Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


APRIL 2007

With the 2008 presidential election campaign underway and many states moving up their primaries, it's not too early to ask a serious question about the qualifications of leading Democratic and Republican candidates: What experience do they have in dealing with the crucial foreign policy and national security issues they will face, if they reach the Oval Office?

Four of our most recent presidents--Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush--had been governors and had little experience in foreign affairs. The exception was the current president's father, George H.W. Bush, who had been head of the Central Intelligence Agency and served for eight years as Ronald Reagan's vice president.

Let's examine the foreign policy credentials of the current leading candidates.

For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama are front-runners and have raised large campaign funds. The leading Republicans are John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney who also have accumulated huge amounts of money. All are running for party nominations that won't take place until summer 2008.

Of these leading contenders, Hillary Clinton and John McCain overshadow the others in knowledge and experience in foreign policy and national security matters. Clinton was an active first lady during eight years of Bill Clinton's administration, traveling with him to many countries and learning first-hand the problems associated with the use of U.S. forces, in Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, and enforcing U.N. sanctions on Iraq.

John McCain is a graduate of the U.S. naval academy and served as a pilot in the Vietnam War. Like Senator Clinton, he is a member of the Senate's Armed Services Committee which oversees U.S. military operations abroad. He has traveled widely to other countries in that role, especially to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The other four candidates clearly lack equivalent credentials. John Edwards spent his career, before serving one term in the senate, as a trial lawyer in North Carolina. Barack Obama, who lived as a youth in Indonesia, also had little experience in national security affairs before he entered the senate in 2003.

Rudy Giuliani too has few credentials in foreign policy. He was a federal prosecutor in New York and made a national reputation as mayor following the 9-11 attack on that city. Mitt Romney traveled to other countries as governor of Massachusetts and dealt with foreign representatives while overseeing Salt Lake City's Winter Olympics in 2002. But he has little experience in dealing with major foreign policy issues.

Two additional contenders for their parties' nomination are Bill Richardson, Democratic governor of New Mexico, and Fred Thompson, a former Republican senator from Tennessee. Neither has raised large campaign funds that are necessary for success in a run for president.

Richardson has good foreign policy credentials, having served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as President Clinton's special representative on foreign policy missions abroad. Thompson served eight years in the senate, from 1994 to 2003, when major foreign policy issues were debated.

Presidents who have lacked foreign policy experience compensated by appointing knowledgeable secretaries of state: Jimmy Carter chose Cyrus Vance; Ronald Reagan selected General Alexander Haig and later George Shultz; Bill Clinton appointed Warren Christopher in his first term and Madeleine Albright in the second; George W. Bush chose General Colin Powell for the office and, unfortunately, ignored his wise counsel on national security policy.

Since the Cold War's end in 1990, American voters have selected two presidents without experience in foreign policy and who made mistakes in their first terms. Bill Clinton did not initially take action over crises in Bosnia and the threat from Al-Qaeda. George W. Bush led the country into an ill-planned and costly war in Iraq. Would either of them have acted more prudently had he served earlier in key foreign policy positions in Washington?

We live in an exceptionally dangerous time for the country's security, and. American voters need to think seriously during the next eighteen months about whether their choice for president in 2008 has the knowledge and experience to make wise decisions on foreign policy during the next decade. The world will not wait while the U.S. president learns the job of commander-in-chief.

File last modified on Sunday, 10-APR-2007 12:41 AM EST

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