John Kennedy was a two term senator, but he spent much of his two terms campaigning for president, and when he became president, made two very serious errors in foreign policy in his first year–sanctioning the Bay of Pigs invasion and appearing weak to Khrushchev in Vienna. Lyndon Johnson knew how to get domestic policy passed, but had little experience in foreign affairs, and it showed immediately in his decision to escalate the war in Vietnam. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush made initial missteps in foreign and domestic policy.
The presidents who didn’t screw up immediately–however their presidencies turned out–were Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush Sr. had extensive foreign policy experience, and Reagan was a two-term governor of the country’s most important state, and had been involved in national politics for decades.
Obama, if elected, would possess neither the foreign policy experience of Eisenhower, nor Nixon, nor the administrative experience of Reagan–and he would inherit a fractious world and a deeply divided Washington.
First, Judis gets some basic facts wrong. Nixon served in the House for two years and the Senate for four before becoming Vice President in 1952. His legislative experience gave him roughly the same amount of foreign policy experience as Obama has, and given that the VP’s role in most cabinets in mostly ceremonial – Nixon is no exception – it’s not clear that that helped Nixon under foreign policy more than he did in 1952. Further, Nixon had been removed from politics altogether for eight years by 1968, allowing him to get rusty in a way Obama wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t say Nixon didn’t screw up initially on FP – what do you call Vietnamization? Eisenhower, similarly, didn’t have much foreign policy experience per se. He commanded an army, but he didn’t manage relations with other countries except in the limited military realm, and he didn’t help manage the Marshall Plan. Indeed, he had substantially less FP experience than Wes Clark had in 2004. And, as with Nixon, his experience was dated. 1952 was quite a few years off from 1945. Also, the “initial missteps” made by JFK and Clinton were not theirs at all. The Bay of Pigs was Dulles’ baby, and Somalia Bush’s. Indeed, Somalia can’t even conceivably be lain at the feet of Clinton – he inherited the problem, and didn’t even consciously sanction it as Kennedy did BoP.
Second, Judis distinguishes arbitrarily between inital missteps and further missteps. Reagan may have had “managerial experience” (what ME he had that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton didn’t is a mystery), but he screwed up royally in pushing SDI and presiding over Iran-Contra. Nixon may have had marginally more FP experience than Obama, but he also bombed Laos and Cambodia. Similarly, Judis doesn’t give credit to presidents – Clinton and JFK, for example – who made excellent FP decisions – Bosnia/Kosovo and the Cuba blockade – later in their tenures.
Finally, while Obama may not have a lot of foreign policy experience, he knows what he’s talking about. The guy specialized in international relations at Columbia, and it shows. Read some of the transcripts of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s meetings. Obama’s no lightweight on FP.