Monday, September 17, 2012

Why Foreign Policy Matters In 2012

It is a well-worn commonplace in U.S. presidential politics that foreign
policy does not matter much to voters in choosing their chief executive.
It is domestic policy which matters, we are told, and voters make their
electoral judgments on either the economic performance of a first-term
incumbent or when there is no incumbent, the performance of the party
in power.

Recent history confirms that this is generally correct, and most recently,
in 2008, it was certainly so, following two terms of President George W.
Bush, and the mortgage banking meltdown which occurred during the
final weeks of the presidential campaign. Republican nominee John
McCain that year clearly had superior foreign policy experience, but in
spite of much more experience in economic policy as well, seemed inept
in dealing with the sudden economic crisis. His opponent, Democrat
Barack Obama, had no visible experience in any governmental policy,
but all he needed to do was offer the prospects of new policy which he
skillfully did with his oratory and his slogan of “hope and change.”

We have a different kind of election in 2012. The incumbent this year
was the challenger in 2008. His economic record, simply put, is that after
almost four years, his policies have not solved the chronic problems of
unemployment, lack of economic growth and recovery which he
inherited. His one major domestic achievement, healthcare reform
(known as Obamacare) is unpopular, controversial and expensive in
terms of increasing national debt. Its unpopularity was a catalyst for
major Republican congressional victories in 2010.

Nevertheless, the campaign remains apparently close. Mr. Obama’s
Republican opponent this time, Mitt Romney, has both public and
private experience, the latter including an adult lifetime of successful
business management. Mr. Obama and his campaign team have
attempted to make Mr. Romney’s business experience controversial,
and have spent huge sums in campaign advertising doing so, but there is
no indication that they have been successful. On the other hand, Mr.
Romney has had little foreign policy experience.

In the recent flare-up in the Middle East, including assaults on our
embassies and consulates in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and many other
nations, President Obama’s reaction has seemed to many to be weak
and apologetic. He and his supporters see it differently, of course,
because Mr Obama has pursued a policy of trying to improve the
American public image with Arab countries since the beginning of
his term, a policy of apologizing for past U.S. policy while at the same
time keeping an arm’s length from our ally in the region, Israel. This
policy, right or wrong, has had consequences, but there was hope in
the Obama administration that their efforts were paying off with the
eruption of the so-called “Arab Spring” in which several Middle East
nations overthrew existing regimes for new ones.

Recent developments, however, signal that the Obama approach to the
Middle East is not working as intended. Demonstrations of
anti-American attitudes have taken the form of assaults on our
embassies and, in one tragic case, the assassination of our ambassador
to Libya and three of his colleagues. Efforts by the administration to
significantly improve diplomatic security in the Middle East by sending
in Marines have not been received well by host nations, and in at least
one instance, refused. At the same time, Mr. Obama and his
spokespersons have asserted that the demonstrations were not really
anti-American, something which is plainly not true.

Mr. Romney, after an initial criticism of the Obama Middle East policy,
has turned his attention to domestic issues. Like Mr. Obama in 2008,
he need not try to second-guess the crisis; after expressing his
disagreement, he can let the public make its own judgment if it wants
more of the same or  new “hope and change” in foreign policy under
his leadership.

The economy is still the number one matter on voters’ minds. The
election will be decided in states where economies have suffered in the
current downturn. But the fragile condition of U.S. foreign policy in
the face of international fiscal and military challenges has taken on a
new urgency. In 1952, it was former General Dwight Eisenhower who
won on the promise he would “go to Korea,” presumably to solve the
Truman policies of a prolonged Korean War.  President Eisenhower
seemed in command in the face of the Hungarian and Suez Canal
crises of 1956. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson was able to portray
his opponent Barry Goldwater as a foreign policy extremist in the
Cold War, but four years later, Richard Nixon made a comeback
exploiting the public dissatisfaction with Johnson’s policy in
Viet Nam. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won a last-minute landslide victory
against President Jimmy Carter whose policy to return U.S. hostages
in Iran was failing.

So foreign policy issues have a way of intruding on American presidential
politics, and the prolonged decline of U.S. status in the world, both
economically and militarily,  makes it likely this intrusion will occur in
2012 If Mr. Obama’s foreign policies are perceived as by voters
as failing, Mr. Romney ironically need not do anything more than
indicate he offers the “hope and change” of a different policy. He can
then concentrate in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign on the issues
of domestic policy and the economy which are foremost on the minds of

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

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