Saturday, January 27, 2007

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The lack of campaign chatter about foreign policy

Over at America Abroad, Earnest Wilson tells everyone what he knows about the foreign policy positions of the major Democratic candidates for president:

I donít know. Other bloggers, journalists, policy wonks and usually talkative political pundits donít know either. We have to assume the candidates know where they stand on the Big Issues. Maybe. But maybe not. They almost certainly donít know all they really need to know on foreign affairs. (Except Biden. But he probably doesnít know the other things.)

We know where the candidates stand on a small handful of Iraq-related issues Ė when to exit; whether they support the Baker/Hamilton report. But sitting in the Oval office requires more than a position on withdrawing American troops from Baghdad. Just doing Iraq isnít enough....

If the Senators and governors now in the race donít pay much attention to non-Iraq issues affairs, itís not their fault. Having done foreign policy with a bunch of campaigns, I know the candidatesí handlers are telling them to concentrate on assembling a team that can win, with well-connected communications experts, experienced pollsters, a campaign chief who never sleeps, and so on. They need to get through the primaries where in most years (this one accepted) nobody cares about foreign policy. Even when the senator or governor or former Vice President finally makes it into the general election, there isnít too much demand from the populace for details about Darfur and the Balkans. The foreign policy team is lucky if they get face time with the candidate, and a paragraph in the next speech. The system is designed to keep the candidate away from sticky issues abroad....

But at some point we begin to reflect on the kind of person who will end up with his or her finger on the launch button. With the authority to declare war and fight to keep American jobs from disappearing abroad. The person who will be Americaís face to a disenchanted and skeptical, if not downright hostile, planet. Most of us really donít care about the details. But we do want some insight into the moral character and basic human instincts that will guide the next presidentís tough choices on tough global issues of life and death.

We can bet those basic instincts about the world will start to seep out during the campaign, well before the foreign policy Ďplaní and the advisory groups and the position papers the candidateís little foreign policy team will dutifully churn out. If George Bush has taught us anything, it is to look at those basic instincts and take them very seriously, because they tell us a lot more than the details offered up about Africa or global warming.

I don't have much objection to the first few paragraphs his post, but I'm not convinced Wilson is correct on his last point. Bush's foreign policy instincts in the 2000 campaign were a mixture of diffidence and indifference -- a far cry from how he has approached foreign policy since then.

Tell me, informed readers: which presidential aspirant -- from either party -- seems the most well-grounded on matters of foreign policy?

posted by Dan on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM


Sen. Obama understood in 2002 that our Iraq adventure was a really really bad idea. Now for normal people, this was about the equivalent of knowning not to blindly run into a busy street. Among our present day Washington decision makers, it stands as an insite of transendent genious.

posted by: Bill D on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

"With the authority to declare war and fight to keep American jobs from disappearing abroad."

Huh? I thought Congress got to declare war. And I don't think that a President has the economic power to prevent jobs from going abroad, unless he can persuade American workers to work for less.

posted by: JohnF on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

Technocratically speaking, John Edwards has a good record of interacting with foreign policy. You can see this if you go read all the reports he has been involved with at the Council for Foreign Relations.

Of course, if you subscribe to foreign policy thoughts that aren't "Jim Baker with a dash of Dick Cheney thrown in" then you might view the reports Edwards was involved with about Iran and Russia as less impressive. Likewise, you might see some bombast in his attitude to Darfur which doesn't seem likely to square well with realpolitik. But, at least he knows where these places are.

Richardson? I think it is has been various places conducting negotiations with some skill, so that's worth thinking about.

On the other side, McCain seems to know more about Foreign policy than most of the other potential contenders, but at the same time he "never met a war he didn't like" so that might not be a good sign either.

posted by: Meh on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

who are hillary's main foreign policy advisers. I know berger used to be but now that he is out of the picture somewhat who are they? I get the impression that most of the current and former brookings crowd are not onboard.

posted by: pt on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

Bill Richardson definitely is an interesting case. It is an interesting story of how the governor of New Mexico became Pyongyang's go to guy in the US. How that translates into other foreign policy objectives is less clear.

From a "who has the best instincts" point of view I would have said McCain if this were, say, 2002. After about 6 or 7 years of hawkishness though, I think something of a kinder, gentler hawk might do. Like Giuliani.

I like Giuliani (like everyone who likes Giuliani) because of his actions after 9/11. I think that was the best public display of leadership in a crisis we have seen this century. I would trust him with his finger on the button when the chips are down.

Hillary? Not so much.

posted by: Adam L on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

Biden and Richardson (unusual for a governor) have pretty good credentials; other senators (Clinton?) have some. Republican foreign policy leadership is so discredited at the moment that it's hard to take anyone seriously - Romney would be a big step up from Bush.

posted by: Mr Punch on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

In historical terms we are, really, still in the post-Cold War period. For decades prior to 1991 American thinking on foreign policy was informed by the Communist, and particularly the Soviet, threat; for a few, intense years prior to that the dominant concern had been the Axis powers. For most of our history, though, most Americans had scant reason to think about foreign policy at all. Very little that happened overseas affected them, certainly not compared to all the things that were happening at home.

