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Obama 'The Man for the Moment'

Obama, primed to talk foreign policy, in Portsmouth, N.H. today. (AP).

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- There was no mistaking the purpose of a foreign policy wonk-fest that Barack Obama's campaign convened here today for the benefit of 120 New Hampshire voters and the attendant television cameras. Amid stepped-up attacks by Hillary Clinton claiming that Obama lacks the experience to face a dangerous world, the Obama camp turned loose a half dozen of the foreign policy experts in his fold to show the world the kind of high-caliber minds that are advising the first-term senator, who joined the panel of experts after nearly two hours of their deep ruminations.

Noticeable among all the chin-tugging foreign policy talk was the unlikely tack that the experts took in making their case that Obama does possess the necessary experience for the job. One might expect that campaign advisers in their shoes would try to play down the risks that the country faces at this moment in time, to make voters more comfortable about handing the reins to someone who only three years ago was biding his time in the Illinois state Senate. Instead, the panelists went in the exact opposite direction. They talked over and over again about what a perilous position the country now finds itself in on multiple fronts -- from the threat of anti-American extremism to nuclear proliferation to global warming -- and concluded that only Obama could save the day.

At points, the Obama advisers verged on the foreboding. John Hutson, a retired rear admiral and judge advocate general in the Navy who is now head of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H. summarized the state of affairs as follows: "I'm very sad and very worried about what's happened to our foreign policy. I'm very worried that historians are going to look back at the early days of the 21st century and say that's where the U.S. got derailed, that's where we made a wrong turn, that's where the U.S. began to become the next former great power." He added: "The U.S. is no longer a world leader in our foreign policy. We're not even a world follower. We're just an outlier." Anthony Lake, national security adviser in the Clinton Administration, was similarly alarmed about the situation in Pakistan: "If we do not get serious, a very serious situation could turn into a disaster."

What the country and the world needed at such a fraught pass, the advisers said, was Obama's fresh perspective, candor and ability to bridge gaps both within the country and around the world. Their praise of their man conjured a veritable Superman of diplomacy. "It would be transformative overnight," Lake said of the worldwide effect of an Obama election as president. Said Hutson: "Who is the inspirational leader who will bring us together rather than dividing us, who's going to make the U.S. a leader again on the world scene? I think it's pretty clear." Obama, he added, "has a wonderful blend of confidence and humility, and not all the candidates have that." Harvard's Samantha Power declared that the "urgency of this moment" demanded Obama's "fresh, pragmatic and unbeholden approach." Added her Harvard colleague Sarah Sewall, a former Pentagon official, "We need a transformative approach, and that's where Barack Obama comes in." Obama, she added, has "character, courage and unconventional wisdom -- and that is precisely what we need and why Barack Obama is the man for the moment."

All this buildup was a tough act to follow once Obama finally joined the panel himself -- audience members would have been forgiven for expecting the ghost of Dean Acheson in his place given all the hype. But he mostly held his own, seeming to relish the chance to show off his foreign policy learning and academic side. He focused his remarks around the need for "openness" in foreign policy (with the implication that not only President Bush but also Hillary Clinton have lacked forthrightness) and offered long discursive answers to the audience's almost comically erudite questions, including one from a small businessman about the global supply chain's role in the reduction of world conflicts and another from a former student of Margaret Mead, on the need for a more anthropological mindset in the foreign service. (Obama: "My mother was an anthropologist, so the Margaret Mead reference, I'm always hip to.")

Afterward, some of the Obama gurus were asked why they were offering such a dark view of world affairs as part of a pitch for a candidate with a short foreign policy resume. They answered that it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. "It is a perilous time," said Susan Rice, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs. "It's dishonest to deny that and one thing we don't want to be is dishonest."

But she maintained that Obama was nonetheless the best person for the moment, as she took issue with Clinton's claim that her years as first lady qualified her for president, as well as Clinton's mockery of Obama's claim that his years living in Indonesia as a child helped give him foreign policy perspective. "Those who say this (the Indonesia years) is his only claim to foreign policy leadership are deliberately distorting what he said as well as his background," Rice said. "What you get by osmosis living and working in the White House, I don't discount that, but it's not the same thing as being the face of the country's foreign policy or being the person who had to make the tough decisions and deal with crises and work around an inflexible bureaucracy to get things done. That's a lot of silliness."

Richard Danzig, secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration, concurred. "The whole point of this campaign is to call it like we see it. I don't think any of us is going to understate the risks just because of some ethereal political advantage," he said. "And given a risky world, I'd rather have him."

At least some of the voters in attendance seemed to agree after surviving the nearly three hour long session. "It sounds like he's got a really good core of international advisers," said Chris Moody, a business consultant. But how did Obama's foreign policy experience compare with that of Clinton, who points to her work as First Lady? "She's had exposure through Bill, sure," said Moody. "But she's had no more direct experience in making decisions than Obama has."

--Alec MacGillis

By Washington Post editors  |  November 27, 2007; 6:30 PM ET
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