Your humble blogger has not been shy in stating that he now votes in presidential elections based largely on foreign policy considerations. Nor has he been shy in expressing his... er... exasperation with various foreign policy kerfuffles during the campaign. So as Election Day approaches, you might wonder -- what will Daniel Drezner do? [Oh, give me a f**ing break, just get on with it!!--ed.]
With Barack Obama, there's an actual record to judge.... and I think it would be best to call it mixed. The Economist, in its Obama endorsement, noted the following:
[On] foreign policy... he was also left with a daunting inheritance. Mr Obama has refocused George Bush’s “war on terror” more squarely on terrorists, killing Osama bin Laden, stepping up drone strikes (perhaps too liberally, see article) and retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan (in both cases too quickly for our taste). After a shaky start with China, American diplomacy has made a necessary “pivot” towards Asia. By contrast, with both the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and his “reset” with Russia, he overreached and underdelivered. Iran has continued its worrying crawl towards nuclear weapons.
All these problems could have been anticipated. The Arab spring could not. Here Mr Obama can point to the ousting of tyrants in Egypt and Libya, but he has followed events rather than shaping them, nowhere more so than with the current carnage in Syria. Compared with, say, George Bush senior, who handled the end of the cold war, this aloof, disengaged man is no master diplomat; set beside the younger Bush, however, Mr Obama has been a safe pair of hands.
I think that's a decent assessment, although it overlooks what is, to me, the most troubling element of Barack Obama's first-term foreign policy legacy -- his management of the foreign policy process. As my Foreign Policy colleague Rosa Brooks has written about in agonizing detail, the dysfunction that was talked about in Obama's first year in office hasn't disappeared along with Osama bin Laden.
Indeed, the aftermath of Benghazi puts this on full display. To be blunt, for all the GOP efforts to make the lack of pre-attack planning an indictment of the White House, consulate security in Benghazi is not the kind of decision that rises to the White House level. The aftermath of the attack is another story, however. In the past 24 hours alone, report after report after report after report shows Obama's foreign policy agencies defending their own turf, leaking to reporters in ways that heighten bureaucratic dysfunction, and revealing the White House's national security team to be vindictive and petty.
Benghazi also highlights a deeper problem with this administration -- the lack of policy follow-through. Whether one looks at the Iraq withdrawal or the rebalancing to Asia or the Afghanistan build-up or their embrace of the G-20, the story is the same. Even if the administration had demonstrated good first instincts, it has failed to follow up those instincts with either next steps or contingency planning.
So, the biggest indictment of the Obama administraion's foreign policy has been poor management. Which, as it turns out, is Mitt Romney's genuine strength, as Ezra Klein points out in his excellent Bloomberg column this AM:
Romney’s apparent disinterest in an animating ideology has made him hard to pin down -- for the Journal editorial board, for journalists, for Democrats and Republicans, for campaign consultants, even for Romney’s closest confidantes. It has led to the common knock on Romney that he lacks a core. He’s an opportunist. He picks whatever position is expedient. He is a guy with brains, but no guts.
But after spending the last year talking to Romney advisers and former colleagues, as well as listening to him on the campaign trail, I’ve come to see this description as insufficient. It’s not so much that Romney lacks a core as that his core can’t readily be mapped by traditional political instruments. As a result, he is free to be opportunistic about the kinds of commitments that people with strong political cores tend to value most.
What Romney values most is something most of us don’t think much about: management. A lifetime of data has proven to him that he’s extraordinarily, even uniquely, good at managing and leading organizations, projects and people. It’s those skills, rather than specific policy ideas, that he sees as his unique contribution. That has been the case everywhere else he has worked, and he assumes it will be the case in the White House, too.
This jibes with all the chatter I hear about Romney as well. Which should lead you to think that Romney might be exactly what ails American foreign policy.
The thing is, Romney's own foreign policy rhetoric makes it clear that managing foreign policy isn't enough. As he's said, the president has to be a foreign policy leader. A president has much greater leeway on these issues than on other policy dimensions. A good foreign policy president needs to be genunely interested in the subject, possess good foreign policy insincts, and rely on a core set of ideas that allows him or her to make tough decisions in a world of uncertainty. As I wrote last year:
[A] philosophy of "I won't say anything until I know all the facts" is bogus because, in foreign policy, the facts are never all in. Very often intelligence is partial, biased, or simply flat-out wrong. It's those moments, when a president has to be a foreign policy decider for a 51-49 decision, that a combination of background knowledge and genuine interest in the topic might be useful.
