The Nation

All Politics is International

Matthew Blake reports from Capitol Hill:

In his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy gave a vision of American service that would lead to establishment of the Peace Corps, famously declaring, "My fellow Americans: ask not what your country do for you; ask what you can for your country."

Karl Rove has turned this vision on its head. In March 2003 the White House asked Peace Corp officers, in essence, "How many of you are willing to be briefed on GOP Congressional and Gubernatorial races? Are you prepared to sit through a power point presentation on key media markets for the Republican 2008 presidential nominee?"

Since a Washington Post report yesterday that the White House gave political briefings to US ambassadors and Peace Corps officials, two Senate hearings have tried to ascertain what in the world the White House, much less the volunteer-driven Peace Corps and foreign assistance agencies, could possibly gain from such meetings.

Today, Connecticut Senator, Democratic Presidential candidate and Peace Corps alum (Dominican Republic '66-68) Chris Dodd scrutinized Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter for allowing a meeting between White House political strategists and around 15 Peace Corps officials. "I'm troubled by it," Dodd said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today. "The good reputation the Peace Corps has built over 40 years has been soiled."

Tschetter pleaded ignorance to a series of questions Dodd asked about who was at the meetings and continually responded that the sessions were voluntarily. He did admit, however, that the meeting took place at Peace Corps headquarters, which meant it likely violated the Hatch Act, a federal law barring executive branch employees from participating in partisan politics on the job.

Republican Senator Bob Corker was similarly baffled. He asked Tschetter to make certain that the "Peace Corps is still the gold standard in non-partisanship." Tschetter promised he would "ask around" about who attended the political briefings.

At a separate Foreign Relations Committee hearing yesterday, United States Agency of International Development acting administrator Henrietta Holsman Fore skated around questions anout why her aides met with White House Political Director Scott Jennings before and after the midterm elections. "It is a corruption of process and waste of time to have 20-30 employees of USAID briefed on the electoral landscape," New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez told Fore. "I'm not quite sure how it helps development abroad to know the key battleground states."

Prior to these newest findings by the Foreign Relation Committee, the White House admitted to giving about 15 federal agencies "political landscape" briefings from Rove's office. Congress has particularly focused its investigation upon General Services Administration Chairwoman Lurita Alexis Doan, who told her underlings to "help our candidates" win the next election.

That type of service was not exactly what President Kennedy had in mind.

Targeting Alaska's Terrible Two

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and Representative Don Young, the dynamic duo that brought us the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," have long been known as the unrepentant kings of pork on Capitol Hill, funneling billions of dollars in federal money to their far-off state.

Now the law is inspecting whether Stevens and Young illegally lined their own pockets in the process. According to today's Wall Street Journal, "federal investigators are examining whether Rep. Young and Sen. Stevens accepted bribes, illegal gratuities and unreported gifts from VECO Corp., Alaska's largest oil-field engineering firm."

As former chairman of powerful committees, the cantankerous duo are the highest-ranking members of Congress to be ensnared in the flurry of corruption cases in Washington.

The Journal reports that "VECO has won a string of federal contracts in recent years" but it isn't known which contracts are the subject of the investigation. Stories have come to light about how Young earmarked federal money to benefit campaign contributors in states as distant to him as Florida. The current probe may prove a repeat performance, albeit with more local roots.

Here's what is known: VECO employees gave $157,000 to Young over the past ten years and VECO CEO Bill Allen threw a "Pig Roast" fundraiser for him every August. Earlier this year Allen plead guilty to trying to bribe members of the Alaska state legislature, including Stevens's son Ben, paying him $243,250 for "giving advice, lobbying colleagues and taking acts in matters before the legislature."

Allen bought a racehorse with Stevens, supervised the remodeling of his home in 2000 and dined with him frequently. Last fall FBI agents raided Ben's office and recently told Stevens to preserve documents pertaining to the case.

We are witnessing an old story, with new characters. The mixture of bravado, excess and avarice that elevated Stevens and Young in Washington may also bring them down.

Clinton, Kissinger and the Corruptions of Empire

Of all the corruptions of empire, few are darker than the claim that diplomacy must be kept secret from the citizenry.

