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Mitch McConnell said you don’t need experience to be president

Here's why he's wrong.

- July 27, 2016
The signatures of former presidents Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush adorns a globe in the White House, Sept. 16, 2010. (cc) Official White House photo by Pete Souza, via Flickr.

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, Good Authority editor Elizabeth N. Saunders shares her research on what makes presidents effective at foreign policy. This analysis was previously published in the Washington Post in July 2016.

When Donald Trump said in a 2016 interview that he might not come to the aid of NATO allies in the Baltics, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) dismissed it as a “rookie mistake,” and suggested that Trump’s cabinet would think differently. But is it enough to have experienced advisers if you are an inexperienced president?

I look at this question in an forthcoming article in International Organization, in a special issue on “The Behavioral Revolution and International Relations.” My research shows that experienced advisers don’t make up for an inexperienced president; leaders need their own foreign-policy experience to be able to evaluate and use the advice of others. Experience is not a guarantee of success. But an experienced president should be able to harness the benefits and manage the risks of a seasoned advisory team in ways that an inexperienced leader cannot.

Trump’s foreign policy advisers are only part of the story

Much of the criticism of Trump as a potential foreign-policy manager has focused on his failure to sign up experienced foreign-policy advisers, a point Washington Post columnist Dan Drezner has discussed throughout the 2016 primaries. But even the full backing of the Republican national security establishment would not make up for Trump’s own lack of foreign-policy experience.

Trump is not the only candidate to face this problem. Over the past few decades, both parties have frequently nominated candidates who lack significant foreign-policy experience.

 And experience isn’t always a good thing

Research on experience shows that it can be a double-edged sword. Some studies have found that experience can help policymakers make decisions more quickly, and think more strategically when they are facing an international opponent.

But there are downsides. Political psychologist Philip Tetlock has shown that experts sometimes fare little better than chance at forecasting. Experience can lead to feeling overconfident — or to entrenched views that can be difficult to dislodge. Even the positive effects of experience are limited in scope: Experience does not transfer easily from one subject area (say, business, or even domestic politics) to another (foreign policy).

In a group of top decision-makers, which effects of experience dominate, the good or the bad? The answer depends on who exactly has the experience.

A president with foreign-policy experience has three advantages in managing a team

1. An experienced leader is better able to monitor advisers — and know if the advice is off-kilter. When advisers take proposals to a president who has foreign-policy experience, they know the president will ask tough questions and spot problems. That knowledge makes proposals better before they even get to the Oval Office.

2. Experienced presidents can keep authority closer to home, so that advisers will be less inclined to take independent risks with policy, or otherwise act in ways that might undermine White House initiatives.

3. Experience can give leaders the confidence and political cover to seek advice from more diverse sources, increasing the chance that someone with real clout can question assumptions from all angles or play Devil’s Advocate effectively.

Inexperienced leaders may find themselves in trouble

Inexperienced leaders effectively delegate to their advisory team, but an inexperienced leader is less likely to recognize an incomplete plan or know what questions to ask in policy debates — or recognize when advisers are cutting corners or taking policy risks. And inexperienced presidents may avoid consulting experienced advisers who will challenge their views, for fear that they will look hesitant or weak. Even if such appointees are chosen, they are less likely to have real power. Although presidents can learn over time, that experience can come slowly, and come at significant initial cost.

To see how this works, look at the two Gulf Wars

The administrations of the elder and younger Bushes offer a clear illustration of how the balance of experience between presidents and their advisers affects policy. George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, had possibly the most diversified and extensive portfolio of foreign-policy experience in modern U.S. history. But his son, George W. Bush, had almost no foreign-policy experience at all.

Both presidents staffed their administrations with many of the same advisers. Many of those on the Bush 41 team were highly experienced, having served in top positions in the Ford and Reagan administrations.

For the Bush 43 administration, the shortcomings of the decision-making in the lead-up to the Iraq War are well-documented, as is Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s dominance in George W. Bush’s first term. What many people don’t remember, however, is that Cheney was very deferential to President George H.W. Bush during the planning for the first Gulf War, when he served as secretary of defense. In that administration, Cheney knew he was working for a president with a lot of foreign-policy experience.

As Bob Woodward reports, Cheney questioned many aspects of the incipient war plans, and “recognized that he had an obligation to present this brief to President Bush…. Cheney did not want to walk over to the White House one day, months down the road, to say, ‘Here’s the plan, bang, go.’ The President had to comprehend the stakes, the costs and the risks, step by step.” In a September 1990 speech, Cheney described Bush 41 as subscribing to the “‘don’t screw around’ school of military strategy.” Additionally, Colin Powell, who was marginalized in the planning for the 2003 Iraq War, had more room to voice his doubts about the first Gulf War and advocated for an early end to the war under Bush 41.