When I use these criteria to think about Mitt Romney, he doesn't do very well. Every conversation with every Romney advisor confirms the same thing: this is not a guy who has engaged deeply in international affairs. He was perfectly happy to go all neocon-y in the primary season to appeal to his base, and then tack back to the center in the general election to appeal to war-weary independents. He's not doing this because he's dishonest; he's doing this because he doesn't care. His choice of foreign policy neophyte Paul Ryan as his VP pick confirms this as well: Romney/Ryan has the least foreign policy experience of any GOP ticket in at least sixty years.
Furthermore, in the moments during this campaign when Romney has been required to display his foreign policy instincts, he's foundered badly. He stuck his beak into the Chen Guangcheng case when silence was the better option. He did the same thing in the aftermath of the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, going so far as to accuse Obama of "sympathizing" with terrorists. As for his overseas trip, well, the less said, the better. All of these episodes show a guy who's out of his depth on matters of foreign affairs. And when he's been criticized in taking these stances, Romney has responded by doubling down on a bad position. His political instincts have led him to some bad foreign policy choices.
I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about as Obama as, say, Jonathan Chait, but his endorsement of the president makes an interesting point:
It is noteworthy that... the best decisions that Obama made during his presidency ran against the advice of much of his own administration.... Many of his own advisers, both economists steeped in free-market models and advisers anxious about a bailout-weary public, argued against his decision to extend credit to, and restructure, the auto industry. On Libya, Obama’s staff presented him with options either to posture ineffectually or do nothing; he alone forced them to draw up an option that would prevent a massacre. And Obama overruled some cautious advisers and decided to kill Osama bin Laden.
On foreign policy, Barack Obama might be an indifferent manager, but by making his first decision the right one, he has saved himself numerous embarrassments and reversals.
This was a closer call than I expected, and I honestly hope (and think there's a good chance) that if Mitt Romney is elected, he'd grow into his foreign policy role with time. For this analyst, however, Barack Obama is the imperfect, but superior, alternative.
And now the bitter political invective in the comments.... begin!!
Your humble blogger enjoyed his time in Mexico City. He particularly enjoyed last night's dinner, at which the most delicious margaritas he had ever consumed were served. It is possible that he should not have enjoyed that last of his many margaritas, however, because he is now extremely cranky and waiting to board his flight back to the United States.
I bring up the crankiness because it's possible I'm overreeacting to the announcded format and topics for Monday night's foreign policy debate. Politico's Mike Allen -- via Dylan Byers -- relays the following:
[H]ere are the topics for the October 22 debate, not necessarily to be brought up in this order:
* America’s role in the world
* Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan
* Red Lines – Israel and Iran
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – I
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – II
* The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World...
The format calls for six 15-minute time segments, each of which will focus on one of the topics listed above. The moderator will open each segment with a question. Each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Following the candidates’ responses, the moderator will use the balance of the 15-minute segment to facilitate a discussion on the topic.
So two-thirds of the debate will be about the Greater Middle East. Two-thirds. Schieffer has generously allowed that China and
Tomorrowland the entire Pacific Rim should get fifteen minutes. Here are the following areas and topics that apparently won't be discussed:
1) The eurozone crisis
2) Latin America
5) Foreign economic policy
7) North Korea
Now I get that some of these topics won't come up in a foreign policy debate that lasts only 90 minutes. But I'm also thinking that maybe, just maybe, it would be a better foreign policy debate if they actually talked about, you know, SOMETHING OTHER THAN THE MIDDLE EAST!!!!!!
I'm not saying the Middle East isn't important -- we have lost blood and treasure there, some of it very recently. But I simply do not believe that the region is so important that it should occupy 66.7% of a foreign policy debate.
That could just be the hangover talking. But I seriously doubt it.
Am I mising anything? No, scratch that -- what else is Schieffer missing in his misbegotten list of foreign policy topics?
I suspect that most of today's foreign policy post-mortems about last night's town hall debate will focus on the Libya question, in which, according to Taegan Goddard, "Obama acted like a president in the exchange while Romney was much less. It was Romney's Gerald Ford moment." He's not the only one to make this assessment. I'm not sure I would go that far, but Romney did manage to convert a pretty strong initial response to the question into a bad, bad moment for him.