This hide-it-from-the people faith that only a cloistered group of unelected and often unaccountable elites – embodied by the nefarious and eminently indictable Henry Kissinger – is capable of steering the affairs of state pushes Americans out of the processes that determine whether their sons and daughters will die in distant wars, whether the factories where they worked will be shuttered, whether their country will respond to or neglect genocide, whether their tax dollars will go to pay for the unspeakable.

It allows for the dirty game where foreign countries are included or excluded from contact with the U.S. based on unspoken whims and self-serving schemes, where trade deals are negotiated without congressional oversight and then presented in take-it-or-leave-it form and where war is made easy by secretive cliques that are as willing to lie to presidents as they do to the people.

Unlike the excluded and neglected people, however, presidents have the authority to break this vicious cycle by making personal contact with foreign leaders, by publicly meeting with and debating allies and rivals, by taking global policymaking out of the shadows and into the light of day. When the president is personally and publicly in contact with the world, diplomacy is democratized.

As the most scrutinized figure on the planet, an American president who meets and maintains contact with leaders who may or may not follow the U.S. line on any particular issue involves not just him- or herself in the discussion but also the American people. The president lifts the veil of secrecy behind which horrible things can be done in our name but without our informed consent.

So it matters, it matters a great deal, whether those who seek the presidency promote transparent and democratic foreign policies or a continuation of a corrupt status quo that has rendered the United States dysfunctional, misguided and hated by most of the world – and that has caused more than 80 percent of Americans to say the country is headed in the wrong direction.

In the race for the Democratic nomination for president, the two frontrunners are lining up on opposite sides of the question of whether foreign policy should be conducted in public or behind the tattered curtain of corruption that has given us unnecessary wars in Vietnam and Iraq, U.S.-sponsored coups from Iran to Chile, trade policies designed to serve multinational corporations and a seeming inability to respond to the crisis that is Darfur.

Hillary Clinton, the candidate of all that is and will be, wants there to be no doubt that she is in the Kissinger camp.

The New York senator's campaign is attacking her chief rival, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, for daring to suggest that, he would personally meet with foreign leaders who do not always march in lockstep with the U.S. government.

In Monday's night's YouTube debate, candidates were asked it they would be willing to meet "with leaders of Syria, Iran, Venezuela during their first term," Obama immediately responded that, yes, he would be willing to do so. He explained that "the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous."

Clinton disagreed in the debate and now her camp is declaring that, "There is a clear difference between the two approaches these candidates are taking: Senator Obama has committed to presidential-level meetings with some of the world's worst dictators without precondition during his first year in office."

Leaving aside the fact that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, a popularly elected leader, is not one of the "world's worst dictators," it is particularly galling that Clinton -- in her rush to trash Obama -- is contradicting her own declaration in an April debate that, "I think it is a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people."

Unfortunately, Clinton's vote to give Bush a blank check for war in Iraq and her defense of that war, her support for neo-liberal economics and a Wall Street-defined free trade agenda and her general disregard for popular involvement in foreign-policy debates suggests that the senator is showing true self when she dismisses the value of presidential engagement with the leaders of foreign lands.

Clinton is playing politics this week. But in a broader sense she is aligning herself with a secretive and anti-democratic approach to global affairs that steers the United States out of the global community while telling the American people that foreign policy is the domain only of shadowy Kissingers.

She is not just wrong in this, she is Bush/Cheney wrong.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Democrats Increased Funding for WHAT?

I'm way late on this, so I hope you've already squawked to your congressperson about a particularly nasty bit of gristle buried in the big fat bratwurst that is the 125-page Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill. Passed by the House on July 19 by a comfy 276-140 vote, HR 3043 increases federal funding for abstinence-only education by $27.8 million -- $4 million more than Bush asked for. That brings to a whopping $141 million the amount of your taxes the feds will spend annually on religion-ridden error-strewn information-denying propagandistic-boondogglish school programs that--as a Congressionally mandated 10-year evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research showed back in April -- do not even work.

