Foreign Policy: The Home Stretch
by gname, Thu Dec 20, 2007 at 03:13:09 PM EST
As the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary rapidly approach, the "real" presidential campaign is about to begin. The first actual votes are about to be cast, lending a visceral certainty to a campaign season that has at times seemed amorphous and detached. As it has throughout the campaign, foreign policy is shaping both the candidates and the way voters perceive them. But in the final days of 2007, some surprises are emerging, both in the United States and abroad. As events unfold in the coming weeks, competing notions of foreign policy "experience" may have an unforeseen role in how the primary season enters the New Year.
In recent weeks, both the Democratic and the Republican fields have witnessed late challenges to the prevailing front runners. The successes of Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee are unique phenomena, but some have suggested that they share a common root: Neither candidate has much in the way of traditional foreign policy "experience," and with good news (or no news) recently emerging from the "axis of evil" countries of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, voters are becoming less concerned with international affairs.
On the surface, this argument has some merit. In Iraq, U.S. military deaths have declined from 126 in May 2007 to 37 in November 2007. Casualties among Iraqi security forces and civilians have also declined, although they still remain high. This trend is at least partly the result of shifts in U.S. policy. The "surge" of troops into Baghdad that began early in 2007 is increasing security in that city (although the decline in violence there is also attributable to a greater segregation of Sunni and Shia neighborhoods), and the U.S. policy of cooperating with Sunni tribal leaders against al Qaeda-inspired elements in their midst is also bearing fruit. At this point, the reasons behind the relative decline in bloodshed have little bearing on the intra-party primary campaigns--Republican candidates generally support the war, while Democrats generally do not. But voters in both parties are getting the impression that things in Iraq aren't as bad as they once were.
Such good news, or the perception thereof, has also emanated from Iran. In December 2007, a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was released that cast significant doubt on Iran's nuclear program. Specifically, it "judge[d] with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." It further noted that, "the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure, suggest[ing] Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously." This remarkable assessment contradicted years of foreboding rhetoric from the Bush administration, which recently suggested that Iranian nuclear know-how would be a harbinger of World War III. The NIE greatly diminished the likelihood of a direct military confrontation between the United States and Iran, at least over the short-term. Almost overnight, Iran has been relegated from a seemingly imminent threat to a rational, deterrable actor. Consciously or not, this perception may be leading voters in the early primary and caucus states to de-emphasize traditional foreign policy "experience" in their evaluation of the presidential contenders.
In a similar vein, the once-imposing threat presented by North Korea has seemed to recede in recent months. In February 2007, an agreement was reached in the six-party talks that would lead to a full disclosure and ultimate abandonment of North Korea's nuclear program. The implementation of the agreement has fallen behind schedule--North Korea will likely miss the December 31, 2007 deadline of fully disabling its Yongbyon nuclear facility. But the fact that the agreement was reached, and that all parties agree that it is being implemented, goes a long way toward mitigating the perceived threat from North Korea. In fact, in a move that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, President Bush recently wrote a letter directly to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, urging him continue fulfilling the six-party agreement. Addressing the man he once called a "tyrant" and a "pygmy" more respectfully as "Dear Mr. Chairman," Bush wrote, "I want to emphasize that the declaration [of North Korea's nuclear programs] must be complete and accurate if we are to continue our progress."
Taken together, the recent news from Iraq, Iran, and North Korea makes the "axis of evil" seem a little less so, conceivably opening the door to candidates with less in the way of traditional foreign policy "experience." For the Democrats, the front runner status of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has rested in large part on her foreign policy credentials: her perceived "experience" and her perceived "strength." But in terms of foreign policy "experience," the differences between Clinton and Obama have never been terribly stark. The only way a legislator can gain foreign policy "experience" is by serving on a relevant committee--something that both Clinton (on the Senate Armed Services Committee) and Obama (on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee) have done. Clinton has differentiated herself, however, on the matter of "strength," especially of the military variety. Her initial support for the Iraq invasion and her vote in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment in September 2007--which declared that U.S. forces in Iraq should be used to deter Iranian influence--positioned her as more hawkish than many of her fellow Democrats. Obama, on the other hand, opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and has consistently advocated for a more direct and transparent form of diplomacy than Clinton. His expressed openness to meet with leaders of unfriendly countries, such as Iran, appears prescient in the wake of the latest NIE (for more, see The Water's Edge, August 2007).
For the Republicans, the picture is somewhat murkier. Depending on the poll, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, or Senator John McCain (R-AZ), could each stake a reasonable claim to front runner status. Each could argue, in their own way, that they possessed foreign policy "experience:" Giuliani was mayor of New York during the 9/11 attacks, Romney was an international businessman, and McCain is war veteran and longtime member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But in recent weeks, Huckabee has emerged out of seemingly nowhere to take the lead in many statewide polls and to make impressive gains in national polls. As a former governor of Arkansas, he would struggle to make even a strained claim to foreign policy "experience." But his newfound popularity generates newfound scrutiny, and every serious presidential contender must present his foreign policy thinking. Huckabee certainly has done this, most recently in an article in Foreign Affairs. He takes some shots at the current president, suggesting, "the Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad." He says that a Huckabee administration, "will recognize that the United States' main fight today does not pit us against the world but pits the world against the terrorists" without "surrender[ing] any of our sovereignty."
The real question, though, is whether good news abroad is serving to de-emphasize the importance of foreign policy in the primary race, opening the door to traditionally inexperienced candidates like Obama and Huckabee. Although attempting to rationalize electoral preferences is a risky business, there does appear to be some correlation with the good news from abroad and the late surges in the primary. But correlation is not causation. The casualty figures from Iraq may be declining, but U.S. soldiers are still dying on a daily basis and the military is only becoming more strained. Meanwhile, little progress has been made toward political reconciliation among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups. Iran may have suspended its nuclear program in 2003, but why did U.S. intelligence agencies get it wrong in their 2005 NIE? What if they're wrong now? And even if North Korea is moving to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure, it remains a source of uncertainty in an increasingly dynamic region of the world. Despite appearances to the contrary, the world beyond U.S. borders is still there, and it's still deeply troubled. To assume that good news (or no news) from overseas trouble spots would lead voters to forget that--especially in the midst of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--is to dangerously underestimate the U.S. electorate.
The movement in the primary race is more likely due to the simple vagaries of presidential politics--surprises, especially late in the game, should be expected. But the rise of Obama and Huckabee, and indeed the rise and fall of any presidential candidate, raises questions about the true nature of foreign policy "experience." Although a presidential contender can master the legislative process by serving in the Senate or acquire keen executive skills by serving as governor, he or she cannot gain true foreign policy expertise just by holding elective office. Perhaps more than any other policy domain, foreign policy emphasizes style as much as substance. A candidate may never have been Secretary of State or held an ambassadorship, but if they speak about international affairs in a clear, consistent, and logical manner, a voter could reasonably expect the candidate to conduct their foreign policy in a similar way (for more, see The Water's Edge, September 2007). As the January caucuses and primaries approach, that may be all that voters have to go on.