James Joyner continues the discussion on candidates’ foreign policy experience (or lack thereof):
Obama’s chartable experience in 2008 was a little under four years in the Senate–the vast bulk of which he spent campaigning for president. And, as I’ve noted multiple times now in multiple posts, it doesn’t seem to much matter. While I disagree with a lot of his policy decisions, he’s been a very effective leader, assembled a solid team, and done a creditable job as president. There have been flubs along the way, some of which might have been avoided if he’d been more seasoned, but that’s just the nature of our system: we tend to hire relative amateurs to the presidency.
James is right that Americans have tended to elect “relative amateurs” to the office, but there does seem to be a relationship between foreign policy competence in office and earlier preparation and knowledge. If we were ranking post-WWII presidents by their foreign policy competence, Eisenhower, Nixon, and the elder Bush would most likely be at the top, and Carter, Kennedy, and George W. Bush would be at the bottom. Reagan, Ford, and Clinton would be the middle, which is probably where Obama should be. Depending on what one wants to emphasize, Truman could be ranked higher up on the list, or he could be included at the bottom where he probably belongs*. That doesn’t mean that the top-ranked presidents did everything right or that the overall failures never had individual policy successes. The most competent ones left the U.S. in a generally better position internationally than the one they had found it in, and these were not the “relative amateurs.”
On paper, George W. Bush was technically more experienced as a governor than Romney, and almost as experienced as Clinton in terms of number of years in office. Even so, we would all automatically assume that Romney to be a generally more competent executive than Bush, whose main claim to executive experience was based on his time in a constitutionally-weak governor’s position. When it comes to foreign policy, however, the two seem to be similarly uninterested in and uninformed about the rest of the world. The perception of Bush as inexperienced and unprepared on this front was not wrong. This is arguably more worrisome in Romney’s case because he appears to have no firm principles, which makes him more vulnerable to influence from his advisers, and because he usually has a reputation for being very detail-oriented in his understanding of other subjects. Bush was poorly informed about foreign affairs, but that was a function of his lack of intellectual curiosity. What accounts for Romney’s apparent lack of interest in a subject that he still can’t seem to stop bringing up? I don’t know, but I submit that it’s not a good sign.
And, as noted in the post, it doesn’t much seem to matter: we’ve had very good presidents who came into office seemingly untested and very poor ones with impressive backgrounds [bold mine-DL].
Which were the poor ones with “impressive backgrounds”? I have been assuming that we’re talking specifically about foreign policy records, and not anything else they may have done or failed to do. Assuming that the five worst foreign policy presidents since 1900 were Wilson, Bush, LBJ, Carter, and Kennedy, which of these had an “impressive background” that would have led the electorate to expect something different? Isn’t it rather the case that the most disastrous foreign policy presidents have been those with the least preparation and experience? Aren’t the examples of Wilson and Bush warnings of what can happen when ill-informed men susceptible to outlandish and ideological assumptions are elected to the office?
It might not be as much of a problem if Romney were advocating a foreign policy characterized by restraint, prudence, and caution. That would be much better-suited to someone who hasn’t given a lot of serious thought to foreign policy. Unfortunately, he isn’t advocating that. The gap between the ambitious and aggressive nature of Romney’s proposed foreign policy and the preparation and knowledge needed to conduct such a foreign policy is huge. It should also tell us something that most of the least prepared presidents had the most grandiose and ambitious visions for U.S. foreign policy, and in those cases the U.S. suffered greatly for their misguided and excessive vision and their lack of preparation. Romney’s proposed foreign policy is not if not ambitious, and his statements to date haven’t inspired a lot of confidence that his stated policy goals are worth pursuing or that he is the one to be trusted to pursue them.
* The posthumous rehabilitation of Truman as one of the great Democratic foreign policy presidents must be one of the most successful and incredible acts of historical revisionism in modern times. When hawkish Republicans want to praise past Democratic presidents, they invariably celebrate Truman and Kennedy, who were among the least successful.