PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – Democrat Barack Obama, confronting claims that he's light on foreign policy, surrounded himself Tuesday with heavyweights who said his differences with rival Hillary Rodham Clinton and others are just what the country needs: A new leader willing to talk with America's enemies and become a better friend to struggling nations.
Obama, closing the three-hour policy forum, said a president should be unafraid to meet with tyrants, and must restore the nation's moral authority by ending torture, closing Guantanamo Bay's military prison and helping fight global poverty and AIDS.
"Our ability to lead has been set back by our bluster and our refusal to talk to nations we don't like," the Illinois senator said. "Our security and standing have suffered because of the misguided war in Iraq that should have never been authorized."
Obama, who was elected to the Senate in 2004, never mentioned Clinton, a New York senator and the Democratic front-runner in national polls. But Obama underscored some of his main criticisms of her, recalling how he opposed from the outset a war that she voted to authorize and repeatedly calling for greater openness in setting policy.
In perhaps another veiled reference to Clinton's claims of deep experience in Washington, Obama said of Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "Their experience has not led to good judgment."
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, another top Democratic contender, also voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war.
For months, Obama has portrayed himself as more willing than Clinton to veer sharply from Bush administration policies on many fronts. Foreign affairs may pose his biggest challenge, however, as the New York senator and former first lady has called him naive and irresponsible.
Obama has fired back, saying Clinton is too secretive and too wedded to existing or familiar ways of handling domestic and diplomatic matters. In this seaport town Tuesday, he was embraced by several foreign policy advisers, including three appointees from Bill Clinton's administration: former national security adviser Tony Lake, former Navy secretary Richard Danzig and former assistant secretary of State for African affairs Susan Rice.
"I cannot understand why he is attacked for a lack of experience," Lake told an audience of 150 before Obama arrived after touring a nearby Naval facility. Obama is older than Bill Clinton was when inaugurated, Lake said, and probably has more foreign policy experience than presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Clinton and the current president had when they took office.
"His life experiences of living abroad when he was young, traveling by bus in Kenya," Lake said, "have given him a real grasp of the troubles around the world." Obama opposed the Iraq war "for the right reasons, early on," when many other Democrats supported it, Lake said.
Senator Clinton has mocked Obama for citing his childhood stints in Indonesia and elsewhere as a key element of his foreign policy experience. She also criticized his willingness to meet with leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea during his first year in office, saying a president must avoid being "used for propaganda purposes."
Tuesday's event was the latest in a series of speeches and articles in which Obama has rolled out his foreign policy proposals. He said he would bring U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by March 2008, and he cited his Senate resolution warning the Bush administration that Congress has not sanctioned military action against Iran.
Obama said he would give Iran "a clear choice: stop their disturbing behavior and there will be political and economic incentives; continue doing what they're doing, and we will ratchet up the pressure." Other nations will support the effort, he said, "if we go the extra mile diplomatically."
Obama said the United States must kill or capture "hard-core jihadists," but it should approach the world in general with more hope than fear.
Americans' fate is intricately linked to that of people in Asia, Africa, Russia and elsewhere, he said. "Increasingly, their security and well-being and prosperity will help shape our security and well-being and prosperity," he said.
Obama said the United States must limit greenhouse gases, reduce its dependence on oil and help nations such as India and China develop economically without doing excessive environmental damage.