These are not ordinary circumstances into which the next president will step. He or she will be following upon a presidency that has done extensive and profound damage to the world system, and to America's position within that system. The job of repairing that damage is of vital importance, and it is not a job for a neophyte in the workings of international affairs.
It is a vital job because American leadership has been, before the Bushite era, a valuable asset for both the United States and for the world. Many on the left don't care to recognize this fact, but it has been widely understood by most of the peoples of the world. This is not to deny America's various abuses of its power over the several generations before the Bushites. But had American leadership been absent during the period from, say, 1940 to 2000, the world would have been even more messed up than it has been.
The Bushites have made America into a feared and despised nation in a way the U.S. has never been before. And that leaves the world without any good and effective leadership, and nowhere else from which it is likely to come. Certainly not from Putin's Russia. Nor from the one-party, authoritarian regime that gunned down the students at Tienamen Square. Nor does Europe show any capacity yet to act together to fill that role.
In the face of such problems as the heightened instability of the Middle East, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, global terrorism, the increased animosities between the Islamic world and the West, the threat of a return of cold war rivalries, and global warming, the world deeply needs the re-emergence of a generally trustworthy, widely trusted, leader.
But it will take grace and expertise and judgment to re-establish any such trust and respect. The next American president will likely be welcomed by the world with some hope and relief that the dark days of the Bushite menace are passed, and new possibilities can be imagined. But hopes will not speedily undo the traumatically disturbing experience of the Bushite years.
That process will demand the skill of an accomplished player in that complex international system. It will be a task with a greater difficulty factor than most presidents have faced. (Maybe it will be on the level of what FDR had to negotiate in the years from the outbreak of the war in Europe in 1939 until his death in 1945.)
Just as one would not take a car in need of an overhaul of the engine and the transmission to an outfit that does oil changes and tops off the fluids, so also one would not wish to entrust this extremely demanding diplomatic task to a newcomer to the global arena.
For that reason, Obama and Edwards would not be my choice. Bill Richardson of New Mexico may have the experience. I don't know if Hillary Clinton, as a deeply involved First Lady, learned enough during those eight years in the White House to have the necessary level of experience and expertise (there are other reasons why I hope she is not the Democratic candidate).
Of those who appear to be potential candidates, the person I think would be most qualified would be Al Gore.
Regarding the potential Republican candidates, all I feel is necessary to say is this: until the Republican Party thoroughly cleanses itself of its disgraceful abdication of responsibility (at best) and its outright complicity in evil (at worse), this is not a party worthy of being trusted with the responsibilities of power.
The argument might be made that a newcomer could function fine in the role, provided he or she was surrounded by more highly experienced advisors. To that I would respond with the question I raised in 2000 on one of my radio shows: what happens when the advisors disagree? From where will come the judgment to know which advice to follow?
I raised those questions about GW Bush before he assumed the presidency. Now, in retrospect, we know that the U.S. and the world would have been better served if Bush had listened less to Cheney and Rumsfeld and more to Colin Powell ("let's talk to North Korea," and "If you break it, you own it").
With Bush, there is room for many explanations of why he chose to follow the more reckless and arrogant of his highly experienced advisors, and some of them would likely not apply to a president of better character and a greater capacity to learn and understand.
But the overall point remains: the buck really does stop at the president's desk, and while it can be costly even in normal times for the president to need a great deal of on-the-job training, in extraordinary times --with the stakes unusually high-- it is especially important that our next president have, among his or her strengths, a deep familiarity with how the international system works and well-honed skills in working the system to achieve difficult goals.
One last point: when I asserted above that the process of repairing the damage done by the Bushites "will demand the skill of an accomplished player in that complex international system," I also realize that --such "demand" notwithstanding-- there's a strong chance that we will proceed through this difficult time without such skillful leadership. I realize, in other words, that we quite likely will just "muddle through." Through most of history, that is what happens in the affairs of nations-- even in times, like ours, when the stakes are enormous.
But saying that we would "muddle through" does not mean that it would not also be a disaster and a tragedy. America survived the post-Civil War era with poor leadership. But the difference between that kind of "survival" and the kind of "binding up of the nation's wounds" that Lincoln envisioned in his second innaugural was huge.
Likewise, an America with mediocre leadership in the coming years would limp along into the future. Americans would regard the terrible consequences of that mediocrity as simply the way history was going to happen, and likely never realize how different a path was conceivable moving forward from 2008.
The nation needs one of those "It's A Wonderful Life" moments with the angel showing the divergence of paths. Already, not enough Americans fully realize how the series of events that made GW Bush president has led us on a downward path that did not need to have been America's destiny. Let us not carelessly take another downward turn.