When It Comes to Foreign Policy, What Counts as Experience?
By HELENE COOPER
Published: August 25, 2007
WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 — During Sunday’s Democratic debate, the candidates spent an awful lot of time discussing whether Senator Barack Obama has enough foreign policy experience to be president — so much so, in fact, that Mr. Obama quipped that “to prepare for this debate I rode the bumper cars at the state fair.”
But does time spent as United Nations ambassador, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, or first lady really cut much ice when you become commander in chief? A surprising number of experts on American presidencies said “no.”
“I think experience is a terribly overrated idea when it comes to thinking about who should become president,” said Robert Dallek, author of “Nixon and Kissinger, Partners in Power” (HarperCollins). “Experience helped Richard Nixon, but it didn’t save him, and it certainly wasn’t a blanket endorsement. He blundered terribly in dealing with Vietnam.”
Mr. Dallek — and every presidential historian interviewed for this article (four, if anyone is fact-checking), argued that the whole question of Mr. Obama’s experience is a nonissue, one manufactured by candidates in a hot campaign who are looking to exploit any perceived weakness they can find.
In the past 50 years, American presidents have come to office with a range of foreign policy credentials, from none (John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush) to some (Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford) to a lot (Richard Nixon, George Bush). Nixon and the first president Bush ascended into office with stacked resumes.
“Nixon wandered the world sticking his head in American embassies,” said Steve Hess, a presidential historian at George Washington University who served on the White House staffs of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. “But even there, Kissinger gets a heap of credit for what happened during his presidency.”
Like Mr. Nixon, the first President Bush came into office with a resume that read like he was auditioning for head of the Council on Foreign Relations, the think tank based in New York that is filled with former United States officials, journalists, and whatever else passes for the foreign policy literati today. As a Navy pilot during World War II, Mr. Bush flew 58 combat missions, including one when he was shot down by the Japanese over the Pacific. He was ambassador to the United Nations, chief of the United States liaison office in China, and director of the C.I.A.
Most historians give the first President Bush a good mark for performance in foreign policy, particularly now, when his decision not to cross over into Iraq in pursuit of Saddam Hussein after the first war in the Persian Gulf is viewed in hindsight as a smart call. But remember, at the time, Mr. Bush received a lot of flack for not marching to Baghdad, and, in particular, for encouraging Iraqi Shiites to rise up, and then leaving them to be massacred by Saddam Hussein.
After Nixon and George Bush, none of the rest of America’s presidents in the past 50 years came into office with much more foreign policy experience than Mr. Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and an American mother, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii and who still has a relationship with his Kenyan family.
Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all governors, came in as foreign policy neophytes and left office with mixed records. Mr. Carter gets credit for the Panama Canal treaties that would eventually turn control of the waterway back to Panama in 1999, and the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt in 1978. But the Iran hostage crisis, and the botched rescue attempt in 1980 that led to the deaths of eight American service members, still haunt the historical view of his presidency.
Mr. Reagan “ended up with a fair bit of success because of his pragmatism,” Mr. Dallek says, particularly in positioning America to win the cold war. But that pragmatism also led to American misadventures in Latin America, including the Iran-Contra scandal that stained his presidency, historians say.
Mr. Clinton gets credit for Bosnia and blame for doing nothing when the Rwanda genocide took place.
The group running for the Democratic and Republican nominations are a mixed bag on the foreign policy front with Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Gov. Bill Richardson and Senator John McCain being the most credentialed, while Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the candidates talking the most about experience, in reality, comes up shorter, says presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, author of “Thomas E. Dewey and His Times” (Simon & Schuster). Unless being first lady counts as a foreign policy credential, Mrs. Clinton does not have that much on her resume.
“There is this osmosis working for her, that she is seen as an extension of the first Clinton presidency,” Mr. Smith said. “In lieu of more traditional experience, she benefits as being seen as the third Clinton term. There is an aura of competence about her.”
Will any of this matter when the next president takes office? “Look at what’s happened with Cheney and Rumsfeld,” Mr. Dallek said, citing the well-credentialed vice president and former defense secretary whom historians blame for leading the charge into Iraq. “That’s why I’m sympathetic to Obama. Does experience count? What really counts is judgment and what kind of judgment you have.”