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An Explanation for The Bush Administration's War-On-Terror Mishaps: Do Governors Tend to Make Poor Presidents?

Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006

This week, the New York Times reported that -- in yet another misstep by the Bush Administration -- the National Archives had re-classified as secret papers that had been available for decades, and even photocopied by scholars. After reviewing a sample of the materials, the director of the Information Security Oversight Office, J. William Leonard, announced that he did not think they should have been re-classified as secret.

What we have here is another example to add to the list of the Bush Administration's missteps in conducting the war on terror.

And the list of blunders is growing long: To cite some of the most egregious examples, there was the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison; the decision to chuck the Geneva Convention even though doing so brought nothing but trouble; the attempts to hold enemy combatants indefinitely without charges or a hearing - and then the startling, brazen defense that the government was treating detainees this way without hearings simply because it could.

And then, of course, most recently, there is the warrantless wiretapping, as to which the Administration sidestepped even the secret court instituted by Congress for the very purpose of overseeing wiretapping involving sensitive national security issues.

Let me posit a theory to explain these blunders: President Bush's background as a governor was simply inadequate to prepare him for foreign affairs, let alone an international war. It is not that governors cannot be good war-time presidents (for example, Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were governors), but in recent years, it has become clear that experience as a governor is no necessary preparation for protecting the country from terrorism.

Make no mistake, though, this is no partisan attack: As I'll explain, I find recent Democratic Governors who became Presidents to have been equally unprepared.

Governors Have Good Preparation On Domestic, But Not Foreign, Affairs

In recent years, Americans increasingly have looked to the governors' ranks to choose presidential candidates. The theory, apparently, is that if someone can run a huge bureaucracy, he or she can probably also run a superhuge bureaucracy. And that theory is right - as far as it goes.

The problem with this theory, however, is that it ignores what the Framers believed to be the most vital aspect of any President's powers: the power to conduct war through leadership. Indeed, it casts the President into the role of bureaucrat, rather than Commander-in-Chief.

A crucial reason the Framers chose a single President and not an executive committee (an active proposal at the Convention) was that the executive was thought most necessary to respond to emergencies, and to lead the country in times of war - and in these instances, a single leader of the executive branch was thought to be key. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states had miserably failed to coordinate their militias, to pay for a national army, and to construct any sort of shared foreign policy that might deter war. A single, national President was absolutely necessary to turn around these failures, and he needed to be an individual who could act decisively and commandingly.

In addition, the Framers divided the country according to a federal system: There would be a national government capable of going to war for a united group of states, but there would remain a set of state governments that would carry on with the day-to-day governance needed by the people - in areas such as land use law, family law, contract law, and so on.

These two arenas for ruling were vastly different, and called on very different skill sets. Even though the federal government has expanded its reach exponentially since then, the same principle holds, perhaps even more so: state-level experience is no preparation for the larger issues a President confronts at the national level, especially issues involving foreign policy and the conduct of war.

Briefings Are No Substitute for Genuine Foreign Affairs Experience

The job of leading the United States in war has become extraordinarily difficult. To think that someone who has had nothing but state experience could do it effectively is to fundamentally underestimate what is required.

It is simply not enough that a presidential candidate be briefed on the campaign trail, or that he or she be the titular author of a platform for a party that is crafted on the basis of expert opinions. The realities of diplomacy and war; of the intelligence agencies; and, lately and especially, of radical Islamicist terrorism, all call for hard-knocks experience in foreign affairs.

Thus, this is an era when a Senator who has served on the body's military and foreign affairs committees simply has better credentials for the job than any governor can.

It takes trained judgment to make the calls that must be made now and in the near future.

For example, Sen. John McCain has corrected the Bush Administration more than once, charging it with crossing lines it simply did not need to cross. He has seen some of the worst of war, as a prisoner of war, but just as important, he has been in the Senate working through these foreign affairs and war issues for years.

Coming from the same party, he has tried to steady the Bush Administration's lurching from one mistake to another on the world stage. At the same time, he has had no time for those who would end the Iraq war just to end it. He sees the necessity of looking directly into the eyes of the enemy and not blinking. That is the kind of war leadership desperately needed at this time.

It has been fortunate for the country that Senator McCain has been there to exert this steadying force. But it would have been more fortunate if our President had been someone with experience more like McCain's, and less like George W. Bush's.

Reagan, Clinton, and Carter: Only One Among Them Was TrulyPrepared

Governors' lack of foreign affairs knowledge tends to show - often in disastrous ways.

The debacle of the Carter presidency was the bungling of the Iranian hostage crisis. Might a former Senator with foreign affairs experience have been more adept at handling it?

And in retrospect, the quiet failure of the Clinton presidency was in not taking the growing threat of terrorism seriously. Might a former Senator with foreign affairs experience have done more than to lob a few ineffective missiles into Afghanistan?

The truth is that their governorships utterly failed to prepare either of these men for the single most important element of a President's job - his (or her) service as Commander-in-Chief.

The recent exception that proves the rule, here, is President Ronald Reagan -- who was a governor, but who entered office with a vision for foreign policy and of the proper end of the Cold War.

Reagan's example teaches us that we must pay special attention to a candidate's foreign policy vision when he is a former Governor. Unless it's as exceptional as Reagan's was, we may want to think twice about the nomination. A foreign policy concocted for a campaign season is simply not enough - such a policy should come from a lifetime of thought about these issues, and dedication to principles that will yield steady leadership rather than fearful overreaching.

Our Next President Should Be Like George W. - George Washington, That Is

As the country starts to scour its population for the next President to lead us through this scarily complex war on terror, the Framers' insights need to be brought to bear: at the national level, the single most important quality is that of being able to lead the people successfully in the war against intransigent, and often invisible enemies.

It was no accident, after all, that General George Washington, after his successful termination of the Revolution in the states' favor, was America's first President. He was an experienced commander with hard-bought knowledge of international affairs - and that was what a President was supposed to be, and still should be. In this day and age, electing a President who is merely a successful bureaucrat is a recipe for disaster.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Her email address is Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005).

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