Some Reasons Not to Worry About Republican Foreign-Policy Craziness

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The 2012 candidates making the worst gaffes and most outlandish statements are also unlikely to be their party's nominee, let alone president

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The Republican candidates for president are tripping over themselves to see who can say the most embarrassingly inept thing on foreign affairs. Erstwhile front-runner Herman Cain has singlehandedly kept the late-night comics supplied with material, most recently by giving the impression that he was completely oblivious to the fact that the United States had been militarily involved in Libya under President Obama's direction.

The Atlantic's Max Fisher collected some other gems in his piece, "The 9 Craziest Foreign Policy Statements from Saturday's Republican Debate." Some, like Michele Bachmann's assertion that "the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel" and Herman Cain's declaration that "Our enemies are not the people of Iran, it's the regime. And a regime change is what they are trying to achieve" are pretty obviously out there. Others, like Rick Perry's declaration that "The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is gonna start at zero dollars," sound reasonable but are mind-numbingly stupid once you start sussing out what this would mean in practice.

Understandably, this amateurism has the op-ed writers tut-tutting and the Republican establishment exasperated. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham expressed these frustrations perfectly, declaring: "No one expects a person who hasn't been commander-in-chief before to know everything about every topic. But Libya? Iran? I think it's fair to ask our candidates to articulate a position that makes us safe."

Duke political scientist Peter Feaver, who served on the National Security Council in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, argues that these gaffes could harm the party, long seen by the public as being more trustworthy on matters of national security. "This is the core of the Republican brand. You mess with it at your peril," he told The New York Times.

While this concern from foreign policy wonks is justified, it must be tempered by considering the reality of our political system. The craziest comments are coming from candidates who are almost certainly not going to be the GOP presidential nominee. Given that any idiot can get into the field, it's hard to hold their idiocy against the party -- especially when they're being explicitly rejected in polls of even hardcore likely Republican primary voters.

All of this is just a byproduct of our rather unusual method of selecting presidents. In contrast to the parliamentary systems used in most democracies, where the prime minister has typically come up through the ranks of the party and served in key roles in preparation for serving as head of government, Americans elect presidents independently. Since 1960, when television became the key medium for reaching voters and party primaries began supplanting elite selection of presidential nominees, Americans have preferred state governors, who have no foreign policy experience, or senators who have made their bones on domestic politics. Unless there's a major war on -- and sometimes even then -- domestic issues, especially the economy, tend to dominate presidential campaigns.

This means that most serious candidates for president enter the race as foreign policy neophytes; in the modern era only Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush had substantial foreign policy credentials. But the bar on national security policy is pretty low: the winners must come across as decisive leaders who can be simultaneously tough and prudent, but even that can be an illusion of campaign optics.

Given that we start with a large field of ambitious foreign policy neophytes, it's also not surprising that even successful candidates say stupid things on the campaign trail or else lay out policies they're forced to retract once in office.

George W. Bush managed to get elected president twice despite being caught flat-footed on the names of the leaders of Pakistan, India, and other countries as late as the post-convention debates with Al Gore in 2000. Aside from whatever he gained by osmosis by being around his father, he simply didn't have any experience with or reason to be particularly interested in foreign affairs up to that point. But he surrounded himself with expert advisors and was able to present himself as a credible leader by the time it mattered.

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James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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