Where Have All the Foreign Policy Experts Gone?

Why is it that so many people with so little foreign policy experience wind up as top foreign policy advisers to campaigns and presidents?

I touched on this question in a 2011 Politico piece looking at President Obama’s advisers:

Before Obama named [Leon] Panetta as CIA director, the former congressman from California had little experience on national security issues. This was part of a larger trend: many of the president’s important foreign policy aides have scant training in foreign policy.

For example, the president’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, had been a Beltway lawyer, lobbyist and executive at Fannie Mae. The lead author of the president’s National Security Strategy, Ben Rhodes, has a background in fiction and poetry, putting aside work on his first novel (“The Oasis of Love”) to join the administration’s speech-writing team, from which he moved over to the National Security Council.

It’s come up again with the Romney campaign. Josh Rogin points to a memo taking aim at “The Foreign Policy & National Security Failures Of President Obama” that was authored by Romney’s main policy adviser, Lanhee Chen. By all accounts Chen is a brilliant guy, but there’s no evidence that he has any experience in foreign policy. His dissertation at Harvard discussed how judicial elections affect the law, and he did extensive work on domestic policy—health care, in particular—at the Heritage Foundation.

So why does he get tasked with writing the memos on foreign policy? Why, for that matter, did Rhodes get knighted a foreign-policy majordomo in the Obama campaign, and then later in the administration itself? Does this sort of thing happen in other policy areas? Do speechwriters parachute into important legal-related professions when their candidate wins? Do political scientists take major roles at Treasury? If not, why are those social-scientific professions treated differently than political science?

I understand the response that foreign policy is not construction and that security studies is not engineering. I also understand the argument that it’s more important to have someone who gets along with the president than it is to have an actual expert. But does everyone really believe that having actual foreign-policy experts taking foreign policy–related positions in politics would do nothing to improve our foreign policy?

This isn’t an ideological, much less partisan, lament. There’s no shortage of candidates on either side of the aisle. Peter Feaver is a hawkish Romney backer with tenure at Duke, and there are more than a few Dems with foreign policy expertise who could have taken the spots at the NSC. And the Lord knows you could find a wide range of views in the academy, if you wanted them.

So I can’t really figure it out: Why don’t presidents look for foreign policy experts in the academy?