But let's be honest: regardless of whether you think Romney exaggerated in his description of Obama's Libya response or Obama exaggerated in his rejoinder, those were not the biggest foreign policy whoppers told during this debate. Not by a long shot.
If we're going to engage in real-keeping, then let's acknowledge that both candidates fudged, exaggerated, or flat-out lied on just about everything pertaining to foreign economic policy during last night's debate. It was a truly bipartisan fib-fest. I could go through the debate transcript line by line, but let's just hit the highlights. At varous points, one or both of the candidates tried to convince undecided voters of the following:
1) Energy independence is the cure for what ails the U.S. economy;
2) The U.S. loses from trade with China, and tougher trade enforcement will fix that;
3) Free trade with Latin America will create millions and millions of jobs;
4) The only reason China is doing well comparatively is that it's keeping its currency undervalued; and finally
5) Illegal immigration is threatening the American economy.
Let's inject a little reality here, shall we? Repeat after me:
1) Because most energy sources are traded in global markets, energy independence has zero effect on the economy (though there might be a few security dividends).
3) Perfect trade enforcement would have only a marginal impact on employment;
5) Illegal immigration into the United States "has been in reverse for several years."
If the foreign policy debate next week has as much mendacity as this one on the global economy, your humble blogger will be passed out in a drunken stupor by 9:30 PM.
Conor Friedersdorf has an provocative essay over at The Atlantic in which he states a few hard truths about the state of the GOP on foreign policy... and then goes to a very strange place. The hard truths first:
President Obama's foreign policy is vulnerable to all sorts of accurate attacks. But Mitt Romney, the Republican Party, and the conservative movement are totally unable to exploit them. This is partly because the last four years have been spent advancing critiques so self-evidently implausible to anyone outside the movement that calling attention to them seems impolite. There is no factual basis for the assertion that Obama rejects American exceptionalism or that he embarked on an apology tour or that he is allied with our Islamist enemy in a "grand jihad" against America; or that his every action is motivated by Kenyan anti-colonialism. And while those critiques are especially inane, they aren't cherry-picked to discredit conservatives; they're actually all critiques advanced by prominent people, publications, and/or Republican politicians.
The fact that the vast majority of conservatives give no indication of having learned anything from the Iraq War is an even more significant reason that the GOP has lost its traditional edge on national security issues, with a majority of Americans telling pollsters they trust Democrats more.
OK, I'm with him so far. But then we get to how Friedersdorf thinks the GOP should ground its criticism:
So what could an opposition party less dysfunctional than Republicans say about Obama's foreign policy?
1) The Afghan surge turned out to be a failure that cost a lot of American lives and money with little if any lasting benefit.
2) In the course of the successful Bin Laden raid, the Obama Administration ran a fake vaccination campaign that failed in its mission to get the fugitive's DNA, failed to stay secret, and undermined public health efforts in Pakistan and elsewhere for a generation -- a catastrophic bungle that could conceivably make the world more vulnerable to a pandemic in the future.
3) Obama's main counterterrorism strategy, secretive CIA drone strikes in multiple Muslim countries, scatters terrorists to more countries than they'd otherwise be in, arguably creates more terrorists than it kills over time, and has definitely killed hundreds of innocent people at minimum.
4) Agree or disagree with the idea of intervening in Libya, the way President Obama went about it violated the U.S. Constitution, the War Powers Resolution, and an Obama campaign promise.
There are a lot more critiques of Obama's foreign policy. It's instructive to focus on these because they're just the sorts of things you can't attack if your party defines itself as most hawkish; totally discounts the importance of things like public health compared to military operations; doesn't pay any attention at all to dead innocents killed by America; and has totally abandoned Madisonian notions of checks and balances when it comes to national security policy (emphasis added).
I don't necessarily disagree that these lines of attacks exist -- but I also don't think that Friedersdorf comprehends the history of the GOP on foreign policy -- and I'm not just talking about the post-Cold War era. As Colin Dueck noted in his book Hard Right, the Republicans have been branding themselves as the more hawkish party since Thomas Dewey faded from the scene. Sure, the Ron Paul wing would love these lines of attack -- but I don't think either the rest of the GOP or the rest of the country for that matter is gonna dislike the drone strategy.
I agree that the GOP has made its mistakes in its foreign policy critiques, but the kind of conceptual pivot that Friedersdorf expects Republicans to make strikes me as pretty absurd.
