Should Hillary Clinton "apologize" for her vote on the Iraq war? Should Barack Obama tell David Geffen to get lost? Should John McCain be pilloried for saying American lives have been "wasted" in Iraq? Should voters shun Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon or John Edwards because he was a trial lawyer or Rudy Giuliani because he was once married to someone who appeared in The Vagina Monologues? Pardon me if I don't find these to be gripping concerns. What worries me is the foreign policy experience of the six leading candidates. Four of them--Republicans Giuliani and Romney and Democrats Edwards and Obama--have none. Clinton's experience was largely by osmosis when she was first lady. She remained on the sidelines as a senator. Only one of the candidates, McCain, appears to have thought long and hard--and to have been in the thick of the national debate--about America's position in the world. But in his dogged pursuit of a neoconservative agenda, McCain shows little evidence of having acquired any wisdom from that experience.
If this were 1820 or 1888 or even 1928, it wouldn't matter that much whether a president had a more than passing grasp of foreign affairs. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, U.S. foreign policy was primarily concerned with continental expansion. But for a century now, America has played a large, and since World War II, the largest role in global affairs; and by the the Constitution's delegation of military leadership and initiative in treaty-making and appointments, the president rather than Congress has the chief responsibility for America's role in the world. Congress and the public can stop a president from privatizing social security, but the president regularly wages war without a declaration from Congress--and sometimes, as in the case of American intervention in the Balkans, without significant public support. It would seem that the first question voters should be asking is about a candidate's foreign policy experience. And with the war in Iraq still raging, and America's relations with the rest of the world in disrepair, that's particularly true in the forthcoming presidential election. But you wouldn't know if from the current frontrunners.
How could this be happening? It's partly, of course, the luck of the draw. There are certainly potential candidates--Al Gore for the Democrats, for instance--who have a strong background in foreign policy and could win their party's nomination. But there are also structural reasons that have to do with what has happened to American presidential campaigns and to the office of the presidency that makes it plausible for someone to run for president even though they don't have any background in foreign policy.
Before the 1970s, a presidential candidate could conceivably win his party's nomination without winning a single primary. What was important was to win the support of local and state officials who would vote for candidates at the nominating convention. These officials looked to someone who could campaign and win, but they also put stock in a candidate's administrative experience. The best stepping stone to a party nomination was the governorship of a large state like Ohio, California, Illinois, or (especially) New York. A candidate's ability to raise money wasn't particularly important. That was the responsibility of the party.
All that changed after the tumultuous sixties. Popular primaries became the main vehicle for nominating candidates. That meant that the party itself, and the party convention, became increasingly irrelevant. What mattered was a candidate's ability to win votes in the primaries, especially the early ones. Foreign policy played a peripheral role, and only as a component of the themes the candidate developed. What mattered most was the ability of the candidate--best evidenced by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush--to make voters feel that he cared personally about them. That demanded special skills from a candidate and from a large campaign staff devoted to polling and media, including advertising.
Jimmy Carter was the first of these post-sixties candidates, and he set the standard that subsequent candidates have followed. Even though the United States was still in the throes of a foreign policy crisis caused by its defeat in Vietnam, he ran primarily on a Watergate promise of personal honesty and integrity. His experience consisted of one term as Georgia's governor. He had no experience in foreign policy and was being tutored during the campaign by Zbigniew Brzezinski, but the voters didn't hold it against him. George W. Bush's campaign in 2000 was a carbon copy of Carter's campaign. He stressed personal qualities and knew, if anything, even less about foreign policy than Carter did. But he ran a skillful campaign and won.
Few of these candidates could boast any expertise in foreign policy. Many of them, as in the past, were governors. The senators and House members who ran for president were unlikely to have served on the foreign relations committees--committees that are generally shunned by presidential aspirants because they are irrelevant to local constituents and because they don't provide a basis for fundraising. When challenged on whether they had the experience to be president, many of the candidates cited their experience running for president. The ability to campaign became the test of the ability to govern.
And that's certainly held true in this year's presidential race. When former Senator John Edwards, who displayed no interest in foreign policy in his one term--Edwards was on the Intelligence Committee during the run-up to the Iraq war, but, incredibly, stayed aloof from its proceedings--was asked about whether he had the experience to be president, he replied, "Experience. I've been through a presidential campaign." When Senator Barack Obama was challenged, his political strategist David Axelrod made a similar argument. "Campaigns themselves are a gantlet in which you get tested," he told USA Today. "People get to see how you handled pressure and how you react to complicated questions. It's an imperfect and sometimes maddening system, but at the end of the day it works, because you have to be tough and smart and skilled to survive that process."
The ability to campaign certainly helps a president in office. But recent history doesn't support the contention that answering questions in a campaign--or issuing carefully constructed policy statements (in the manner of Hillary Clinton)--is a substitute for having been vitally concerned for a long stretch with foreign policy. One can compare the recent presidents who had a background in foreign policy and those who did not. Since World War II, the three presidents who entered office with the most extensive experience in foreign affairs were Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush. One can debate whether Nixon adopted the correct strategy in Vietnam, but one thing is certain: None of these men made obvious blunders during their first years in office. And each of them enjoyed significant successes.
What of the others? John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton eventually enjoyed considerable success, but they began poorly--Kennedy in the Bay of Pigs, Reagan in Lebanon, and Clinton in Somalia, Tokyo, and the Balkans. Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush were disastrous flops, and Jimmy Carter (except for Camp David) floundered. Their dismal performances suggest that voters should demand that the president know what he or she is doing in foreign policy before taking office. But unless the current field changes, the United States may well have a next president whose experience is no more extensive than of Carter or George W. Bush. And that could mean trouble.