From noquarterusa.net and Salon.com, Joe Conason writes: "Doubts about Barack Obama’s presidential credentials have crystallized during the past two weeks over his stewardship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on European Affairs, which has convened no policy hearings since he took over as its chairman last January. That startling fact, first uncovered by Steve Clemons, who blogs on the Washington Note, prompted acid comment in Europe about the Illinois senator’s failure to visit the continent since assuming the committee post, and even speculation that he had never traveled there except for a short stopover in London.
But why should those questions matter to Americans who consider Senate hearings so much useless verbiage? And why does anyone care whether and where a would-be president has traveled, on official or personal visits?
The simple answer to the first question is that Senate hearings do not merely provide occasions for grandstanding as many voters may suspect, but fulfill a critical purpose in providing information and perspective to lawmakers. In the Senate, the foreign relations subcommittees have few direct legislative responsibilities, but they have traditionally gathered substantive research for the committee itself and for the rest of the Senate.
Should Obama wonder whether he ought to have bothered with his subcommittee, he could ask his friendly rival Joe Biden, D-Del., who chaired the Europe subcommittee for many years during the Cold War. Biden effectively exploited the chairmanship to transform himself from a junior member into one of the Senate’s most knowledgeable experts on arms control, nuclear weapons, European attitudes toward America and the Soviet Union, the European Union’s policies, and the role of NATO, which also comes under the subcommittee’s mandate. As a result, Biden starred in Senate hearings on the SALT II arms treaties and eventually established himself as a leading national voice on foreign policy.
“I wouldn’t call it a neglect of duty but a missed opportunity to explore issues that will be of fundamental importance to the next administration,” says ambassador John Ritch, who served for two decades as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s senior staffer on European affairs and East-West relations, before going on to represent the Clinton administration at the United Nations organizations in Vienna.
Ritch points out that as subcommittee chair, Obama could have examined a wide variety of urgent matters, from the role of NATO in Afghanistan and Iraq to European energy policy and European responses to climate change — and of course, the undermining of the foundations of the Atlantic alliance by the Bush administration. There is, indeed, almost no issue of current global interest that would have fallen outside the subcommittee’s purview. "