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Foreign-Policy Experience

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Obama: Neophyte
Critics charge that Obama has little foreign-policy experience, and they’re pretty much right. As a recent newcomer to the Senate, Obama counts an important law restricting the international proliferation of weapons, which he co-sponsored with Republican senator Dick Lugar, among his greatest foreign-policy accomplishments. While it doesn’t demonstrate experience as traditionally defined, he also frequently references his 2002 speech against the war in Iraq as an example of sound judgment. He’s served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since his induction into the Senate and chairs the Subcommittee on European Affairs—though, as his rivals have noted, he hasn’t held any hearings as of yet. However, as Michael Hirsch writes in Newsweek, Obama “has shown sophistication on foreign policy from his earliest weeks in office,” such as the time he “wowed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with his questioning of Condoleezza Rice at her January 2005 confirmation hearings.” In the end, though, Obama is right to draw attention to his “judgment” and not his experience.

McCain: Battle Tested
McCain’s history in the military and his long career in elected office make him the consensus choice as the candidate with the most foreign-policy experience. “If the dominant issue in the election is national security … McCain’s resume might trump all other considerations,” writes Mark Halperin in The Undecided Voter’s Guide to the Next President. McCain has traveled extensively during his years as a congressman and a senator, including returning, famously, to Vietnam in 1985. He’s even visited Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, which, while unlikely to come in handy, is still kind of cool. McCain has faced many tough decisions regarding American military involvement overseas, but despite his hawk image, he hasn’t always advocated force. He (and only 26 other House Republicans) voted against extending a troop presence in Lebanon in 1983; ten years later, he opposed intervention in Haiti. McCain also sponsored a bill to cut off funding for the American effort in Somalia—though he later expressed regret for the effort, saying it interfered with president's powers. (This was perhaps a sign of his changing mind-set with regard to force.) But McCain supported the first Gulf War and intervention in Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, and of course in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Finally, he spent numerous years in the Navy and time in Vietnam (see Military (In)Experience). He has also served on the Senate Committee on Armed Services since joining the Senate in 1987.


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