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Howard Dean’s odd contention that the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer has generated a lot of heated discussion about foreign policy experience and its status as a prerequisite for the Presidency. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Dick Gephardt have all made statements this week asserting that Dean is unqualified for the Presidency because of his complete lack of experience in this arena. But is it really a prerequisite at all, and will this argument really help derail Dean?
The Constitution sets few legal prerequisites to the Presidency. Any candidate must be 35 years of age or older and a native-born US citizen. It wisely leaves all other qualifications to the individual voter to decide and judge. Historically, looking at the pattern of not only Presidents, but mainstream presidential candidates, there are a few other “prerequisites” as well:
* Between 50 and 65
* Anglo-Saxon origin
* Protestant Catholic
* Married, never divorced
Not every single Presidential candidate fits all of these, but the vast majority do. For instance, Reagan was the only President to have been divorced and the oldest ever to be elected (73 for his second term), and the oldest to serve. Kennedy was Catholic, and both Kennedy and Teddy Roosevelt were in their early 40s when elected. Nor have all Presidents came to office with formal foreign-policy experience. Ronald Reagan, of course, had no foreign-policy experience prior to his election, and his administration is greatly credited with achieving victory in the Cold War. Harry Truman, considered now to be a prototypically plain-speaking, tough President, was a haberdasher prior to his election to Congress and had a relatively undistinguished political career prior to having the Presidency thrust upon him. On the other hand, Jimmy Carter had no foreign policy experience and his Presidency was an almost complete failure in every category, including foreign policy, except for the Camp David accords. Bill Clinton had a mixed foreign-policy record but certainly performed reasonably.
In my mind, what is important is not the personal experience of the candidate in foreign affairs; what is important is the candidate’s philosophy about the role of America in the world, the role of international organizations in America’s security, and the consistency of the candidate’s positions in regards to foreign policy. After all, any new President will pick a Secretary of State to directly deal with issues, but what’s important is what orders that person will be given. Arguing that a lack of foreign-policy experience means failure is a losing position, especially with the center-right electorate, who will think of Reagan and decide otherwise.
Dean’s problem is not that he has no foreign-policy experience per se, but that his positions have been all over the map, and even when consistent sound bizarre. His stance on Iraq has changed several times, as has his opinion on the necessity of UN approval and on coordinating security policy with France; he said in 1998 that agreement with France was impossible and therefore not worth the effort, but in 2003 he has campaigned vociferously on the argument that our failure to convince France to agree with us should have stopped us from pursuing the liberation of Iraq. As I posted earlier, this constant flip-flopping on foreign policy is a hallmark of Dean, who seems to have trouble being consistent on almost any issue.
To me, this is an indication that Dean has no real vision of his own, and that he is following the Clintonian method of campaigning by poll numbers but with an anger level that precludes any Clintonian charm. That is the disqualifying issue that Democrats would do well to ponder. Otherwise, if they nominate a candidate that operates not from a central vision or philosophy but on the whims of the moment, they will find themselves shut out – again – by an incumbent whose vision and consistency far, far outweighs any amount of inarticulation that he may suffer.
Addendum: The Washington Post lead editorial today discusses Howard Dean's foreign-policy flip-flops in detail:
A year ago Mr. Dean told a television audience that "there's no question that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the United States and to our allies," but last weekend he declared that "I never said Saddam was a danger to the United States." Mr. Dean has at times argued that the United States must remain engaged to bring democracy to Iraq, yet the word is conspicuously omitted from the formula of "stable self-government" he now proposes. The former Vermont governor has compiled a disturbing record of misstatements and contradictions on foreign policy...
The title of the editorial is "Beyond the Mainstream," and their conclusion: "His speech suggests a significant retreat by the United States from the promotion of its interests and values in the world." Read the whole thing.Sphere It View blog reactions
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