Not Only Rookies Make Mistakes

GENERIC Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Nixon
Foreign Policy Rookies
Readers pretty much disagreed with my opinion on various presidents and their handling of foreign policy. And I was taken to the woodshed over my statement that Franklin D. Roosevelt served as Secretary of the Navy. William Katz was right – FDR served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. I've corrected my story. Mea culpa.

Dick Meyer's analysis is intriguing, but has some holes:

He cites Johnson, Kennedy and Truman as presidents with "foreign policy experience" from their terms in the Senate. But all three oversaw disasters abroad: Johnson in Vietnam; Kennedy in Cuba and Vietnam (the Bay of Pigs and the Diem assassination); Truman in Korea and eastern Europe (he lost the eastern bloc at Potsdam, paving the way for 60 years of Soviet domination).

On the other hand, Ronald Reagan was arguably one of our most successful presidents in foreign affairs — with no prior foreign policy experience.

Success in the presidency is not predictable. It depends on the confluence of character and events. And most presidents have a learning curve. How steep — and rapid — it is determines their success or failure.

Bill Ireland

I respectfully disagree with your assessment of the 5 presidents after Nixon. I agree Carter was just a disgrace [in] foreign policy and all areas for that matter. Reagan called it like it was, "the evil empire" and brought the former Soviet Union to their knees. Both Bushes actually acted upon threats to the U.S. — correctly or incorrectly can be debated. Clinton had no foreign policy issues because he ignored and appeased the threats and then kicked the can down the road for the next president to deal with.

I also disagree that just because you are in the service and/or Senate, that it makes you a foreign policy expert. The only thing that Congressional experience provides is the ability to spend other people's money carelessly.

Dave Brammer

Read about LBJ's military service in Robert Caro's book. It was brief — very brief — and inconsequential. L.B.J. puffed up his service to look good on a resume.

Mark Shea

I thought your piece, "Foreign Policy Rookies," was a bit overdone.

First, Franklin D. Roosevelt was never secretary of the Navy. He was assistant secretary, a substantially lower position. He really had no foreign-policy experience when he became president.

Truman's experience was dramatically limited. He was, as vice president, kept out of the loop by President Roosevelt. As senator, his main accomplishment – and an important one – had been investigating corruption in war production.

Eisenhower's experience was, as you wrote, solid.

Jack Kennedy had written about foreign policy, but his experience in carrying it out was zero when he was elected president.

Lyndon Johnson showed little interest in foreign policy before becoming president. He was master of the legislative agenda in the Senate.

It's very hard to measure the importance of foreign policy experience in the presidency. The British experience gives little guide. Churchill had been considered a blunderer in World War I, but led Britain brilliantly during World War II. His foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, had more foreign policy experience than any man in British history when he finally became prime minister, but was out in a year over a foreign-policy blunder – the 1956 Suez affair.

Judgments about President Bush are too harsh. We won't know the result of his presidency for many years. It is fine to criticize, but we should do it with some modesty and restraint.

William Katz

Mr. Meyer's points are certainly hard to dispute — recent presidents have generally lacked foreign policy expertise, or even experience. However, I think he misses the larger issue, the one regarding why Americans consistently elect such presidents — organizations like CBS fail to responsibly report foreign affairs and Americans are therefore terribly ignorant about the subject.

Furthermore, so much of what the press emphasizes either lacks context or is, well, wrong. (Time's Koran in the toilet story comes to mind. Or the Jenin massacre.) So what the American people think they know is often only a very small piece of the puzzle and even that is frequently based on misinformation.

And the press tends to largely ignore President Bush's numerous speeches on the subject of foreign affairs anyway. The President frequently gives speeches in which he reveals the complexity of issues, but the coverage of those speeches is superficial at best. I suppose it is much easier to report on a back rub than to fairly analyze a policy speech, but many in the media are paid big money to do just that — or so I naively believe.

So then, what to make of these poll numbers? Nothing. And what of the rest of the world? Again, considering that they are subjected to the same kind of biased and misinformed press — often worse (think BBC) — nothing.

The irony of Mr. Meyer's column (and I generally like his work) is that he blissfully ignores the old maxim "Garbage in, garbage out". In this case, his organization and others are supplying the garbage. To express concern about the results is, frankly, odd. Rather (no pun intended) than suggest that Americans take foreign affairs more seriously when choosing presidents, perhaps Meyer should focus on internal changes — more substance, less bias. That might help - and CBS might see better ratings, too.

I'm not holding my breath. Sadly.

Mike Sterling

If you still want to send in an e-mail, you'll have to read a real column to find the address.