These are the same programs that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) blasted in a report last December for spreading such falsehoods as : condoms don't protect against pregnancy, half of gay male teens are HIV positive, a 43-day old embryo is a "thinking person," 10% of women who have abortions become sterile, and the HIV virus can be transmitted through sweat and tears. My personal favorite, as described by The Washington Post:

"Some course materials cited in Waxman's report present as scientific fact notions about a man's need for ‘admiration' and ‘sexual fulfillment' compared with a woman's need for ‘financial support.' One book in the ‘Choosing Best' series tells the story of a knight who married a village maiden instead of the princess because the princess offered so many tips on slaying the local dragon. ‘Moral of the story,' notes the popular text: ‘Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man's confidence or even turn him away from his princess.' "

So who voted to keep filling young people's minds with sexist fairy tales and potentially fatal falsehoods? Henry Waxman! Along with Nation favorites Maxine Waters, Jan Schakowsky, Dennis Kucinich, and indeed every other House Dem present (Nancy Pelosi, although present, by tradition as Speaker, didn't vote). Practical explanation: throwing Republicans this trivial bone would build a veto-proof majority for a bill Bush has promised to reject-- a $152 billion bill crammed with good things, from more funding for Pell grants and for math and science education to $27.8 million more for Title X, the family planning program for low-income people. $27.8 million for claptrap, $27.8 million for reproductive health care. That's only fair.

Well, okay, that's how it goes in the sausage business ( For background on the politicking, read Lindsay Beyerstein's excellent report at www.inthesetimes.com. ) Still, I expect a little more backbone from the men and women who claim to represent the reality-based community. The Dems spent the last six and half years bashing the Republicans for supporting abstinence-only. They raised a ton of money and extracted hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours from people--feminists, gays, seculars, ordinary normal middle-of-the-roaders--who have just had it with the Christian right and their craziness. The Bush Administration's flagrant politicization of science--especially reproductive science -- was one of the Democrats' strongest cards. They might be dazed and confused about Iraq, but at least they know the government shouldn't tell young people condoms don't prevent pregnancy and STDs when, in fact, most of the time they do.

Did the strategy at least succeed? Apparently not. Republicans did not provide that veto-proof majority. Instead, the reality-based community has been demoralized, while the Purity Ballers whirl happily round the dance floor. And just to put the cherry of masochism atop the sundae of cynicism (yes, I know, what happened to that sausage?) federal abstinence dollars, as Michael Reynolds reported in The Nation , have a way of morphing into huge slush funds for Republican candidates. Even if David Obey, Nita Lowey and the other members of the HHS Appropriations committee who ground this sausage don't care about young people, you'd think they'd balk at funding their own opposition.

After all, they're doing such a good job of discouraging their supporters on their own.

Why Obama Got it Right

In Monday's debate, and with the benefit of having time to think through her response, HillaryClinton posed as the foreign policy sophisticate to Barack Obama the bold leader who did not hesitate to say that he would meet with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, andVenezuela. My colleague David Corn argues that Obama has committed a majorblunder reflecting his lack of foreign policy experience.

(My colleague Ari Berman posted his smart and sharp counter to David's argument on behalf of those like Hillary Clinton who are "steeped in the nuances, language and minefields of foreign policy." But I feel strongly enough to weigh in on this debate.)

Those "nuances and minefields" can also be traps. Witness how far Clinton's nuanced experience got her when confronted with the 2002 Iraq war resolution.

David may well be right that Obama's opponents will try to exploit hisresponse. But from a foreign policy point of view was Obama's response sowrong and Clinton's so right? Her husband's administration generally followedHillary's approach; during his two terms President Clinton did not meet withFidel Castro or with Hugo Chavez or with the leaders of Iran, Syria, and NorthKorea --while generally pursuing a policy of trying to isolate thesecountries. But what did the Clinton approach actually accomplish? The respective regimes of Castro in Cuba and Chavezin Venezuela have only grown stronger, and more influential in LatinAmerica. Although Syria was forced to withdraw its military forces fromLebanon last year, the regime of Bashar Assad is as firmly entrenched inpower as was his father's. And in spite of the odious politics and qualities ofAhmadinejad, Iran carries more weight in the Middle East than it did doingthe early 1990s while American power and standing has declined considerably.

Indeed, both Clinton and Bush may have missed a historic opportunity toopen a new chapter with Iran when reformer Mohamed Khatemi was elected in1997. Had President Clinton taken the bold step Obama suggested and had metwithout precondition with President Khatemi in 1998 or '99 instead of pursuingsanctions, might not the democratic reformers be in power in Iran? Might wenot have a healthy and growing trading relationship with an economicallyreformed Iran? Might Iran have capped its nuclear program and cooperatedwith us in managing regional relations including the peaceful downfall ofSaddam Hussein? We do not know because the foreign policy sophisticatesthought it was too politically risky for President Clinton to make such abold move.