So what should the GOP do? I'm not entirely sure, but I do know two things:
1) The Republican Party can't summarily reject the hawk brand it's built for more than a half-century;
2) Unless and until the GOP acknowledges that Iraq was a tragedy and a mistake, it will be as enfeebled on foreign policy as the Democratic Party was on this issue for a generation after the Vietnam War went south.
It appears that I owe Mitt Romney a partial apology. In yesterday's blog post I quoted from a video procured by Mother Jones' David Corn regarding Romney's perspective on the peace process between Israel and Palestine. The tape suggested that Romney had zero hope for peace. As Politico's Dylan Byers notes, however, the unedited version of the tape contained the following passage right after Romney had said that an ex-Secretary of State had told him that there was a prospect for a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis after the Palestinian elections. After Romney said he didn't "delve" into it, he then added the following:
But I always keep open: the idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world. We have done that time and time and time again. It does not work. So the only answer is show them strength. American strength, American resolve, and the Palestinians will some day reach the point where they want peace more than we’re trying to force peace on them. Then it’s worth having the discussion. So until then, it’s just wishful thinking (emphasis added).
OK, so it would appear that Romney does proffer a way of getting the two sides to talk. My deepest apologies to Governor Romney for only printing the part of the statement that Mother Jones initially released.
And yet... I have anothert question now. I fear that Romney's "more resolve" strategy -- a theme he's echoed since making these comments in May -- raises more questions than answers.
For exhibit A, let's go to the Financial Times' Najmeh Bozorgmehr, who interviewed Speaker of the Iranian Parliament (and possible future PM) Ali Larijani. Here's what he had to say to Bozorgmehr about Mitt Romney:
Military action against Iran would be “highly costly” for the US and threats issued by Mitt Romney as he tries to become the next American president are campaign rhetoric only and can be largely ignored, Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Iranian parliament, has told the FT.
Mr Romney has sought to portray himself as much tougher on Iran than President Barack Obama and more sympathetic to Israel’s concerns. But Mr Larijani is unimpressed, saying the Republican candidate has the “little bit of wisdom” needed to understand the consequences of waging war on the Islamic Republic.
So it would seem that Mr. Larijani doubts Romney's strength and resolve. This is a problem. Romney's Theory of Statecraft seems to be that all U.S. problems in the world can be soled with Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength. Now, even one accepts this premise, the failure of adversaries to believe Romney's promises means he's gonna have to display even more Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength to convince people that he is being strong... and resolute.
The thing is, though, even Romney's allies doubt his strength and resolve... at least, they doubt his strength and resolve with respect to his China policy:
Mitt Romney is hoping his tough talk on China policy will win him votes — but few of his big business donors or fellow Republicans support what he’s saying or believe he’d follow through if elected.
And if he did, many analysts say, he’d likely spark a disastrous and counter-productive trade war that would hurt both American consumers and the workers he says he’s trying to protect....
An actual Romney policy, many corporate executives believe, would have the same kind of focus on bringing cases before the World Trade Organization and negotiating behind closed doors — the same approach of Obama and George W. Bush.
“On his first day on the job, Romney is not going to put himself on the immediate defensive with the world’s second largest economy,” said one top financial industry executive who strongly supports Romney....
Romney hopes his tougher words will make Obama look weak. But the question remains whether Romney’s tough talk is just that: talk.
“It’s kind of a head scratcher,” said the senior financial services executive who supports Romney but questions his China policy. “Is this just rhetoric or is this really the view of the candidate?”
Now, to be fair, it's not just Romney supporters who don't believe Romney's resolve on China. A Bloomberg Global Poll of 847 "decision makers in finance, markets and economics" showed that 82% of respondents were skeptical that Romney would designate China as a currency manipulator, for example.
So we have a presidential candidate who thinks the way to get things done is to show resolve -- but neither his allies nor his adversaries believe Romney's own resolve. Which leads to the following question: is it possible that there is simply no amount of Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength that will allow Romney to bend the rest of the world to his will? And if that's the case, what's his fallback option?
When we last left off, your humble blogger was speculating on the ways in which foreign policy had cost Mitt Romney during the campaign. In this post I want to expand on that theme -- with an assist from the just-released-this-very-minute-from-embargo 2012 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy.
To set the table:
1) Despite the expectations of some Republicans, the traditional economic variables that affect a presidential campaign aren't tilting the needle towards Mitt Romney. As the New York Times' Jeff Sommer reports:
For a year in which a truly dismal economy sealed the electoral fate of an incumbent president, [Ray Fair] says, look at 1980, when President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. In the nine months leading up to that election, per capita gross domestic product actually declined at an average annual rate of 3.7 percent, while inflation increased at an annual rate of 7.9 percent.
