A major party ticket hasn’t been this clueless about the world since the 1920s. Good thing the planet is a such a quiet place, without much need for foreign policy expertise.
With Donald Trump’s selection of Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate, the Republican ticket is one of the least experienced in national security and foreign policy in the modern political era.
Rarely has a candidate for president had as little first-hand exposure to the terrain of soldiers, spies, and diplomats as Trump, who has never held elected office or served in the military. But Pence, who just last year said 2016 “could be the first foreign policy national election since 1980,” does little to compensate for Trump’s deficiencies as he runs against a former Secretary of State.
Before becoming governor, Pence was a six term congressman who served on the House Committee on International Relations (later renamed the Committee on Foreign Affairs) from 2003 to 2012. For one year, he was the vice-chair of the Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee, from 2011 to 2012.
But in Congress, Pence was known as a conservative ideologue who rose quickly through the ranks to the Republican leadership and not a deep thinker on strategy and policy. He has been a reliable booster of the armed forces, making trips to Afghanistan and Iraq to shake hands with U.S. troops and call for major increases in defense spending. But he has never served on the armed services committee, where lawmakers oversee military operations and policy.
Trump has made counterterrorism, treaty negotiation, and homeland security central pillars of his campaign. Thursday’s terrorist attack in Nice, which has left at least 84 people dead and dozens more clinging to life, is sure to amplify that focus and will force both presidential candidates to articulate how they would combat the proliferation of extremism following a wave of deadly attacks in the past year, from Paris to Brussels, San Bernardino to Orlando.
Plenty of inexperienced presidential candidates have also put security issues at the forefront of their campaigns. But usually, candidates with weak policy credentials tap a running mate who helps beef up the ticket. (Think a young senator Barack Obama choosing foreign policy graybeard Joe Biden as his veep in 2008.)
Trump is defying that convention.
“The top of the ticket is wanting in foreign policy experience, in Trump’s case completely,” Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian and professor of U.S. national security history at New York University, told The Daily Beast. “His V.P. pick doesn’t remove that concern.”
Perhaps the Pence pick should come as no surprise. Throughout his campaign, Trump has showed little interest—and at times outright hostility—towards foreign policy and national security expertise. In March, he said that the body of laws and treaty obligations that prohibit the U.S. from torturing people was developed by “eggheads” who were blind to the threat of terrorism. And following last month’s vote by the United Kingdom to exit the European Union–one of the most consequential decisions in recent memory by the United States’ top ally—Trump said that he’d barely discussed the Brexit vote with his foreign policy advisers because “there’s nothing to talk about.”
Those advisers include mostly policy lightweights and controversial conservative pundits who are virtually unknown in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. When Trump announced in March that they’d joined his campaign, many experts and long-time policy hands saw it as evidence that the candidate, while expounding on big issues, had no intention to really learn about them. Trump, however, both acknowledged his advisers’ relative ignorance and called it a strength. “Somebody said, ‘Gee, you should use advisers that have been really hot the last five years.’ I said, ‘Really? I think I want to use ones that haven’t been involved.’ Take a look at what has happened in the world,” Trump said during a press conference at a golf course in Scotland the morning after the Brexit vote.
At least two of Trump’s advisers were on his V.P. short list, and might have shored up his weaknesses, at least on paper. Retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, would have added decades of military experience to the ticket. But Flynn has become a controversial figure in his own right, known for launching politically charged Twitter tirades, as he did following the Nice attacks. “I’m sick of what I see as weakness by R [our] leaders & political correctness against a barbaric enemy. R enemy has declared war on us—get real!” Flynn wrote.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another well-known figure close to Trump, is seen in defense policy circles as a smart if somewhat eccentric font of ideas. But on Thursday he drew strong criticism after calling for a “test” of Muslims in the United States to root out extremists.
“Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia they should be deported,” Gingrich told Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
In choosing Pence, Trump apparently preferred to focus on political credibility. Pence served as chair of the Republican Study Committee from 2005 to 2007, a caucus that pushed for conservative legislative priorities, including cutting non-defense spending. And as governor, he has been a stalwart social conservative, which may help attract supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz, whom Pence had initially supported for president.
But, like Trump, Pence’s lack of hands-on experience hasn’t stopped him from taking positions on key security and foreign policy issues. Indeed, some of them have put him at odds with the presumptive GOP nominee.
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Pence voted in 2002 for the resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to invade Iraq–as did Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Throughout the campaign, Trump has said Clinton’s vote is evidence of her lack of foreign policy judgment. It’s not clear if he thinks Pence also erred, and what that says about Trump’s appraisal of the man who would replace him as commander-in-chief should he be unable to perform his duties.
In 2014, Pence had harsh words for Vladimir Putin and said that his invasion in Ukraine should prompt the United States to strengthen its alliances with NATO members and deploy defensive weapons. Trump, on the other hand, has cozied up to Putin—the two have expressed their mutual admiration for each other–and has said the United States should consider withdrawing from NATO. The alliance has been the backbone of trans-Atlantic security for seven decades, but Trump says it costs the United States too much money. “We certainly can’t afford to do this anymore,” he told The Washington Post editorial board.