Above all, foreign policy is a matter of simultaneouslyprojecting American confidence and American humility. In signaling that hewas willing to meet with the leaders of these countries, Obama was signalingthat the United States has the confidence in its values to meet with anyone.But he also signaled a certain humility that reflects the understanding thatthe next president must reach out to the rest of the world and not merelyissue conditions from the White House and threaten military force if it doesnot get its way.

Future 5000

Who says students are apathetic? In periodic posts, I've tried to debunk the silly and unfounded notion that young people are insufficiently engaged with the critical political, economic and social issues of the day. (Of course many of them aren't but, then, neither are the majority of Americans in any age group.)

A quick perusal of Future 5000, a remarkable new website, demonstrates the growth and breadth of a powerful and connected progressive youth movement. In 2002 a group of young organizers from around the country published a book called Future 500, highlighting some of the most effective youth organizations in the United States at the time. Now, five years later, an alliance of 10 youth organizations has dedicated staff and resources to creating an interactive, updated online version of the original tome.

A dynamic directory of grassroots youth organizations active across all 50 states, Future 5000 features more than six hundred groups with vivid profiles detailing their work. Created by a coterie of smart and dedicated young activists associated with the Generational Alliance, the site is designed as a one-stop shop for youth organizers to share strategies, resources, tools, stories, and even visuals in one central place; to access basic information; to identify allies; to raise money and to forge media awareness campaigns.

So check out Future 5000, spend a few minutes trolling through the hundreds of inspiring listings, and marvel at the astounding work being undertaken by the next generation.

Cindy Sheehan: "Challenge the Status Quo"

Fresh from being arrested on Capitol Hill, along with 45 other activists demanding that Congress get about the business of impeaching George Bush and Dick Cheney, Cindy Sheehan has determined that she can no longer count on others to stop the war in Iraq or hold a lawless administration to account.

So she has announced that she will, indeed, challenge House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's bid for reelection next year.

It is a bold gesture, rooted in the deep frustration of the nation's most prominent anti-war activist with Pelosi's hyper-cautious approach to her duties as both the leader of the congressional opposition to an unpopular president and as a sworn defender of the Constitution.

This is the context in which Sheehan proposes to challenge Pelosi. "At the end of this day, Speaker Pelosi has not supported impeachment and has not upheld her oath of office to 'protect and defend' the Constitution," says the challenger.

Sheehan's bid, presumably on an independent line, will be uphill all the way. Pelosi has all the advantages of incumbency -- and more. Closely tied for decades to the Democratic political establishment of San Francisco, Pelosi and her campaign team know just about everything there is to know about winning elections there. And, as the Speaker of the House, she has the ability to deliver both on the practical and egotistical needs of the city by the bay. Additionally, she has the ability to raise and spend more money than any opponent.

With all of this said, however, Sheehan has standing.

It is not just that she enjoys her own prominence, and a measure of sympathy and respect, as the mother of slain soldier Casey Sheehan who turned her personal grief into a powerful call for accountability from President Bush and those who were responsible for the illegal and immoral war that claimed Casey's life.

What makes Sheehan a potentially credible challenger is the fact that, by any reasonable measure, she is more in touch with the true passions of San Francisco's voters than Pelosi. Pelosi is a war critic, but she has never gone to the mat on the issue. San Franciscans, on the other hand, have voted overwhelmingly for immediate withdrawal. Similarly, Pelosi says that impeachment is "off the table," despite the fact that San Franciscans voted by a 3-2 margin last fall in favor of holding the president and vice president to account.

For Sheehan, it is Pelosi's determination to protect Bush and Cheney from demands for accountability that tipped the balance in favor of making the race against the Speaker.

And it is Sheehan's faith that Bush and Cheney must be held to account -- not just to constrain them but to constrain the excesses of future presidents and vice presidents -- that will define her challenge to Pelosi. There is no question that the war in Iraq is an issue, but the deeper concern is with the political compromises that made possible that war and that have allowed for its continuation.

