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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.

Of course President Bush's ardent supporters think his foreign policy has been a success. But I bet if you asked the president over popcorn, Diet Coke and laughing gas whether the contempt his administration displayed early on for diplomacy, international institutions, and "Old Europe" has helped him achieve his foreign policy goals, he would say no.

This relegation of foreign policy skill to the second tier of candidate virtues is not a permanent characteristic of the modern presidency.

Richard Nixon and the five presidents elected before him all had substantial national security experience. Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman all were in the service and had dealt with defense and foreign policy issues routinely while in the Senate. Dwight Eisenhower, of course, commanded the European theater in World War II and Franklin Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy for seven years.

So the question is why foreign policy rookies have been so popular lately. Certainly there is a perception that voters don't care about foreign policy, but of course they do when the world gets hairy.

Are voters to be blamed for not demanding and rewarding more worldly candidates? Is the crazy presidential primary system the culprit? Probably yes to both.

Today the far more important question is what's next? For many years to come, we will live in a 9/11 world. The world will be hairy for a long time to come. The volume of fear and threat ebbs and flows, it doesn't evaporate.

That means right now is the time for savvy voters to think about what they want in the people they send to Congress and the White House. The 2008 presidential elections, sadly, will start in all practical senses on November 8, the day after the midterms. Time is short and so is our attention span.

If voters want to feel more confident about the president they'll have in the next foreign policy crisis than they do in the one they have now, they must somehow – tapping their collective wisdom - get to work on the problem right now.



Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com.

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Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.

By Dick Meyer