Professor Fair estimates that the comparable numbers for President Obama are G.D.P. growth of 1.62 percent and inflation of 1.51 percent. The low inflation rate is a plus for the president, while the mediocre G.D.P. growth rate is a problem — though not a fatal one.
“You can quite properly call this economy ‘weak,’ ” he said, “but it’s nothing like what Carter faced.” Mr. Reagan’s overwhelming victory “fit the economic picture perfectly,” he said. “This is a different situation.”
He added: “If the economy were significantly weaker or significantly stronger — if we were in a recession or if economic growth were really dramatically better — we’d have a much clearer picture of who would win the election. But the economy remains in a range of mediocre growth. It puts us in the margin-of-error range.”....
Professor Fair will compute a fresh prediction based on data available in late October, but at this stage the political probabilities aren’t likely to shift very much, he says. “It looks as though this will be a horse race, a very close one,” he says.
If it's a horse race, then one of the horses has pulled into an ever-so-slight lead. Both FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver and Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen note that the conventions have given a small but crucial advantage to the incumbent. VandeHei and Allen talked to both campaigns, and here is the best hope for the Romney camp:
[W]hen you dig into the small slice of undecided voters (probably only 6 percent to 8 percent of the electorate, according to the campaigns), the demographics are not favorable to Obama: mostly white, many with some college education, economically stressed, largely middle-aged.
Obama officials have maintained for several weeks that there are too few undecided voters for Romney to get the bounce he needs from the debates. “Romney is not going to win undecided voters 4-to-1,” a senior administration official told reporters on Air Force One on Friday. “If you are losing in Ohio by 4 or 5 points and trailing in Colorado by 2 points, if you are trailing in Nevada by 2 or 3 points, you are not going to win in those states."
So, for Romney to win, he's going to have to run the table with the tiny sliver of undecided independents.
And here is where foreign policy becomes a real problem for Mitt Romney -- because if the Chicago Council results are accurate, independents basically want the exact opposite of what Mitt Romney is selling them.
Let's stipulate that a President Romney might not actually do what he's promising during the campaign -- certainly the smart money doesn't believe him. Still, based on his rhetoric to date, let's also stipulate that Romney really wants America to lead the world. He wants to boost defense spending rather than cut it. He certainly wants to give the appearance that he would pursue a more hawkish policy towards Iran, Syria, Russia, North Korea, China and illegal immigrants than Barack Obama.
That's great -- except it turns out most of America -- and independents in particular -- want pretty much the opposite of that. Indeed, as Marshall Bouton says in the Foreword to the report:
Over time, Independents have become more inclined than either Republicans or Democrats to limit U.S. engagement in world affairs. Because Independents are an increasing share of the electorate, this development in American public opinion warrants attention.
If you read the whole report, what's striking is how much the majority view on foreign policy jibes with what the Obama administration has been doing in the world: military retrenchment from the Greater Middle East, a reliance on diplomacy and sanctions to deal with rogue states, a refocusing on East Asia, and prudent cuts in defense spending.
As for Romney, here are some excerpts from the report that suggest where the entire country -- and independents in particular -- are drifting away from his foreign policy rhetoric:
This survey demonstrates a strong desire to move on from a decade of war, to scale back spending, and avoid major new military entanglements. The lesson many Americans took away from the Iraq war—that nations should be more cautious about using military force to deal with rogue nations—appears to be taking hold more broadly (p. 13)....
Along with the lessons learned from a decade of war and a reduced sense of threat, Americans are also keenly aware of constraints on U.S. economic resources. When asked whether the defense budget should be cut along with other programs in the effort to address the federal budget deficit, 68 percent of Americans say the defense budget should be cut. This is up 10 points from 58 percent in 2010 (p. 15)....
The most preferred approach to ending [the Iranian nuclear] threat, endorsed by 80 percent, is the one that the UN Security Council is pursuing: imposing tighter economic sanctions on Iran. Essentially the same number (79%) approve of continuing diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium. Consistent with this strong support for diplomatic approaches, in a separate question, 67 percent of Americans say the United States should be willing to meet and talk with Iranian leaders (p. 29)....
Republicans see greater threats in nearly all areas tested in the 2012 survey. They are more likely than Democrats and Independents to view U.S. debt to China, immigration, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iran’s nuclear program as critical threats (p. 42).