"If anybody would dare think that I am not serious, I would hope that they would look back at the last three years of my life and everything that I have sacrificed to restore our nation to one that obeys the rule of law and can be looked up to with respect once again in the international community and not as the hated laughingstock on the block," says Sheehan. "I am committed to challenging a two party system that has kept us in a state of constant warfare for the last 60 years and has become more and more beholden to special interests and has forgotten the faces of the people whom it represents."

Sheehan continues, "I am committed to using our strength as a country to wage peace and to elevate the status of every citizen in our country by converting the enduring war economy to a prosperous one with lasting peace."

If that sounds like a campaign speech, it is. And as someone who has appeared on dozens of platforms with Sheehan over the past few years, I can confirm that she is able to deliver a stemwinder in the best old populist sense.

Good speeches do not always translate to electoral success, however, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson learned in 1984 and again in 1988, when he mounted a pair of articulate but ultimately unsuccessful bids for the Democratic presidential nod.

Nothing about challenging Nancy Pelosi will be easy. Victory is unlikely. But, as George Bush will confirm, Cindy Sheehan has shaken the political establishment before. And she is determined to do so again -- not just as one "Peace Mom" running for Congress but as part of a political upheaval that she dares to dream might involve a lot more than a spirited contest in San Francisco.

"Someone needs to step up to the plate to do this and I challenge other Americans to do the same," says Sheehan. "Challenge the status quo, because the status quo is no good. We need to become plugged into our government once again as active participants not just passive voters."


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Attack of the Raging Chicks

New York Times columnist David Brooks is one of the more effective conservative commentators, in that he is a master at making outrageous arguments with a professorial elan that suggests careful thought and balanced reasoning. And then you listen to what he's really saying ...

He's at his ludicrous -- and seemingly persuasive -- best when making arguments about gender, as when he blamed feminists for ruining fiction for boys. Slippery as he is, it is exceptionally satisfying when he finds himself wrong-footed by those inconvenient little things we call facts.

The most recent example was a July 10 column titled "The New Lone Rangers," where he argued that a recent rash of pop songs -- Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats," "U + Ur Hand" by Pink and "Girlfriend" by Avril Lavigne -- suggested an alarming new cultural trend toward feminine rage:

"If you put the songs together, you see they're about the same sort of character: a character who would have been socially unacceptable in a megahit pop song 10, let alone 30 years ago."

This character is hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fedup, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving. She's like one of those battle-hardened combat vets, who's had the sentimentality beaten out of her and who no longer has time for romance or etiquette. She's disgusted by male idiots and contemptuous of the feminine flirts who cater to them."

Yeah, well, there's nothing more unattractive than a pissed off woman, or more pathetic, as Brooks concludes, "The angry young women on the radio these days are not the first pop stars to romanticize independence for audiences desperate for companionship."

Brooks really means "socially unacceptable" in a woman and he's only talking the women in the audience, who are naturally "desperate for companionship," but he never says so explicitly, butsimply never mentions similar songs by male artists. Angry men in pop music? Unthinkable! And men angry at women? Fuggedaboutit! This is clearly one of those "female problems."

A number of liberal bloggers took Brooks to task for his column, but few seem to have noticed that each one of these songs were written primarily by men: Josh Kear-Chris Tompkins wrote "Before He Cheats"; Luke Gottwald, Max Martin, and Rami wrote "U + Ur Hand"; and "Girfriend" was co-written with Luke Gottwald, or more likely entirely so given Lavigne's suspect songwriting creds.

Say it aint' so, David.

An Obama Flub at the YouTube Debate?

I can see the ad now: Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro, Bashar al-Assad, and Hugo Chavez all strolling into the White House, and a grinning Barack Obama greeting them with a friendly "Welcome, boys; what do you want to talk about?"

If Obama gets close to the Democratic presidential nomination, pro-Hillary Clinton forces could air such an ad. If he wins the nomination, the Republicans could hammer him with such a spot.

And the junior senator from Illinois will not have much of a defense.

At the newfangled YouTube/CNN debate on Monday night--during which YouTubers posed questions to the Democratic candidates via video--a fellow named Stephen Sorta of Diamond Bar, California, asked,

In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?

Obama took the question first. He replied,

I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous. Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.

