Mitt Romney’s speech at the Clinton Global Initiative is not going to help him win the election. If he continues wasting time trying to move the needle on foreign policy, he is likely to lose.
The neoconservatives are giving Gov. Romney bad advice. They have repeatedly trashed him on background in the media for not paying enough attention to foreign policy, claiming that focusing on it more would help him win. The facts are not on their side.
If Romney wanted to win the election based on a foreign policy bump, he would have two tasks before him: to make foreign policy a salient issue, and to make voters prefer him on that issue. On the first task, in every poll asking for voters’ top priority, foreign policy/war/terrorism comes in under five percent. However much GOP foreign policy people don’t like it, this election will turn on the economy.
Second, voters prefer Obama to Romney by 15 percent on foreign policy generally, and by 11 percent specifically on foreign policy in the Middle East. Even after the Obama administration’s poor handling of the violence in Egypt and Libya, voters preferred Obama’s response over the Romney camp’s demagoguery by a margin of 45 to 26.
Focusing on foreign policy will not win Romney the election. And if he loses, as in 2008, the Republicans will have the neoconservatives to blame. Whether they would choose to accept the lesson of 2008 and 2012 is another question altogether.
The presidential campaign will focus on foreign policy for a few hours on Tuesday when President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York City while his Republican challenger Mitt Romney will address the Clinton Global Initiative just a few miles away. Each will try to wring some political advantage from speeches that are generally directed at foreign audiences.
Neither candidate is likely to come out a winner, although for different reasons. It will be difficult for President Obama to convince the electorate and the world that U.S. policies, particularly in the volatile Greater Middle East, are succeeding. But Mitt Romney’s challenge is greater. He must convince voters that his policies would result in tangible gains. It isn’t clear that they would, however, nor that his policies are sufficiently different from the president’s to convince voters to change horses in mid‐stream.
The president is likely to call for staying the course. Echoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks from last week, he will try to convince the people of the Middle East that the United States remains their friend and partner, and he will tell skeptical Americans that the feeling is mutual. He may point to the large quantities of aid that U.S. taxpayers have sent to the region to win points with foreign audiences, but this risks alienating the voters here at home.
Obama may also emphasize that the United States intends to maintain a large military presence in the region so as to, as Secretary Clinton said last week, “help bring security to these nations so that the promise of the revolutions that they experienced can be realized.” But foreign listeners aren’t convinced that the United States has helped bring security to anyone, and they certainly don’t want U.S. help now.
Obama’s message to Americans, delivered between the lines of his UN speech, is that the United States cannot afford to disengage from the region. Be patient, Obama will say. Many decades of trying to manage the political affairs of other countries, often with the heavy hand of the U.S. military, has carried high costs and delivered few clear benefits, but it could have been worse.
Not so, says Romney and the Republicans. President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world has clearly failed, they claim. The Cairo speech in 2009, followed by the belated support for anti‐Mubarak protesters in Egypt in 2011, and finally the decision to use U.S. military power to topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, don’t appear to have purchased us much good will. On the contrary, anti‐American sentiment is running high, higher even than when Obama took office, according to some polls. The violence against U.S. officials and property merely punctuates the grim statistics, and invites ominous parallels to 1979.
But while Obama’s task will be difficult, Mitt Romney has an even higher hill to climb. He must differentiate his policies from the president’s and persuade U.S. voters, especially, but also the skeptics abroad, that his policies would be much better. His surrogates have implied that the events of the past fortnight certainly would not have occurred had Romney been in the Oval Office, but they haven’t explained how or why that is true.
Meanwhile, the few concrete policies that Romney champions are deeply unpopular in the region, and not much more popular with U.S. voters. His calls to add nearly $2 trillion in military spending over the next decade suggest a willingness to increase the U.S. military presence around the world, but especially in the Greater Middle East. Most Americans want U.S. troops to be brought home. His leading foreign policy adviser has criticized the Obama administration for refusing to intervene in the Syrian civil war. This suggests that the problem with U.S. policy has been too little meddling in the internal affairs of foreign countries, whereas most Americans believe that there has been too much. And Romney did not endorse Sen. Rand Paul’s effort to tie U.S. aid to conditions, so it is hard to see how he can score points against President Obama by promising to stick with the status quo.
