Now that Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his running mate, the rumor, floated earlier in the summer, that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on Romney’s short list for vice president brought foreign policy briefly back into the presidential campaign limelight. Her name was probably floated because she would fill a gap in Romney’s résumé, but the trial balloon did briefly raise the question of which candidate would better lead the nation in international affairs.
The most interesting aspect of the campaign so far with respect to foreign policy is the dearth of discussion about international issues. Granted, everyone is focused on the economy, but even on that issue, the outside world does matter. The very real possibility of a complete meltdown of the European economies should be reason enough to care about the candidates’ foreign policy views.
But both campaigns are obviously steering clear of foreign policy.
On the surface, this one would seem to be a winner for the incumbent. After all, he has kept the country free of terrorist attack and he did “get” Osama bin Laden. He also was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize back in 2009, hard to believe though that was at the time (and is, perhaps even more, now.)
In addition, President Obama has withdrawn combat forces from Iraq, thereby bringing an end to that universally disliked war, and, after trying the equivalent of a “surge” in Afghanistan, he has made a commitment to pull combat troops out of that quagmire by 2014. All of these points would seem to be assets in a presidential campaign, but the Obama team doesn’t seem to want him or his surrogates to talk much about them.
Mitt Romney’s reasons for avoiding foreign policy issues might be a little easier to understand, since he has no real experience in the field (unless running the 2000 Olympics qualifies). What few things he has said have come across as wooden, half-hearted attempts to sound tough, as when he tried to sound more hawkish than Obama on Afghanistan, decrying an announced withdrawal date.
Romney also probably doesn’t want to give Obama a chance to remind everyone that he (Obama) initially opposed the invasion of Iraq, something Romney almost certainly supported at the time. (Even if he also opposed it, his record of taking both sides of any issue almost guarantees that he said something about that war that would not be helpful to his campaign now.) And Romney’s performance in the innumerable Republican debates hardly suggests that foreign policy is an area he is all that comfortable with.
But Obama also might not want to make much of foreign policy since his record is mixed in the eyes of his more liberal supporters. Many on the left have been disappointed in the hawkish positions Obama has taken on issues of human rights and with respect to the expanded use of drone missiles. In both areas Obama is regarded as at least as misguided as his predecessor, if not more so.
In this regard, his Nobel Peace Prize is almost laughably ironic. While Obama hasn’t been so brazen as to declare anything like the Bush Doctrine (which justified “preventative wars” such as the one initiated in Iraq), he hasn’t shied away either from using American military force or from encouraging allies to use theirs. And, in truth, neither approach to the resolution of international conflicts should qualify one for receipt of the Peace Prize.
If Obama has adopted a doctrine, it would appear to be one that says “we’ll use our military might whenever we decide it is in our national interest to do so.” And in exercising that doctrine, he has shown no respect for the constitutional prerogative granted to Congress to declare war, another point that angers liberals and aligns him with his predecessor.
On its face, a claim to use military force whenever the national interest dictates might seem less severe than the more specifically stated Bush Doctrine, but in fact they are pretty much the same. Bush claimed the right to wage war whenever a foreign sovereign constituted a threat to America’s security, whether that threat was imminent (thereby potentially justifying a claim of national self-defense) or prospective, thus constituting a clear violation of established international law (under the charter of the United Nations).
But Obama’s “doctrine,” while it might not appear to allow such unilateral and potentially illegal action, actually could, if the “national interest” were interpreted to mean “not being at risk of attack at any time in the foreseeable future.”
Thus, both doctrines are arrogant expressions of unfettered power by a government that shows no signs of learning the lessons of history. Those lessons should begin with the observation that any extension of U.S. military power in any part of the world is costly, often more costly than the gains supposedly realized.
The country certainly should have learned that lesson from Viet Nam, and it probably will end up learning that lesson from Iraq in the very near future as Iran extends its influence and makes its neighbor a surrogate of its anti-American posture. And it will inevitably end up learning it in Afghanistan when that country, at some point post-2014 ends up disintegrating again into tribal fiefdoms, many of which are controlled by anti-American Islamist warlords and Taliban ideologues.
Of course, Romney won’t call attention to any of these concerns, because, even if he personally agrees that they are real problems, he would run afoul of Republican orthodoxy if he espoused anything to the left of the sitting Democratic president.
And so we have a presidential campaign that is ignoring foreign policy and is instead degenerating into a contest of who can accuse the other of lying more on questions of whether the challenger did or did not run a company that did or did not outsource jobs or did or did not pay a fair share of income taxes.
In the end, the electorate would be well advised to look for another alternative, but, of course, there isn’t one. Instead, we have an electoral system that affirms the status quo, which is a dysfunctional government that is consumed with the need to defeat the opposing political party.
What a country!