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Republicans vs the world

In the race to take on Obama, playing dumb about foreign affairs is the politically clever thing to do

26 November 2011

2:00 PM

26 November 2011

2:00 PM

During the 2008 US presidential election cycle, the respected journal Foreign Affairs invited the leading presidential candidates from both parties to outline their views of world politics. All of them responded with essays that, one presumes, they at least read if did not write. This year, ahead of next year’s elections, Foreign Affairs has proffered the same invitation to the leading Republican aspirants. To date, they have all refused or not responded. This parallels the trend of not talking about international affairs in their endless series of presidential debates: mentions of Afghanistan and Iraq are reported to be down 65 per cent from 2008.  

One could argue that these candidates are denying Americans an opportunity to understand their thinking about international relations. Having investigated the policy platforms of the Republican field, however, I have concluded that most of them have done Americans a huge favour. The Grand Old Party candidates’ current thinking on foreign affairs is a noxious mixture of cowardice, belligerence, ignorance — and, unfortunately, political savvy.  

To understand the parlous state of foreign policy thought in the 2012 Republican field, consider the curious exception of Mitt Romney, the former chief executive of Bain Capital and former governor of Mass-achusetts. In October, Romney published a policy white paper called ‘An American Century’. It reflected a significant effort on foreign affairs, and yet it contained multiple inaccuracies, contradictions and omissions. Romney repeatedly implied that President Obama had gone on ‘an apology tour’ abroad without a scintilla of evidence to back up the claim. Japan and South Korea received only perfunctory mentions, and Turkey was treated like a pariah state rather than a Nato ally. President Romney’s policy toward China would include arming Taiwan to the hilt — and yet, at the same time, he’d try ‘to persuade China to commit to North Korea’s disarmament’.

Here’s the scary part: Mitt Romney’s effort to present a coherent foreign policy is far ahead of anything his rivals have produced, with the exception of the Texas congressman Ron Paul, who wants drastically to scale back America’s military footprint in the world. Paul is an outsider, however, and his foreign policy views prompt loud boos at Republican presidential debates.  

Now for the rest of the GOP field. US Representative Michelle Bachmann’s few forays into foreign policy have been downright strange. She’s claimed at various junctures that Hezbollah is developing footholds in Libya and Cuba. She wants Iraq to reimburse the United States for ‘what we have done to liberate’ that nation. Newt Gingrich, currently the frontrunner (at least according to the polls), recently said that a luxury cruise around the Aegean had prepared him to understand Greece’s sovereign debt crisis. Texas governor Rick Perry proposed sending the US military into Mexico to fight the drug war. Former senator Rick Santorum has said, ‘I want to go to war with China.’ Analysts are only 90 per cent sure that he was speaking figuratively.

Herman Cain, another former CEO and the most visible primary challenger of the past three months, has demonstrated even greater ineptitude on international relations. Space considerations prevent a full litany of his foreign policy mis-statements and gaffes, but the highlights are jaw-dropping. He initially declared that he would appoint no Muslims to his cabinet; this month he averred that more than half of American Muslims are extremists. During a televised discussion in May, he favoured a hardline Israeli approach to negotiating with the Palestinians — but then said the ‘right of return’ should be negotiated. The next day Cain confessed that he had no idea what the ‘right of return’ meant when he answered the question. This month Cain expressed concern on another TV news show that China was developing nuclear weapons — a concern that was overtaken by events roughly a half-century ago. One reporter told me that when she called the Cain campaign to get the candidate’s views on Afghanistan, the campaign responded by asking if she would be willing to brief him on the issue instead. More recently, Cain’s uninformed, fumbling, videotaped response to a question on Libya has gone viral.  