The collapse of Soviet Communism left a great void in American foreign policy thought, which has not yet been filled by anything like a consensus on what American interests are in the world or how they ought to be served. Except in the Watergate election of 1976, foreign policy was a salient issue in every Presidential election of the postwar period, usually taking a back seat only to the state of the economy. Yet in the three elections following the Soviet Union's collapse American voters sent to the White House one candidate who all but advertised his disinterest in foreign affairs and another who was without a doubt less well-informed about that subject than any Presidential candidate since at least the 1920s. The consequences have been unfortunate.

That is the context in which we must consider Wilson's question. If we were hiring anyone to do any job we considered important -- a plumber, a lawyer, an airline pilot -- we'd insist on something more from prospective candidates than "...insight into the[ir] moral character and basic human instincts." The foreign policy responsibilities of a President of the United States are no different; show me a candidate of whom it is said in October of 2008 that "he may not know much but will listen to the right people," or that "she will be tough but prudent while keeping her options open" and I will show you a disaster waiting to happen. In October of 2000 very similar things were said about George W. Bush.

It is tempting to believe that only the right advisers are needed for a foreign policy novice to enter the Oval Office and succeed. The temptation must be particularly strong for the many people hanging around Washington, New York and various universities around the country who imagine themselves as one of those advisers, if they play their cards right or perhaps if they just get lucky. The temptation should be resisted. Any new President will be accompanied not by one or two but by many advisers, who will disagree frequently. In order to choose among them the new President will need to know already something about the subjects on which he is being advised, not only about the facts in each case but what he wants to do about them, and how what he wants to do in one area relates to what he wants to do everywhere else. Having the right "instincts" cannot guarantee any more than that a new President will feel really bad every time he screws up, and if instincts are all he has he will screw up often.

Personally, what I would be looking for at this point is some indication that an announced or prospective candidate for 2008 has thought about foreign policy (and related areas) outside the context of the impending campaign. Simply reacting to ongoing events, or to what the Bush administration has done over the last six years, won't clear that bar. I'll try to keep an open mind, but the likelihood is that most candidates in both major parties will be products of their time, the early post-Cold War period in which foreign affairs were not salient in politics and thought about the nature of American interests in the world was, as it remains, in confusion.

posted by: Zathras on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

Richardson actually got a ceasefire in Darfur recently; Khartoum has violated it once, but otherwise it's a reasonably promising basis for at least a little bit of progress.

Biden is almost certainly the most knowledgeable on foreign affairs. And you can tell because when he's asked a question he gives an answer with an opinion, not merely citing that he's been there once and knows the prime minister's name (though he does that too). A zillion years on the foreign relations committee helps.

And Obama's (by inauguration day) four years on the committee won't hurt either.

posted by: Lane on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

Was I the only one who wasn't so suprised by Bush's actual foreign policy style? While he said things about a "humble" foreign policy and put Colin Powell out front whenever TV cameras were around, if you looked at who was writing briefing papers for candidate Bush there were a whole lot of hawkish neocons. By mid-2000 it seemed pretty clear that it was the AEI crowd that had his ear, not Scowcroft and Poppy's old buddies. Yet half of the academic "realists" I know (which includes some names you'd all know) voted for Bush over Gore as a result of his pooh-poohing nation building in the debates.

To be fair, the hawks Bush had on his team were more anti-China, pro-NMD, high-tech types than the "global policeman" types like Bill Kristol (who supported McCain), but I know at the time I would have bet money -- too bad I didn't! -- that Bush's actual foreign policy was going to be much more hawkish, less humble than the rhetoric the campaign was emphasising.

posted by: AnIRprof on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

I'm glad I read your post before sending out my own! The only qoute I could add to your post is "The 82nd airborne should not be walking kids to school"

Your point about the current admin being hawkish on china(pre 911) is right on. Remember the spy plane standoff with China. It is the only pre 9-11 foreign policy event stance from the Bush jr crew.

posted by: centrist on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

What do you mean by well-grounded? Merely aware of details and issues or having generally appealing approach to details and issues? Bush certainly didn't satisfy either way and so - does the question matter? Foreign policy is complex, abstruse, frustrating and therefore inimical to vast majority of voters. Voters will rely on vague impressions when it comes to foreign policy questions, these impressions will remain highly vulnerable to predations of current events and so being well-grounded seems pointless as far as getting elected goes: having a 'moral character' or personality that seems a nice fit matters.

Other countries do not face the big foreign policy issues America does and therefore you never hear talk of 'moral character' - I've lived in France, Britain, Canada and talk of moral character just never comes up except as marginal issue. But in America it plays big and I wonder if one reason for that is the majority of voters can't possibly know or understand the 'big' issues and yet the big issues matter more in America than anywhere else - the widening gap between knowledge and responsibility is not something that can be mitigated by an election.

posted by: saintsimon on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

Of all the announced or speculated-about candidates, only ex-Governor Mike Huckabee has hands-on experiencce and insight that comes from leading a banana republic. Although Senator Clinton shares some close observation of of the same.

posted by: Pitaf on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

Clearly the security issues are the headline grabbers, but the candidates' respective stances on foreign economic issues are perhaps more important, as they will have the greatest potential to affect the most people, both inside and outside the United States' borders.
With this is mind, I think Romney is a relatively strong candidate. He's already assembled an excellent economic team for domestic policy (Hubbard and Mankiw), and with his neoclassical economics-friendly positions on most issues, will likely be able to cobble together an excellent team for foreign economic policy as well.
I'd be curious to hear what everyone else thinks about the subject...

posted by: Josh L on 01.27.07 at 06:57 PM [permalink]

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