It would appear that Americans -- particularly independents -- have become even more realpolitik than they were when I wrote this five years ago. Or, to put it more pungently, poll results like these are the kind of thing that will make John Bolton really angry and Jennifer Rubin really scared and William Kristol and the rest of the Weekly Standard gang all hot and bothered -- and not in the good way.
Now, I strongly suspect that this won't matter to most undecideds. Foreign policy really isn't a high priority for most voters. That said, there are three ways in which this could matter.
First, undecideds likely hold that position because they haven't paid a lot of attention to the campaign yet. As they start to, it's going to be easier for them to process the rhetorical differences on Iran than on health care. So if Romney is going to attract the bulk of these undecideds, he's going to do it despite his foreign policy pronouncements -- not because of them. In an election where a 2% advantage seems insurmountable in a lot of states, even tiny disadvantages matter.
Second, the Obama campaign seems to be quite eager to micro-target key audiences on foreign policy/national security, as VandeHei and Allen note in their story:
Obama’s plan is to slice and dice his way through myriad campaigns, all distinct, all designed to turn on — or off — very specific subsets of voters in specific states or even counties. Republicans concede Obama is better organized in the areas getting hit with the micro-campaigns....
The Obama plan also focuses on students with an education message; veterans in states that include Virginia, Florida, Colorado and Nevada; housing in Nevada and Florida, where the market tanked; and military families in Virginia, Florida and Colorado (emphasis added).
I am willing to bet that these groups are not going to be keen to hear anything about a more bellicose foreign policy, and Romney's waning competency on the issue won't help.
Third -- and finally -- look at it this way: if the economy doesn't produce the national poll movements that the Romney campaign wants, they'll have to shift to secondary issues. For the last forty years, the GOP has been able to go to foreign policy and national security. If Romney does that this time, however, he'll alienate the very independents he needs to win.
Could Romney/Ryan simply retool their foreign policy message for the general election to allay the concerns of independents and undecideds? No, I don't think they can. For one thing, it's simply too late to rebrand. For another, when cornered on these questions they seem to like doubling down on past statements. Finally, I get the sense that one reason Romney sounds so hawkish is because the campaign thinks it's a cheap way to appeal to the GOP base. Deviating from that script to woo the undecideds will only fuel suspicion of Romney's conservative bona fides.
So maybe, just maybe, foreign policy will matter a little bit during this election. And not in a way that helps Mitt Romney.
Am I missing anything?
The New York Times' Peter Baker wrote a pretty shrewd article pointing out that for all the differences in rhetoric, the actual foreign policy content of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney look pretty damn similar.
Of course, even if the policies would be similar, the execution and rhetoric matter. While I didn't think Romney's "disconcerting" line about the Olympics was all that bad in context, it wasn't a good day for his campaign. And while the Jerusalem leg of his trip seemed to please the Israelis, Romney still managed to stir up a hornets nest of trouble:
Mitt Romney told Jewish donors Monday that their culture is part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the Palestinians, outraging Palestinian leaders who suggested his comments were racist and out of touch with the realities of the Middle East. Romney's campaign later said his remarks were mischaracterized.
"As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality," the Republican presidential candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who ate breakfast at the luxurious King David Hotel.
Romney said some economic histories have theorized that "culture makes all the difference."
"And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things," Romney said, citing an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances and the "hand of providence." He said similar disparity exists between neighboring countries, like Mexico and the United States.
The CIA World Factbook has a rather different assessment of what ails the Palestinian economy:
Despite the Palestinian Authority's (PA) largely successful implementation of economic and security reforms and the easing of some movement and access restrictions by the Israeli Government in 2010, Israeli closure policies continue to disrupt labor and trade flows, industrial capacity, and basic commerce, eroding the productive capacity of the West Bank economy.
So, Israel/Palestine is not a great example. And let's also stipulate that it's not... diplomatic to say that a foreign jurisdiction's development has been poor because of their culture. And let's skip over Romney's bad data and the public fallout and the White House glee and get to the really geeky question: is Romney right more generally? As Ashley Parker points out, Romney has made this "culture" argument before:
In the speech, Mr. Romney mentioned books that had influenced his thinking about nations — particularly “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” by David S. Landes, which, he said, argues that culture is the defining factor in determining the success of a society....