However, all of these other issues pale in comparison to the most visible U.S. policy in the region of the past decade: the Iraq war. That disastrous conflict will hang heavily over Romney’s speech, as it has over his entire campaign, and over the GOP for several election cycles. Although most Americans now believe that the war never should have been fought, and most non‐Americans never thought that it should have been, Romney refuses to repudiate it. On the contrary, he has staffed his campaign with some of the war’s leading advocates. Given his famous aversion to anything that might be construed as an apology, Romney is unlikely to evince any doubts about the war in his speech on Tuesday. But if he wants to convince voters that he will be a more capable steward of U.S. foreign policy than Obama has been, he must at least explain what lessons he takes away from an unpopular war. Otherwise, his implicit assertion that it couldn’t get any worse will fall flat with those who believe that it certainly could.
Karl Rove’s and Ed Gillespie have written a piece arguing that the conventional wisdom is wrong because a) foreign policy can be made into a big issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, and b) Obama is vulnerable on the subject. I did not find the piece persuasive at all, and my disagreement with it has produced not just a podcast on the subject, but an appearance on bloggingheads. The University of Kentucky’s Robert Farley and I discuss a range of subjects, from the Rove/Gillespie piece, to burning Qurans in Afghanistan, to the future of U.S.-China relations. To give you a flavor, here’s a clip where I denounce the GOP foreign policy establishment:
For what it’s worth, I think the only way to solve the problem I identify above is a decades‐long project to build a counter‐counterestablishment of foreign policy thinkers who could staff the foreign policy wing of a notionally sensible GOP presidential candidate. I have not yet read this book, but in reading reviews of it, my understanding is that it does a good job describing how the neocons built their counterestablishment, which I think by now has essentially become the establishment. The neoconservative insurgency benefited from remarkable largesse from their funders, a large bench of aspiring policy professionals, and a sharp‐elbowed ability to successfully fight within bureaucracies. If people wish to reverse the course of GOP foreign policy, I suspect a similar effort will be needed on the part of realists. (We’re working on it. Happy to talk to any Democrats, too.)
For the entire bloggingheads video, go here. For my podcast on the Rove/Gillespie piece, go here. For my prior denunciation of the Beltway foreign‐policy establishment, here.
My thanks to Farley and the bloggingheads people for having me on.
Prominent conservatives continue to sputter about President Obama’s announcement that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by year’s end. GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry charges that the president was “irresponsible” for making that announcement, thereby “letting the enemy know” the date when U.S. forces would leave Iraq. Council on Foreign Relations writer Max Boot makes a similar argument, as do several other neoconservative pundits.
But as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Obama did not set the December 31, 2011 deadline. George W. Bush did in an agreement with the Iraqi government that he signed in late 2008. One then has to ask whether Perry and other critics of Obama believe that Bush was being “irresponsible.” And if so, it is curious that virtually none of them have made that argument — or even hinted at such a conclusion.
That apparent double standard begs some other questions. The principal reason why Obama’s effort to modify the Bush agreement so that a residual U.S. force could remain after 2011 failed was that the administration refused to accept the Iraqi government’s demand that American troops be subject to Iraqi law. Are conservatives arguing that he should have made that concession? If so, their position is totally inconsistent with the position they have taken with respect to other countries that host U.S. troops. Indeed, fears that American military personnel might be subject to prosecution under foreign laws and in foreign jurisdictions have been a major reason for the intense opposition to U.S. involvement in the International Criminal Court.
Conversely, if Obama’s critics believe that U.S. troops should not be exposed to possible prosecution in a judicial system that has few of the due process protections that are considered the norm in the United States, how do they suggest that the administration get the Iraqi government to change its stance? Most of their criticisms on that front consist of little more than inane generalities that Obama should have shown greater leadership or engaged in more effective diplomatic bargaining. But how, precisely, should he have done that? Washington was not exactly in a position to order Baghdad to accept U.S. demands on the jurisdictional issue. And Prime Minister Nouri al‐Maliki knew that he would be risking political suicide if he capitulated to U.S. pressure and accepted a policy that is wildly unpopular with the Iraqi people.
Are conservatives implying that the Obama administration should have overridden Iraqi objectives and just imposed our will? Ethical issues aside, that would certainly require far more than the limited number of troops the U.S. has in Iraq at the moment, and it would likely re‐ignite a widespread insurgency directed against a continuing U.S. military occupation.
The utterly inconsistent and incoherent position that most conservatives have taken on the troop withdrawal issue underscores the bankruptcy of the overall Iraq policy that they’ve pushed since early 2003. They’re frustrated that the Iraq mission has not gone as planned, and they fear — quite correctly — that once U.S. forces have departed, the waste and futility of that mission will become glaringly obvious to all except a shrinking contingent of true believers. What we’re seeing now is a mixture of partisan politics and a temper tantrum in response to that disagreeable reality.