How do U.S. presidents work with different kinds of advisers?

Historically, there have been four broad combinations of presidents and advisers. Here’s how these combinations of experience worked in practice.

1. Experienced president + experienced team of advisers: Like Bush 41, Dwight Eisenhower had foreign policy experience and a team of experienced advisers. He kept a tight rein on his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who was prone to aggressive rhetoric. Eisenhower wrote that Dulles “has never made a serious pronouncement, agreement or proposal without complete and exhaustive consultation with me in advance and, of course, my approval.” But he also appreciated that there was “probably no one…who has the technical competence of Foster Dulles in the diplomatic field.”

2. Inexperienced president + experienced team of advisers: Harry Truman, like Bush 43, was an inexperienced president leading an experienced team of advisers. In this scenario, presidents tend to delegate, and there is a danger that subordinates take risks when formulating plans and options. When he took over the presidency in 1945, Truman was also in the dark about Franklin Roosevelt’s complex approach to dealing with the Soviet Union. As John Lewis Gaddis noted, Truman’s wish to “appear decisive and in command” led him to rely on advisers who urged him to toughen U.S. policy toward the Soviets.

More recently, Barack Obama lacked foreign-policy experience when he took office and faced the challenge of managing experienced advisers such as Robert Gates and David Petraeus, both of whom had more hawkish preferences. In the 2009 debate over whether and how to send more troops to Afghanistan, Obama initially favored a more restrained approach, siding with Vice President Biden and advisers who wanted a limited strategy focused on counterterrorism. Petraeus, backed by Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, favored a more troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy, which they had employed in the Iraq surge. Obama compromised, but leaned in the direction of counterinsurgency and nation-building. While Obama’s handling of the debate was arguably more balanced than George W. Bush’s approach to the 2003 Iraq War, the Afghanistan war continues with little prospect of victory.

Obama’s appointment of Clinton and retention of Gates and Petraeus were somewhat unusual. Appointing advisers with views that diverge from those of the president can be politically risky, and an inexperienced president may be especially concerned about criticism from those advisers (and therefore more beholden to those views). Perhaps for this reason, it is rare in the modern presidency to find a true “team of rivals.”

3. Experienced president + inexperienced team of advisers: This category is less common because foreign-policy advisers are usually drawn from the pool of experienced officials in the president’s party. Still, some presidents like to appoint weaker or less-experienced officials, perhaps to maintain control over foreign policy. John F. Kennedy reportedly wanted to serve as his own secretary of state, for example. Franklin Roosevelt set up a competitive advisory system, leaving the president in the central role. Here, the risk is overreliance on the president.

4. Inexperienced president + inexperienced team of advisers: In the past, the closest scenarios might have been the early Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton administrations, when inexperienced presidents relied on advisory teams from a party that had been out of power for a long stretch. And both the Carter and Clinton administrations had some early foreign-policy stumbles. The Never Trump movement in 2016, however, raises the specter of a major party nominee who might not be able to enlist the party’s most experienced foreign policy hands. Even if some Republican foreign policy officials were to sign up with Trump, the pool would likely be diluted.

This scenario raises the possibility of inexperienced advisers gathering information and formulating policy options without the substantive background to know where to look, what might be missing, and what has worked in the past — all while working for a boss who is not likely to spot the problems or fill in the gaps.

Clinton would be an experienced president with experienced advisers — but that also can lead to problems

Hillary Clinton’s status as a rare modern candidate with significant foreign-policy experience confers some advantages, but they are not automatic. There is a risk that her well-developed views will be resistant to change.

One way to combat this problem is to draw on diverse advice. Clinton could have an advantage here: insulated from charges of inexperience, she could listen to a strong voice with a different view — if she appointed foreign-policy advisers likely to give her a range of opinions. Given that the pool of Democratic foreign-policy officials may be somewhat fatigued from eight years of a previous administration, and Clinton’s reputation for relying on trusted loyalists, it may take some concerted effort to achieve real diversity of thought on a Clinton foreign-policy team.

No commander-in-chief can be everywhere at once. Foreign-policy experience is really about managing those who will be on the front lines of both day-to-day foreign-policy operations and most crises and conflicts. Experienced leaders are better able to get the most out of their advisers and keep problems in check. Presidents who lack experience are less well-equipped to monitor and question the plans and options developed by those who serve them, or to diversify the advice they receive.

Newly elected presidents often crave advice on how to set up a good foreign-policy process, but procedural fixes and management styles can only go so far. Experience cannot be magically transmitted from advisers to leaders: A team of experienced advisers cannot make up for a lack of experience at the top.