The Experience Thing

John Judis makes the point that none of the major presidential candidates have any real foreign policy experience. He also makes the argument that this actually matters, that the post-war presidents with relevant experience -- Eisenhower, Nixon, H.W. Bush -- managed to avoid the sort of early blunders that he says characterized other leaders:

John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton eventually enjoyed considerable success, but they began poorly--Kennedy in the Bay of Pigs, Reagan in Lebanon, and Clinton in Somalia, Tokyo, and the Balkans. Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush were disastrous flops, and Jimmy Carter (except for Camp David) floundered.

I'm not 100 percent sure on this. Carter, it seems to me, floundered more domestically than abroad. And in foreign policy terms floundered more later than early. His big triumph at Camp David came before his flounder-like handling of the Iranian Revolution. But I think there's something to it. Inexperienced candidates tend to make reference to the fact that they'll be backstopped by veteran advisors and professionals which is, of course, true. The trouble is that what inexperienced presidents-elect normally do is decide that they want to keep their options open and parcel out the top jobs such that all the major strains of thought present within his party are represented at a high level. This, in turn, tends to lead to some of the floundering. People with conflicting visions get appointed because the president doesn't have a clear vision of his own, and then the president approaches his early big decisions as a personnel management issue (how do I keep the whole team on board) rather than figuring it out.

I think there's potentially a real problem here. A Democrat taking office in 2009 is going to face an ongoing national security crisis -- call it "the Bush administration legacy" -- from Day One. And, unfortunately, it's not going to be possible to just press a button and undo it all.