Cross‐posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.
The interest in New Jersey governor Chris Christie as a possible 2012 presidential candidate is understandable. His tough line against state spending, his willingness to take on entrenched interests in the Garden State, and his candor and blunt manner of speaking all appeal to Republicans weary of the current candidates. But while his views on domestic policy are relatively clear, Christie’s foreign-policy views aren’t. Indeed, governors have little reason to speak out on foreign-policy issues unless they run for president.
Without a track record, however, no one can know how a former governor will perform what is arguably a president’s most important job: deciding whether, where and when to deploy U.S. troops abroad. Recall George W. Bush’s plea for a humble foreign policy and his senior foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice’s assertion that the U.S. military should not be in the business of "escorting kids to kindergarten" in foreign lands. This was all forgotten by the time that Bush and Rice exited Washington eight years later. Rice essentially recanted her earlier opposition to nation building, and Bush had presided over a foreign policy that was anything but humble.
With that huge caveat in mind, can we venture a guess about Chris Christie’s foreign policy views? Not quite. But this passage from Christie’s speech at the Reagan Library hints at a measure of humility and pragmatism that is long overdue:
The United States must…become more discriminating in what we try to accomplish abroad. We certainly cannot force others to adopt our principles through coercion. Local realities count; we cannot have forced makeovers of other societies in our image. We need to limit ourselves overseas to what is in the national interest so that we can rebuild the foundations of American power here at home.
Such sentiments strike most Americans as eminently sensible. Numerous polls show that Americans want to stop fighting other people’s wars and building other people’s countries. Most believe it is better to husband our power and deploy our military abroad only when vital U.S. security interests are threatened. We should lead by our example, build a society that others wish to emulate, and avoid the temptation to meddle in other people’s affairs.
Not so, says William Kristol, Weekly Standard editor and Fox News commentator. In a famous essay co-authored with Robert Kagan in 1996 the two made the case for “benevolent global hegemony.” Kristol and Kagan especially took issue with those conservatives who:
succumb easily to the charming old metaphor of the United States as a "city on a hill."
Because…the responsibility for the peace and security of the international order rests so heavily on America's shoulders, a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor.
So why would Kristol be pushing Christie to run for president?
Brad Thompson’s excellent new book, Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, adroitly dissects this pernicious political philosophy. He has received some criticism for attempting to demonstrate that Leo Strauss, the philosophical godfather of so many neocons, had a certain sympathy with fascism. Indeed, while stating that he is not saying neoconservatives have fascist designs, Thompson does suggest that their philosophy could pave the way to a kind of “soft fascism.” Far be it from me to pass judgment on such academic debate, but it is interesting to consider the following from the noted neocon columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks, writing in that paper on March 10:
Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise. Our lives are given meaning by the service we supply to the nation. I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project.
In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank rounds up a lot of bills introduced into state legislatures by conservatives, some of them a bit odd, and blames them all on “the Tea Party.” “Tea Party” has sort of replaced “neoconservative” as an all‐purpose pejorative for liberals. Meanwhile, a tiny AP story down in the small type among the nail fungus ads reported some real Tea Party‐style news. The Miami Herald covered it in more detail:
Voters swept Miami‐Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez out of office by a stunning margin Tuesday [88 percent], capping a dramatic collapse for a politician who was given increased authority by voters four years ago to clean up much‐maligned county government but was ushered out in the largest recall of a local politician in U.S. history.
The spectacular fall from power comes after two years of missteps, ranging from granting top staffers big pay hikes to construction of a publicly funded stadium for the Florida Marlins to implementation of a property‐tax rate increase that outraged an electorate struggling through an ugly recession.…
Tuesday’s vote served notice that the public is thirsting for widespread reform at County Hall, long dominated by entrenched politicians and insiders. County Commissioner Natacha Seijas was similarly recalled Tuesday in a resounding defeat. For 18 years she represented a district that includes Miami Lakes and Hialeah and was widely regarded as the most powerful politician on the commission.
The two ousters come on the heels of Dorrin Rolle’s defeat in November, which marked the first time a sitting county commissioner has been defeated in 16 years.
More than 200,000 people cast votes in the election.
Miami is no right‐wing hotbed. Obama got 58 percent of the vote there. This should worry tax‐hikers everywhere.