Foreign Policy Rookies

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

Since the Vietnam War, four of the five elected presidents have been foreign policy novices. Now might be a good time for voters to think about breaking that electoral habit.

As shooting wars continue on fronts in Israel and Iraq, a new portrays an electorate that has little confidence in the foreign policy abilities of President Bush and little optimism about the world. A stunning 60 percent believe foreign leaders do not respect the American president. The Angela Merkel back rub probably didn't help.

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah will spill over into the rest of the Middle East in the opinion of 61 percent. And 64 percent believe there will never be peace in the region.

On Iraq, 57 percent think the war is going badly and only 14 percent think it is very likely the U.S. will succeed there. The Bush administration's foreign policy has been too focused on Iraq, in the view of 58 percent.

Though just 35 percent approve of President Bush's handling of foreign policy in general, 47 percent approve of the way he has approached the current violence in Israel and Lebanon. It is typical that voters give out higher grades to presidents in the middle of a crisis.

Actually, attention span is a problem for American voters. Unless there is a crisis, foreign policy isn't a high priority in most elections. But when a crisis emerges later on, and they always do, they dwarf the other issues that seemed so important during the campaign.

It is rare that trouble abroad is not the defining issue and great test of a presidency. That is true even in the post-Vietnam period of relative peacefulness.

There's no need to go far afield for examples: Jimmy Carter and Iran; Ronald Reagan and the Evil Empire, Iran and Nicaragua; George H.W. Bush and Iraq; George W. Bush and Iraq.

Only Bill Clinton seems to have escaped the pattern (and he sure did it the hard way).

None of these presidents elected after Nixon, except for Bush the Elder, came to the White House with substantial experience and expertise in foreign policy (Gerald Ford was not elected). And obviously, Bush the Elder demonstrated that a thick national security portfolio was no guarantee of a successful administration.

But I think Carter and George W. Bush have amply demonstrated that the lack of experience is dangerous.

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