More recently, Pence tweeted that a ban on Muslims from entering the United States, one of Trump’s signature policy positions, was “offensive and unconstitutional.” (He has, though, made efforts to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana over fears that terrorists could infiltrate their ranks.) Pence has also backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that Trump says reflects a “rigged” system of one-sided agreements dragging down the U.S. economy. Pence said the deal was good policy. “Trade means jobs, but trade also means security,” he tweeted in 2014, urging “swift adoption” of the pact.
That position puts Pence more in line with party elites, a camp that Trump has not tried to court. Some may see Pence’s selection as a sign that Trump wants to move closer to the party’s traditional views.
“For my money, it doesn’t matter so much if Pence has experience. What matters more is whether he is interested in also blowing up American foreign policy and international engagement, or if his approach will somehow signal that the Trump ticket will have a provocateur at the top and a pragmatist at the #2 spot,” Michael O’Hanlon, a defense policy and military expert at the Brookings Institution, told The Daily Beast. “I’d still worry about how that ticket would approach the world, but it would nonetheless be more hopeful than if Pence also wanted to disband alliances, stop or reverse immigration, and terminate key trade agreements.”
Pence has been a strong supporter of the military, but there too he has take positions at odds with Trump, notably in the latter’s embrace of LGBT rights. Pence, who has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” opposed the Obama administration’s decision to allow gays, lesbians, and transgendered people to serve openly in the military. “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service because the presence of homosexuals in the ranks weakens unit cohesion,” he said during his 2000 congressional campaign.
While in Congress, Pence made annual visits to Iraq and Afghanistan to visit troops from Indiana. But such trips are common among lawmakers and usually little more than photo-ops. One in particular showed Pence to be out of touch with the reality of security on the ground.
In April 2007, Pence accompanied Sen. John McCain to the central outdoor market in Baghdad, known as Shorja, and later remarked on how peaceful it seemed. “Like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime,” Pence said at a press conference meant to underscore how new U.S. security measures were helping to pacify the country, which was in the middle of a full-blown jihadist insurgency and was teetering on the edge of a civil war.
But the market visit was practically a staged event, residents said later. The delegation came with more than 100 armed soldiers, Humvees, and attack helicopters, and Pence and his colleagues wore bulletproof vests while they were covered by U.S. sharpshooters on rooftops.
“They paralyzed the market when they came,” one shop owner told The New York Times. “This was only for the media.
As governor of Indiana, Pence has traveled abroad. A nine-day trip to Israel in Dec. 2014 fanned speculation about a presidential run in 2016. Pence, a stalwart supporter of Israel, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a Christian group.
Pence has also led trade delegations on behalf of his state to Japan, China, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada, but those visits are also not uncommon for governors and are usually aimed at economic development and jobs creation. Pence drew scrutiny during a 2015 trip to China to promote investment in his state because, while in Congress in 2009, he had criticized Obama for making his own China visit during a time of economic crisis at home. “And where is the president this week?” he said during a speech at a dinner sponsored by the conservative American Spectator magazine. “In China visiting our money and being lectured on monetary policy by communist dictators.”
Pence defended his own trip as “an important part of my job as governor,” and told a reporter that he didn’t recall “precisely” his earlier comments attacking Obama.
Corporations and donors paid for some of Pence’s trips and his luxury expenses, including a hospitality suite at the Toronto Maples Leafs’ season opener, according to the Indianapolis Star Tribune. The Pence administration defended the trips, which it said had led to plans to invest money in Indiana and create thousands of jobs.
Of course, military and foreign policy expertise is not a prerequisite to be commander-in-chief. Bush, that last Republican in the Oval Office, was a neophyte when he ran for the White House in 2000. But his thin resume was padded by the presence of Dick Cheney, a former secretary of defense and White House chief of staff, as his running mate.
Bill Clinton had essentially zero foreign policy experience, but his running mate, Al Gore, had served on the House Intelligence Committee and later the Senate Armed Services Committee and was seen as a policy wonk. And Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter had no foreign policy background to speak of when he was elected in 1976. But his VP pick, Walter Mondale, was a member of the Church Committee, which ran the most significant investigation to date into intelligence operations and abuses and gave rise to the modern system of intelligence oversight in the Congress.
“Pence’s foreign policy experience pales next to Mondale’s,” Naftali said, noting that members of the Church Committee became experts in how intelligence is gathered and used by the president.
In the decades since the U.S. became a super power, the political parties have generally steered away from tickets in which at least one candidate doesn’t bring some meaningful foreign policy or military heft to the ticket, Naftali said. He compared the Trump-Pence pairing to that of Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge in 1920 in terms of its collective lack of expertise.
But what’s unique about Trump in the modern era is that he combines a total lack of experience in both policy and politics.
“The last time we had a non-politician as a major party nominee was Dwight Eisenhower. And he had helped win World War II,” Naftali said. “The military gave him his foreign policy experience.”
“Whether the American people think it matters, we’re about to find out,” Naftali added.
—with additional reporting by Alexa Corse