The crowd responded with applause. His answer seemed fine. It was only moments later that the problem became obvious. Sorta, who was also in the audience, put the same question to Senator Hillary Clinton. She said:

Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration. And I will purse very vigorous diplomacy.

And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.

Then CNN's Anderson Cooper, the moderator, turned to former Senator John Edwards and asked, "Would you meet with Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il?" Edwards echoed Clinton:

Yes, and I think actually Senator Clinton's right though. Before that meeting takes place, we need to do the work, the diplomacy, to make sure that that meeting's not going to be used for propaganda purposes, will not be used to just beat down the United States of America in the world community. But I think this is just a piece of a bigger question, which is, what do we actually do? What should the president of the United States do to restore America's moral leadership in the world. It's not enough just to meet with bad leaders. In addition to that, the world needs to hear from the president of the United States about who we are, what it is we represent.

Obama had suggested he would sit down with these leaders willy-nilly, no preconditions. Clinton and Edwards explained that that they would use diplomacy to try to improve relations with these nations and that such an effort could lead to a one-on-one with these heads of state.

Obama had responded from the gut, working off a correct critique of the Bush administration's skeptical approach toward diplomacy. But his answer lacked the sophistication of Clinton's and Edwards' replies. And this moment illustrated perhaps the top peril for the Obama campaign: with this post-9/11 presidential contest, to a large degree, a question of who should be the next commander in chief, any misstep related to foreign policy is a big deal for a candidate who has little experience in national security matters.

Clinton, with her years as First Lady and her stint as a member of the Senate armed services committee, and Edwards, with his tenure on the Senate intelligence committee, are steeped in the nuances, language, and minefields of foreign policy. (Among the second-tier candidates, Senator Joe Biden, Senator Chris Dodd, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson can boast extensive national security experience.) Though Obama was against the Iraq war before he was a senator, he has not developed his foreign policy chops. That's understandable; he's only been on the national scene for two years. (Prior to that, he was doing admirable work as a state legislator, a civil rights attorney, and a community organizer.) So he is more prone to commit mistakes in this area--perhaps stupid mistakes--that can be easily exploited by his opponents. And in the post-9/11 era, there's not much room in national politics for such errors.

During the 2004 Democratic presidential contest, Howard Dean had the foreign policy positions that resonated most with Democratic voters. He was opposed to the Iraq war; Senator John Kerry had voted to let George W. Bush invade Iraq. But Dean, like Obama, had not spent years talking and doing foreign policy. He made some dumb gaffes. On Meet the Press Tim Russert asked Dean this question:

Let's talk about the military budget. How many men and women would you have on active duty?

Dean flubbed his response:

I can't answer that question. And I don't know what the answer is.

Later in the race, Dean repeatedly referred to Russia as the "Soviet Union," a country that had not existed for 13 years.

Such remarks were not the downfall of Dean. But they did allow others to suggest he was not ready for prime time regarding national security matters. (Of course, neither was George W. Bush, but he had the good fortune of running in the last pre-9/11 election.) About Dean, Kerry said, "All the advisers in the world can't give Howard Dean the military and foreign policy experience, leadership skills...necessary to lead this country through dangerous times." Obama is obviously susceptible to a similar attack--from a Democrat or a Republican.

For Obama to have a chance of toppling front-running Clinton, he will have a near-perfect performance from now until the actual voting. During the YouTube debate, Obama generally did fine. But he did not differentiate himself from Clinton in a significant manner. After all, there is not much difference between their current positions. He did take a strong shot at her during a series of questions about the Iraq war:

One thing I have to say about Senator Clinton's comments a couple of moments ago. I think it's terrific that she's asking for plans from the Pentagon, and I think the Pentagon response was ridiculous. But what I also know is that the time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in. And that is something that too many of us failed to do. We failed to do it. And I do think that that is something that both Republicans and Democrats have to take responsibility for.

The crowd cheered, but one swing at Clinton does not a campaign make. Yes, there are months to go in the preprimary maneuvering, but at some point--probably sooner than later--Obama is going to have to make a move. Meanwhile, he also has to avoid such mistakes as promising to open the doors of the White House without conditions to Kim Jong Il and others of that ilk. He cannot let Stephen Sorta of Diamond Bar, California, trip him up again.


JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.