First off, Andy Hiller, political reporter for WHDH-TV in Boston, Massachusetts, wanted to know whether the potential next president of the US could name the president of Chechnya.
Mr Bush: "No, can you?"
Instead, Mr Hiller fired off his second question. "Can you name the president of Taiwan?"
Bush: "Yeah, Lee." His score so far: 50%.
But then came the crunch question: "Can you name the general who is in charge of Pakistan?"
Mr Bush needed a breather. "Wait, wait, is this 50 questions?"
"No, it's four questions of four leaders in four hot spots, " the reporter tried to put his victim at ease.
"The new Pakistani general, he's just been elected - not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think that's good news for the sub-continent," the Republican candidate offered.
Good news, but not an answer, and the interviewer insisted: "Can you name him?"
"General. I can't name the general. General" was all Mr Bush had to offer.
The reporter tried the another country in the same region, but the Indian prime minister's name did not come to George Bush either.
"The new prime minister of India is - no."
I was struck, however, by how Bush Jr., even if he couldn't remember his name, had such a strong positive opinion on the new dictator of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. Clearly, he had picked it up somewhere, but where? And why? From reading the newspaper?
Pakistan is the country where, more than just about anywhere else in the world, you need inside information, a trusted guide to make sense of what in the world is going on there.
What about Obama?
Barack Obama came to Washington just six years ago, having spent his professional life as a part-time lawyer, part-time law professor, and part-time state legislator in Illinois. As an undergraduate, he took courses in history and international relations, but neither his academic life nor his work in Springfield gave him an especially profound grasp of foreign affairs. ...
As a student during the Reagan years, Obama gravitated toward conventionally left-leaning positions. At Occidental, he demonstrated in favor of divesting from apartheid South Africa. At Columbia, he wrote a forgettable essay in Sundial, a campus publication, in favor of the nuclear-freeze movement. As a professor at the University of Chicago, he focussed on civil-rights law and race. And, as a candidate who emphasized his “story,” Obama argued that what he lacked in experience with foreign affairs he made up for with foreign travel: four years in Indonesia as a boy, and trips to Pakistan, India, Kenya, and Europe during and after college. But there was no mistaking the lightness of his résumé. Just a year before coming to Washington, State Senator Obama was not immersed in the dangers of nuclear Pakistan or an ascendant China; as a provincial legislator, he was investigating the dangers of a toy known as the Yo-Yo Water Ball. (He tried, unsuccessfully, to have it banned.)
On the other hand, Pakistan is one of the very few countries Barack Obama had any kind of inside information about. His mother worked there, he had four friends, including a roommate, from Pakistan's elite, he visited there in 1981 and stayed on the estate of a future Prime Minister's family. On September 15, 2008, I blogged:
In Pakistan in 1981, Obama stayed at the estate of the man who was recently caretaker Prime Minister after his boss, Gen. Musharraf, quit. Although Obama recently boasted of how much foreign policy expertise he gained from this trip, he didn't mention it in Dreams from My Father since it didn't have much to do with his story of race and inheritance.
Obama's youthful connection to Pakistani bigshots is not particularly remarkable. Imagine an American student at Amherst in the 19th Century who makes friends with the tiny number of Italian students there, and goes to visit Italy with his classmate. His friends would almost certainly belong to a politically influential network of Italian families. Of course, if that American later ran for President, it would be interesting to know which network of Italian families he had connections to. ...
Obama's Pakistani friends no doubt came from wealthy, influential families within Pakistan. Does anybody know what their political connections are within Pakistan, since they've probably helped shape Obama's view of that complicated and obscure part of the world?
This may be relevant to the question of how much credit Obama deserves.
In baseball statistics, there's the concept of Wins Above Replacement. Back in the 1980s, baseball analysts used to try to measure ballplayers against the average player. If a below average player got into a lot of games, he came out looking worse than an equally mediocre player who didn't play much. But that didn't make sense because even below average major leaguers are awfully good. The relevant comparison, instead, is to replacement players: the average player you could pick up from Triple A or the waiver wire to replace him.
In recent Presidential history, Gerald Ford might roughly represent the replacement level President. (In contrast, George W. Bush seems like the Jesus Alou of Presidents, a good-looking ballplayer from a famous family who got into 1,380 big league games despite being below replacement level for his 15 year career.)
So, you can reasonably ask: What did Obama do that Gerald Ford wouldn't have done?
If there is an answer to that question besides "nothing," it may have to do with Obama's willingness to upset the applecart in relation to Pakistan. And it could be that Obama's personal experience with Pakistanis might have made him more cynical about Pakistan than past Presidents. Maybe hanging around with rich Marxist Pakistanis taught him something about not trusting Pakistan.
Or, maybe the opposite is true, and Gerry Ford would have sent in the SEALs long before.