“You’re not going to have time in January ‘09 to get ready for this job.”—Sen. Christopher Dodd, Democratic debate, Aug. 19, 2007
“If the position of president was a street, someone would have to hold Obama’s hand while he crossed it.”—Letter to the (Florida) Herald-Tribune
Like John Kerry’s flip-flops or John Edwards’ haircuts, the foreign-policy gaffes of Sen. Barack Obama have now become a staple source of presidential campaign humor—so much so that the candidate himself has been forced to come up with counterjokes in response. “To prepare for this debate I rode in the bumper cars at the state fair,”he told an Iowa audience on Sunday.
Yet given that his main Democratic rivals include a one-term senator and another senator whose career, at least as an elected national official, is only four years longer than that of Obama himself, maybe we should pause before laughing. After all, the barb in the jokes comes from the assumption—usually unquestioned—that there really is some specific, specialized, inside knowledge of foreign countries that some candidates have and some don’t that will one day prove essential to his or her presidency. Is that really true? Or—to put it in late-night talk-show language—do you really have to know the name of the Pakistani leader in order to be a good president of the United States?
Clearly you don’t have to know very much of anything about foreign countries in order to become president, this not being a criterion that matters much to most U.S. voters. Famously, candidate George W. Bush not only couldn’t identify the Pakistani president(and thought Greeks were called “Grecians”), he’d hardly traveled abroad. Candidate Bill Clinton had traveled abroad and knew the names of lots of international politicians, but he had never been required to use them, the governorship of Arkansas not being a job that involves much interaction with foreign heads of state. By contrast, the elder George Bush had plenty of foreign-policy experience—CIA boss, ambassador to China—none of which helped him get re-elected in 1992.
As for foreign-policy decisions once in office, it’s far from obvious that any specific kind of experience has ever helped anyone make good ones. Vice President Harry Truman first heard that there might be some difficulties arising in relations with our Soviet wartime allies in April 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt’s death made him president—yet within months he had launched the Cold War. On the other hand, Lyndon Johnson had held national office for years before becoming president, but he still couldn’t cope with Vietnam.
In fact, there may be some sorts of experience that are actually detrimental to a potential president. I worry a lot, for example, about Hillary Clinton’s much-vaunted travels as first lady: She came, she made carefully prepared speeches, and she received polite applause. It won’t be like that if she’s president, and I hope she doesn’t think it will. Other presidential candidates have been governors of large states (or mayors of large cities), and as such have bragged that they conducted mini-foreign policies of their own. Still, the world looks quite different (and Mexico seems a lot more important) in Austin, Texas; Sacramento, Calif.; or Santa Fe, N.M.; than it does in the Oval Office, while the verbal bombast needed to win votes in New York City might not go down so well at the G-8 summit.
Other kinds of foreign connections could prove very useful indeed. Even aside from his specific beliefs, John McCain happens to be particularly good at speaking to (and arguing with) foreign audiences: A German foundation director recently complained to me that the U.S. presidential campaign was spoiling his trans-Atlantic conferences, since it meant McCain couldn’t come to them anymore. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, with his African relatives and Indonesian childhood, would start his presidency riding an enormous wave of international good will: He’s very, very different—younger, blacker, with a more complicated background—from our current president, a fact that would win him a lot of points in a lot of places, whether or not he knows the name of the Pakistani president (and whether or not he wants to bomb the Pakistani president’s country, as he recently seemed to imply).
In the end, most presidents do, in fact, learn on the job: Bill Clinton would probably never have predicted he’d contemplate bombing Belgrade, just as President George W. Bush had surely never devoted more than four minutes of thought to Afghanistan. It’s not easy to predict whose particular set of experiences will suit which particular crisis and which weaknesses will prove fatal. But we can certainly entertain ourselves, between now and November 2008, trying to guess.