can be elected. His lack of experience could be offset by strong staff, though his present team is disappointing.

As for the vision thing, both Democrats understand that, in a world of asymmetric wars, diplomacy and political strategy are as essential as guns. Both stress the need to talk directly with our enemies, including Iran.

Here is where I prefer Hillary Clinton's experience. She recognizes that - although it may make a good sound bite - Obama's readiness to talk directly to the likes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn't help. Such a concession should come only after direct talks have gained traction; otherwise, the gesture would simply be pocketed by Tehran.

I disagree with both Democrats' rush to exit Iraq with no realistic Plan B. However, despite their campaign pledges, I think that any Democratic winner would have to carefully tailor an Iraq exit to progress on the ground.

The choices are imperfect, but experience tied to past, failed policies can't succeed. On foreign policy, the United States badly needs a break from the past.

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