Experts say foreign policy largely irrelevant when U.S. voters head to ballot box

The World

The ongoing violence in Syria has become an issue on the U.S. presidential campaign trail.

Mitt Romney has been critical of President Obama for failing to provide leadership on Syria. President Barack Obama’s campaign says it’s Romney who’s failed to provide a viable alternative.

Foreign policy, though, isn’t really a top concern for many voters in this election. Which begs the question: How important is foreign policy experience for a presidential candidate?

It’s not uncommon for a new president to be challenged on the international front during his first days of office. Think back to the early days of President John F. Kennedy.

“His early foreign policy ventures were quite unsuccessful,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “His first summit with Khrushchev, where we now have some historical accounts that suggest that he did not impress Khrushchev at all, and that Khrushchev went away thinking that this was a kid, actually, whom he could push around. And this may have been one of the things that actually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, because it emboldened Khrushchev.”

The inexperience argument was used four years ago against then-Senator Obama. His critics argued here too was another kid that could be pushed around.

But four years later, Obama has a record to run on.

“You know he can credibly claim that the U.S. has been incredibly effective in terms of taking out al-Qaeda. Obviously the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq,” said Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, pointing out a few of the president’s foreign policy achievements.

But overall, does having four years of experience make the president more qualified to lead the U.S. internationally?

“I don’t think it matters as long as you choose the right advisors,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.

Abrams agrees advisors are crucial. But he says it’s a problem when a president relies on his advisors too much.

“The president really is the only one of these people who runs and is elected, I mean the vice president does in an indirect sense, but the president should be in charge of foreign policy. And I think that the system that existed pre-9/11 in the Bush Administration, was an unfortunate one.”

Abrams, who served in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said the former president relied too much on Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Vice President Dick Cheney at the outset of his presidency.

But wouldn’t any new president do the same? It’s hard to say.

Outgoing Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, who twice chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it would be helpful for an incoming president to have at least some experience with foreign affairs and foreign policy.

“But, at the same time, we’ll try to work along with as best we can with whoever is there," he said.

And, for the record, Lugar doesn't think Obama has an advantage in the foreign policy arena.

“He (Romney) has, I think, a pretty broad worldview, is very experienced, by judgment, in business, less in maybe geopolitics, but at the same time well acquainted with world leadership," Lugar said.

That might be the politically correct answer – Lugar staying loyal to his party. But Mark Jones at Rice University agrees with the sentiment. He says Romney’s international business career, his work running the 2002 Olympics and his experience being a missionary, all matter.

“All of that has provided him with a real understanding about how other cultures, how other people operate and think, and that’s crucial," Jones said. "Because really for foreign policy, one of the real principal hurdles people have to cross is realizing that other people in other countries often view things from a very distinct manner, and have different incentives, and different behaviors driving what they do.”

So, at the end of the day, how does this all translate at the ballot box? Drezner doesn’t think it does at all. Even though a sitting president, by definition, has more experience, Drezner doesn’t think Obama can use it on the campaign trail.

“The problem is that in an election where the economy is issue one, two, and three, it’s very dangerous for the Obama administration to go forward saying, ‘You know what matters is foreign policy,’" Drezner said. "It’s not that that’s wrong necessarily, it’s that the political signal it sends is: We care more about what’s going on in the rest of the world than jobs at home.”

Consider the case of George H.W. Bush. No president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has come to office with more foreign policy experience. And many, on both sides of the aisle, agree that Bush was a successful foreign policy president. He executed the short and extremely popular Gulf War. And it was on his watch that the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc fell.

But there was a bad economy at the time. And American voters turned away from a proven international leader in favor of a foreign policy novice from Arkansas.

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