All this has prompted criticism from foreign policy analysts across the political spectrum. In response, the Cain campaign has given three contradictory retorts. First, his staff argues that Cain is now boning up on foreign policy. He recently met Henry Kissinger. His staff told a web magazine that he was now receiving a one-page briefing of world news ‘almost every day’. Second, Cain has argued that he simply can’t explain his foreign policy views until after he is elected president. In his latest book, This Is Herman Cain!, he explains, ‘I think a President should first be briefed on classified intelligence about America’s relationships before offering opinions. The public doesn’t know the answers to those questions, and neither do I.’ Finally, Cain had tried to argue that foreign policy is not really all that important. As he joked in one interview, ‘When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know? And then I’m going to say, “How’s that going to create one job?” ’

The Republican candidates’ wilful lack of attention to foreign policy has embarrassed the party’s grandees. Senator Lindsay Graham has acknowledged that ‘we’re not organised in our thoughts yet’ on international relations and that some of the candidates need to ‘step up their game’. The last Republican secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has remarked that ‘foreign policy ought to be more a part of the debate than it is’. Others have been harsher in their assessments.

Unfortunately, however, the politics of foreign policy provide several excellent reasons for this state of affairs. The first and simplest is one that Cain provided — voters care far more about jobs than about foreign policy. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month, less than 15 per cent of Republican primary voters thought a foreign policy issue should be the first priority of the federal government. More than 65 per cent of them said the economy. As in 1992, it’s the economy, stupid. With this kind of voter sentiment, Republican candidates would be crazy to devote too much attention to foreign affairs.  


The 1992 parallel is striking for another reason: like George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama’s foreign affairs record looks to be his comparative strength. Osama bin ­Laden’s death, successful drone strikes against other al-Qa’eda leaders, and the end of Gaddafi’s reign in Libya have bolstered the President’s CV. The planned withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year is even more popular; a CBS poll found 77 per cent of Americans — and 63 per cent of Republicans — supporting the move. In contrast, Obama’s poll numbers on the economy are really quite abysmal. Why talk about the President’s comparative strength on the hustings?

There’s no political reason for a Republican challenger to bring up foreign affairs  unless it serves a campaign purpose. This is why the candidates have been loud and clear on only one foreign policy issue: Israel. On Tuesday night’s CNN debate, several candidates vowed that their first foreign trip as president would be to Israel. Newt Gingrich has promised that he would order that America’s em
bassy in Israel be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the first day of his administration. Mitt Romney has blasted Obama for throwing Israel ‘under the bus’ as an ally. Herman Cain has bobbed and weaved, but he did evince a Cain Doctrine: ‘If you mess with Israel, you’re messing with the United States of America. Is that clear?’ At the first foreign policy debate, Michelle Bachmann hyperbolically warned that ‘the table is being set for a worldwide nuclear war with Israel’. Rick Perry implicitly explained that he felt an obligation to defend Israel not just as an American but ‘as a Christian’. The evangelical Christian vote is a powerful one in Republican primaries, and the international issue they genuinely care about is Israel’s safety and security.  

Finally, for Americans, talking about international relations just isn’t fun any more. By any metric, American power is in decline, and the challenge for future presidents is how to adapt to this changed environment. Talking about decline is not a popular thing to do in a national campaign — which is why the candidates offer fantasy solutions instead. Mitt Romney deals with this problem through sheer assertion. He declares that this will be an American century without providing any strategy or plan for making it one. He declares that if he is elected, Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb — without giving a plausible way of stopping it.

The truly galling thing is that there is plenty of room for a substantive conservative critique of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. He has badly botched the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations. In his first year in office, he overestimated the effect his popularity would have on his ability to secure cooperation. His administration was too slow in pushing European leaders to get a grip on their sovereign debt crisis. He placed too much faith in the G20 forum to handle international economic policy.

Americans have elected foreign policy neophytes in the past. Some have worked out quite well in advancing US interests (Harry S. Truman) while others have not (George W. Bush). What these presidents had in common, however, was a genuine belief that foreign affairs were intrinsically important. Truman read widely on international affairs, and Bush convened a team of seasoned foreign policy advisers to tutor him on the issues two years before taking office. They understood that decisions to spend money or send troops overseas would determine how they were remembered, and affect the national security of the United States. More recent presidents have grasped the concept that economic trouble in Europe means trouble for the United States as well. Compared with past commanders-in-chief, the motto of the current Republican candidates is simple: don’t know, don’t care.  

Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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