The Buzz

Yes, Foreign-Policy Knowledge Matters

Over at Real Clear Politics, reporter Scott Conroy reviews some of the latest soul-searching within the Republican Party concerning the party’s future on foreign-policy issues. He quotes Danielle Pletka, who makes a somewhat remarkable statement (flagged by Daniel Larison):

The truth is that what matters much more in choosing a leader is that that person embraces a clear set of principles. And if they have a clear set of principles and a vision to go along with it, I’m not worried that they don’t know what the capital of Burkina Faso is. If they have no vision, no amount of knowledge is going to make up for it.

In response, Larison makes the crucial point:

Candidates that have “a clear set of principles and a vision to go along with it” but lack knowledge will tend to promote policies that are not tethered to reality. If a candidate has a “vision” and just a little knowledge, that can be the most dangerous of all, and the ambitions of his “vision” and his limited knowledge may be a very poor match. A more knowledgeable candidate that lacked a “vision” might not be ideal, but he’d definitely be preferable to his opposite number.

Larison gets this exactly right. Of course, Pletka is correct on the narrow point that we shouldn’t expect our presidential candidates to be experts on every area of the world. But while a “clear set of principles” and a “vision” are good things for a candidate to have, they’re certainly no substitute for at least a reasonable level of substantive knowledge on major international issues.

This is particularly relevant to the situation the Republican Party finds itself in now when it comes to foreign policy. Simply put, the party is still haunted by the legacy of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. The fact that the Bush administration launched that misguided war, along with the institutional GOP’s apparent inability to learn any real lessons from it, is probably the single greatest reason why the U.S. public still does not trust the GOP on foreign-policy issues. And the Iraq War was a textbook example of “vision” trumping expertise, with disastrous consequences. Indeed, in the lead-up to the war, some experts on Iraq and the region were actively banned from the war and postwar planning for ideological reasons. As Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state, later told Tom Ricks, “Anybody that knows anything” was removed from the planning groups.

Moreover, this attitude does not make for good politics either. Recall the scorn that was (rightfully) heaped upon Herman Cain after he declared during the GOP primaries that it was unimportant whether he knew who was the president of “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.” The American people may not require that their president be the next George Kennan, but they also certainly don’t want him or her to be another Herman Cain.

In short, a party that downplays the importance of substantive knowledge is both unlikely to manage world affairs well and unlikely to be politically successful. The Republican Party still has a lot of serious thinking to do about what its “vision” is and what it stands for on foreign policy. But the work of restoring its reputation for managerial competence, which has been crippled since 2003, is equally serious.