National Security Experience

Dan Balz makes an interesting argument:

Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) remains a distinct underdog as he seeks to overtake Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) in the Democratic presidential race, and one of the biggest reasons may be because of national security, an area in which he has limited experience and an issue he has largely avoided on the stump during the primaries and caucuses this winter.

Edwards feels conflicting pressures as he seeks to slow Kerry’s march to the nomination. Having become the main challenger to Kerry against heavy odds, he and his advisers are reluctant to tamper with a stump speech and campaign style that have served the freshman senator well. But Democratic and Republican strategists argue that unless he broadens his candidacy and shows more contrast to his message, he will remain at a significant disadvantage against his more experienced rival.

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But even if Edwards can make the trade argument stick, Democratic strategists say, his relative lack of experience in office and particularly in foreign policy may catch up with him, now that he is in the spotlight. “Let’s be honest, there are many people who have watched these candidates work and have concluded that Edwards is the more compelling candidate and a more attractive persona,” said a Democrat who is supporting Kerry. “But he’s bumping up against his background and résumé.”

President Bush has declared that he will run for reelection as a “war president” who will make the issue of who can keep America safe in a time of international terrorism central in the debate with his Democratic challenger. Kerry, who served in Vietnam, has surrounded himself with veterans on the campaign trail to help buttress his national security credentials. Edwards has dealt with his relative inexperience by changing the subject, a decision that many strategists say leaves him vulnerable given the uncertain state of the world.

“In the 2000 campaign, we did not have a debate about foreign policy, partly because [Al] Gore didn’t push it and Bush didn’t have the depth of experience to press it, either,” said John Weaver, a Democratic consultant who was a top strategist in Arizona Sen. John McCain’s GOP presidential campaign against Bush four years ago.

“I don’t think the voters will allow that to happen again,” he added. “Even if they rate the economy as top issue, they want to know in the back of their minds: Can this man lead us in a time of war, in time of choppy waters in foreign policy? You ignore that at your own peril.”

Edwards has served three years on the Senate intelligence committee, whereas Kerry has been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for almost two decades, giving him familiarity with most of the major foreign policy debates. But Edwards’s advisers challenge those who question the North Carolina senator’s foreign policy credentials. He has, they say, as much experience or more than did Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter when they were first elected.

And they’re right. With the possible exceptions of former vice presidents, no one comes to the presidency with substantial foreign policy experience.

Indeed, how would one get it? Some possible paths come to mind:

  • Secretary of State or National Security Advisor: Aside from Colin Powell–whose electability has likely suffered from his stint as SecState–who among people with those credentials has the charisma and perceived leadership skills to get elected president? Perhaps Condi Rice, if she first gets elected to high office?
  • CIA director: They only make the news when they screw up.
  • Long service on a Congressional foreign affairs committee: John Kerry has this. But sitting in meetings yapping about foreign policy is so unlike having to actually make decisions on foreign policy as to hardly count as experience. Presidents seldom have the luxury of months of discussion before making hard choices.
  • The military: Wesley Clark could claim some reasonable amount of experience owing to his stint as CINC of European Command. One could argue that anyone who has headed Central Command since 1990 would have comparable experience. Maybe the admiral in charge of Pacific Command? Southern Command (Latin America) would be a stretch. But the number of men in those positions who achieve the visibility needed to achieve plausibility, let alone have the temperament to survive a presidential race, is small indeed. Norman Schwartzkopf might have had a shot in 1996 but his time is past. Tommy Franks?
  • College professors who write lots of books on IR? Please.

As has been pointed out here and elsewhere, the most common path to the presidency in recent years has been a governorship. While it’s true that chief executives of large states like Texas and California get some minor experience in negotiating trade deals with foreign countries, for all practical experience they come to the White House with essentially no foreign policy expertise. What they do bring to the table is executive experience. We have to hope that they put together superb staffs and allow them to do their jobs. And, frankly, I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer that to a president who came in thinking he was a foreign policy expert, anyway.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.