For senators seeking the presidency, becoming a foreign policy wonk isn’t necessarily the route to success: Democrats Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry and Republican John McCain all had foreign policy credentials and all fell short in their quests for the White House.
Although in office for only 10 months, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who some democrats see as a future presidential prospect, is emerging as a foreign policy wonk in his own right.
He is building up his expertise on Russia and other parts of the dangerous world.
Helping Obama is a foreign policy elder statesman who himself once tried for his party’s presidential nomination, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana.
Although few remember it now, the gentlemanly and cerebral Hoosier made a run for the 1996 GOP nomination.
Obama and Lugar have formed a political joint venture and mutual admiration society: the white-haired chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has served in the Senate since 1977, and the man 30 years younger than he, the glamorous Great Hope for Democrats in 2012 and beyond.
This week Obama and Lugar reported on their trip to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan to inspect weapons dumps and sites where nerve gas, as well as smallpox, plague and other deadly pathogens are kept, under not very secure guard in some cases.
Back in 1991, Lugar, along with then-senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, devised the cooperative threat reduction program under which the United States has spent $5.7 billion to buy up and dispose of former Soviet nuclear warheads and other weapons. Otherwise they might be sold to, or fall into the hands of al Qaida.
Praise for a white-haired 'rock star'
“Few people understand these challenges better than the co-founder of the cooperative threat reduction program, my colleague and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Dick Lugar,” Obama told the crowd at an event Tuesday hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
“If anybody has ever accompanied Sen. Lugar on a trip, you know that he is a rock star wherever he goes,” he added. That use of a term more often applied to Obama himself drew a laugh from the staid foreign policy elders.
“The demand for these weapons has never been greater,” Obama warned. “Right now rogue states and despotic regimes are looking to begin or accelerate their own nuclear programs.”
It sounded like the rationale the Bush administration offered in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, but Obama stood apart this week from the Senate fracas over investigating 2002-2003 pre-war intelligence.
He seems more concerned about the present.
“As we speak, members of al Qaida and other terrorist organizations are aggressively pursuing weapons of mass destruction, which I think all of us believe they would use without hesitation,” he said.
“Some experts believe terrorists are likely to find enough fissile material to build a bomb in the next ten years and we can imagine with horror what the world would be like if they succeeded.”
Obama called nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons within the borders of the former Soviet Union “the greatest threat to the security of the United States.”
He said the Nunn-Lugar program ought to be expanded to include civilian research reactors in Russia and former Soviet states which hold large quantities of highly enriched uranium -- “the quickest way to a nuclear weapon.”
Embraced by the mandarins
Obama’s speech was an occasion for his ceremonial investiture into the bipartisan foreign policy elite by mandarins of past presidential administrations.
Former Deputy Secretary of State from the Clinton administration Strobe Talbott, former Reagan national security advisor Bud McFarlane, and nuclear weapons expert Spurgeon Keeny of the National Academy of Sciences were among the experts in attendance.
“It was very impressive,” said Talbott, now president of the Brookings Institution, of Obama’s performance. “This was an issue that a lot of people in that room had worked on and followed for a long time. He has clearly mastered both the technology and the strategic context.”
Also in the audience and impressed by the Obama-Lugar talk was Jay Parker, vice president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, a Washington think tank.
A retired Army colonel and former professor of international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Parker said after seeing Obama and Lugar, “What was particularly encouraging was the fact that the effort was bipartisan and the dialogue was civil – in sharp contrast to the other news yesterday” — a reference to the acrimony sparked Tuesday when Minority Leader Harry Reid forced the Senate into closed session as a protest against slow progress in investigation of pre-war Iraq intelligence.
Parker added that Obama’s intense work on foreign policy and national security issues was not unusual for a freshman senator, “regardless of their presidential ambitions, real or perceived.”
“He’s making a serious effort and he has quickly grasped a lot of important points,” added Parker. “He’s doing it for the right reasons” — among them: in Obama’s hometown of Chicago, a city that might be the target of an al Qaida attack.
Challenging Rice on Iraq
Obama and Lugar were in harmony two weeks ago when the senators challenged the Iraq rationales offered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
“Are we committed to holding Iraq together in perpetuity, even if the parties involved, the Iraqi people, determine they don’t want to form the sort of visionary Iraqi nation that you and the president envision?” Obama asked Rice.
This question came about an hour after Lugar had put her on the spot with this statement: “Let’s say that the Iraqis, after all is said and done, really don’t want to have a united country…. Some Americans would say, ‘why are we there, if these folks not only don’t appreciate us, but they’re hashing the whole thing up, they literally don’t want to have the sort of Iraq that was envisioned by the British and French years ago?’”
Later that day in an interview, Obama told me that there seemed to be two different measures of success in Iraq.
“One measure of success would be to make sure that the insurgency can’t overtake Iraq. A second measure of success would be a coherent national government,” he said.
“If we are going by the first measure of success, in terms of getting our troops out, then we should be able to establish some timetable to actually get out of there because that is a military issue that is premised on Iraqi troops getting strong enough just to stabilize the country.”
But he warned that if the goal is a coherent national government, “then we could be there for a very long time. And I do not think that is something that even the supporters of the original invasion signed up for.”