Sunday, August 17, 2008

Judgment versus Experience

As Mitt Romney and Tom Daschle discussed the presidential election on This Week with George Stephanopolous today, the standard issue of experience was raised as the differentiation between John McCain and Barack Obama. Romney argued, as has been a standard party line lately, that John McCain, as a result of years of service in the Senate has the necessary experience to be president that Obama lacks. The issue is of relevance this week, as the conflict between Russia and Georgia gathers headlines. While Daschle argued that voters should focus on judgment, meaning Obama's opposition to the Iraq war, Romney claimed that he would always take experience as the key to choosing a successful president. Sadly, Daschle - always the weak speaker and thinker - failed to ask the most important question about foreign policy experience.

If foreign policy experience is the necessary prerequisite for a strong president, how does Romney explain the legacy of Ronald Reagan? At the time Reagan ran for president, he had absolutely no foreign policy experience, yet he emerged to battle the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and is remembered as one of the strongest foreign policy presidents in history. Granted, there were numerous mis-steps such as the pullout of Lebanon after the Marine barracks bombing, the support for Saddam Hussein and the predecessors of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and the Iran-Contra debacle. However, in terms of the campaign of 1980, Reagan was roundly criticized - even by Republicans in the primaries - for his lack of foreign policy experience and his rather bland and generalized knowledge of global politics. In fact, the 1980 election pamphlet emphasizes how Reagan is going to surround himself with numerous qualified and experienced foreign policy experts when he his elected.

Clearly, there is no one who is truly ready to be president, and foreign policy experience is not a prerequisite for leadership. It wasn't for Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, and it won't be the deciding factor in the success of the next president. Experience certainly did not serve other leaders such as LBJ very well, and Kennedy was even failed by his experience in his early problems with the Bay of Pigs, though he responded admirably in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus, it becomes a matter of knowledge and judgment rather than simple years of experience.

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