Skip to main content

By Larry Rohter
The New York Times
April 10, 2008

Senator Barack Obama at a public forum on Wednesday at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pa., near Philadelphia.
Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

To counter opponents’ accusations that he lacks experience in foreign policy, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois often cites his ties to relatives in poor villages in Kenya and the years he spent growing up in Indonesia. Now he has added a new personal detail to that résumé: a trip to Pakistan while a college student.

Mr. Obama, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, made the disclosure Sunday night while speaking to supporters at a fund-raiser in San Francisco. His remarks, in which he poked fun at the utility of traditional foreign policy qualifications like government officials traveling abroad on fact-finding missions, were recorded and were quickly placed on the Web.

With the war in Iraq and Islamic terrorism among the top issues in the campaign, all three of the presidential contenders have sought to emphasize the value of their very different foreign policy credentials. Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has often pointed to his military and combat experience, while Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has emphasized her involvement in international and national security issues as both first lady and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But Mr. Obama has argued that his rivals’ longer official record is no substitute for his real-life grass-roots experience. “Foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton and Senator McCain,” he said in his remarks in San Francisco.

“Experience in Washington is not knowledge of the world,” he continued, provoking laughter among those present. “This I know. When Senator Clinton brags, ‘I’ve met leaders from 80 countries,’ I know what those trips are like. I’ve been on them. You go from the airport to the embassy. There’s a group of children who do a native dance. You meet with the C.I.A. station chief and the embassy and they give you a briefing. You go take a tour of plant that” with “the assistance of Usaid has started something. And then, you go.”

During the speech, Mr. Obama also spoke about having traveled to Pakistan in the early 1980s. Because of that trip, which he did not mention in either of his autobiographical books, “I knew what Sunni and Shia was before I joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” he said.

Over all, Mr. Obama’s remarks seemed directed primarily at his Democratic rival, Mrs. Clinton. But some of his digs, including the one about distinguishing Shias from Sunnis, also apply to Mr. McCain, whose campaign offered a sharp, mocking response to Mr. Obama’s claim to expertise.

“When John McCain travels on official business, he meets with presidents, prime ministers, foreign and defense ministers, members of parliament, human rights leaders, N.G.O.’s, business leaders and journalists so that he acquires a full understanding of the country he visits and the issues at stake in our relations,” said Mark Salter, a senior adviser to Mr. McCain. “Oh, and as Senator Obama may know, he has actually spent some time living abroad as well.”

Even more than a gap on specific policies, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain’s respective positions represent a fundamental philosophical difference. Mr. Obama’s advisers argue that “there are multiple aspects to experience, each of which can be relevant.” Mr. Obama’s experience “provides a different kind of insight” than the traditional résumé, said Susan E. Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs and a National Security Council official who is one of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy advisers.

“At a time when our foreign policy and national security have so obviously suffered from a simplistic, black-and-white interpretation,” Ms. Rice added, having “an American president who spent part of his formative years and young adulthood living in a poor country under a dictatorship brings an understanding of the complexity of things that others may not have. I’m not saying that official travels and Congressional delegations are without value, but there are limits to what you can glean from that.”

Mr. Obama’s advisers acknowledge that there are gaps in his experience — he has never traveled to Latin America, for instance — but they maintain that the sound judgment they say he has demonstrated on foreign policy issues, like Iraq and Pakistan, where he wants the United States to distance itself from Gen. Pervez Musharraf, more than compensates for any such shortcomings.

According to his campaign staff, Mr. Obama visited Pakistan in 1981, on the way back from Indonesia, where his mother and half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, were living. He spent “about three weeks” there, Mr. Obama’s press secretary, Bill Burton, said, staying in Karachi with the family of a college friend, Mohammed Hasan Chandoo, but also traveling to Hyderabad, in India.

Mr. Obama appears not to have previously cited his travel in Pakistan in speeches during the campaign. In “Dreams from My Father,” he talks of having a Pakistani roommate when he moved to New York, a man he calls Sadik who “had overstayed his tourist visa and now made a living in New York’s high-turnover, illegal immigrant work force, waiting on tables.”

Mr. Obama, the campaign and his publisher have not provided any details about the identity of Sadik.

During his years at Occidental College, Mr. Obama also befriended Wahid Hamid, a fellow student who was an immigrant from Pakistan and traveled with Mr. Obama there, the Obama campaign said. Mr. Hamid is now a vice president at Pepsico in New York, and according to public records, has donated the maximum $2,300 to the Obama campaign and is listed as a fund-raiser for it.

Mr. Chandoo is now a self-employed financial consultant, living in Armonk, N.Y. He has also donated the maximum, $2,300, to Mr. Obama’s primary campaign and an additional $309 for the general election, campaign finance records show.

A version of this article appears in print on , on page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: Obama Says Real-Life Experience Trumps Rivals’ Foreign Policy Credits. Order ReprintsToday’s Paper|Subscribe

[Johnny: I archived this because the New York Times took it down.  It shows conclusively that Barack Obama was/is a CIA asset.  American citizens were not allowed to travel to Pakistan during the turbulent 1980’s.]


Leave a Reply