Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Thinking About Experience... (Updated)

One of the consequences of McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate has been a wide ranging discussion of various aspects of what experience means.

It reminds me of the events leading up to the signing of the peace treaty by Rabin and Arafat, when I got involved in a discussion with someone on a bulletin board--before the Internet was ubiquitous--who quoted Middle East experts on why this agreement was such a good idea and why it was going to work.

I responded by arguing that being an expert implies expertise and "experience"--that being an expert in the true sense of the word was something that applied to actual skills, the kind that get honed by experience. On the other hand, the kind of experts we refer to when talking about the Middle East were people who were knowledgeable about the history, knew all kinds of people, and had the inside track on events and deals going on that were not necessarily available to the general public. But none of that necessarily automatically conferred any special insight. A carpenter over years acquired a special feel for his tools, material and the work he does. On the other hand, with all the information an expert on the Middle East might have, such a person would have an opinion, but that by itself did not confer a special feel for the area and its politics.

The person I was arguing with disagreed.

It was interesting then to read John Steele Gordon write something similar in Contentions about:
a dirty little secret about foreign policy: experience actually counts for very little. It’s a bit like the game of chess. Anyone can learn the rules of the game in ten minutes flat. But if they don’t have the right instincts for the game they will never be any good at it no matter how much they play. If they do, they will become very good immediately. (An anecdote: Stephen Sondheim was not only taught how to write musicals by Oscar Hammerstein II, he was also taught to play chess by him when he was about 12 years old. Hammerstein was an avid and excellent game player, very aggressive, and cut kids no slack whatever. Sondheim beat him in the second chess game they played.)

Neither President Carter nor President Reagan had any foreign policy experience. Carter made an utter hash of it and Reagan a triumph. To be sure, Reagan had luck on his side more than Carter but, as Louis Pasteur explained, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”

I don't know about becoming an expert 'immediately', but there is more to it than just knowledge. So when there is so much talk about Joe Biden's years of foreign policy experience on the one hand, and then one reads that he was in favor of resolving the issue of Iraq by dividing the country up--this seems to be a pretty proof of what I was arguing.

And don't get me started about Obama.

I can't argue about the quality of Sarah Palin's experience though in the less than 2 years she has been governor Palin has some accomplishments to her credit:
She brought down Alaska’s governor, attorney general, and state Republican chairman (see my “Most Popular Governor,” July 16, 2007). She killed the “bridge to nowhere.” She used increased tax revenues from high oil prices to give Alaskans a rebate. She slashed government spending. She took on the biggest industry in Alaska, the oil companies, to work out an equitable deal on building a new gas pipeline.
I'd like to think this is the result of skills, the kind that got better during her term.

In terms of McCain, we know he argued for the surge in Iraq early on and the surge has worked. I would not say that McCain is an 'expert' necessarily, but he does exhitibit a feel for the situation. It doesn't mean it has erred before or that he won't make mistakes should he become president, and he certainly does not necessarily have the same 'feel' for other areas.

But it is reassuring to find someone who has experience and expertise and follows through with the courage of his convictions.

It is a rare quality, and one that neither Obama or Biden have proven that they have.

Update: Here is something along similar lines by Peter Robinson at The Corner:
All the talk of experience in a VP misses the point; the whole concept of checks and balances implies our founding fathers knew we would be flying by the seat of our pants half the time. So?

Rather than experience we should look towards the concept of mastery. Lincoln is a good example. He spent a fair number of years as a suffling lawyer but he mastered the one great civic-political issue of his day (aside form the moral issue of slavery) - the power and develpment of rail transport in American life. He knew everything there was to know about railroads and land and financing and legal ins and outs concerning the power of rail in the 1850s.

Remember that when you hear Ms. Palin going on about energy. She has mastered the land, legal, technical concepts relating to the oil industry; even more she knows the power politics of big oil as it relates to the biggest state in the union and all the other states as well. Just for fun of it some reporter should ask her: "can you describe what the oil companies are doing to protect their rigs from Hurricane Gustav?" Watch jaws drop as she describes to a "T" what you need to do to protect off-shore rigs from harsh weather. [emphasis added]
Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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