The argument comparing Israeli and Palestinian vitality is one Mr. Romney has made previously — in speeches and in his book “No Apology” — and one that he has used to explain economic disparities between other countries, as well.
Indeed, in No Apology, Romney uses the same David Landes quote from page 516 of Wealth and Poverty of Nations -- "culture makes all the difference" -- three separate times. I wish, however, that Romney had read onto page 517:
On the other hand, culture does not stand alone. Economic analysis cherishes the illusion that one good reason should be enough, but the determinants of complex processes are invariably plural and interrelated. Monocausal explanations will not work. The same values thwarted by "bad government" at home can find opportunity elsewhere.
It's that last sentence that suggests where Romney might be off base. As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have argued recently in Why Nations Fail, it's not culture that matters as much as political institutions. From p. 57:
Is the culture hypothesis useful for understanding world inequality? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that social norms, which are related to culture, matter and can be hard to change, and they also sometimes support institutional differences, this book's explanation for world inequality. But mostly no, because those aspectys of culture often emphasized -- religion, national ethics, African or Latin values -- are just not important for understanding how we got here and why the inequalities in the world persist.... they are mostly an outcome of institutions, not an independent cause (emphasis added).
The kind of gaps in economc output that Romney likes to stress are of so recent a vintage that institutions are the more likely driver of what's going on than culture. One can't assert, for example, that culture explains why South Korea is outperforming North Korea or why West Germany was more prosperous than East Germany. Acemoglu and Robinson don't get the final word on this -- this remains an unsettled question -- but their hypothesis is of a more recent vintage than Landes.
So no, I don't think Romney is right -- but it's still an open debate. That said, if this is what he actually believes, then there would be some profound implications for development policy if he was elected president. Chaging political and economic institutions is hard work -- but it is doable through policy. Changing culture is next to impossible -- they change, but at a glacial pace. So when Romney says he thinks culture is the key, it's another way of saying that he doesn't think the United States, World Bank or any policy tool out there is really going to promote economic growth in the least developed world.
That said, I will give Mitt Romney credit -- his political gaffes -- as opposed to those of his staff -- generate some damn fine debates.
What do you think?
The Romney campaign has come in for a fair amount of criticism in the past week or so. Most of this is fairly typical summer doldrums stuff, but some of it has to do with Romney's foreign-policy musings -- or lack thereof. On this issue in particular, William Kristol, Gerry Seib, Fred Kaplan, and, er, your humble blogger have been pillorying the campaign for a near-complete lack of substance.
According to Politico's Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, the Romney campaign seems to have been listening:
Mitt Romney’s campaign is considering a major foreign policy offensive at the end of the month that would take him to five countries over three continents and mark his first move away from a campaign message devoted almost singularly to criticizing President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy, sources tell POLITICO.
The tentative plan being discussed internally would have Romney begin his roll-out with a news-making address at the VFW convention later this month in Reno, Nev. The presumptive GOP nominee then is slated to travel to London for the start of the Olympics and to give a speech in Great Britain on U.S. foreign policy.
Romney next would fly to Israel for a series of meetings and appearances with key Israeli and Palestinian officials. Then, under the plan being considered, he would return to Europe for a stop in Germany and a public address in Poland, a steadfast American ally during the Bush years and a country that shares Romney’s wariness toward Russia. Romney officials had considered a stop in Afghanistan on the journey, but that’s now unlikely.
Sources stressed that the trip was still being planned but will be finalized internally this week, and some of the details are subject to change. While Romney is likely to lash Obama in his VFW speech, he’s expected to restrain his remarks about the president when speaking abroad.
Huh. Now, obviously, I can't comment on the content of any of these speeches. Still, the country selections are themselves revealing, as Burns & Haberman elaborate on in their Politico story. How do those choices stack up? Laura Rozen was a bit skeptical, tweeting that "his reported itinerary only seems 25 yrs out of date." Kristol responded in the Politico story by urging Romney to go to Afghanistan.
My initial response falls more into the Larry David camp on this one. The goal of a trip like this is twofold: to try to demonstrate some kind of foreign-policy gravitas, and to draw a distinction between one's foreign-policy views and that of the opponents. The second part is really tricky to do overseas, because one of the few norms of comity left in Washington is that public officials aren't supposed to criticize a sitting president's foreign policy in foreign lands. Romney can finesse this by going to countries where he thinks he can foster a stronger bilateral relationship, in contrast to Obama (it would be more awkward for him to go to countries where he thinks the U.S. should be less friendly, so I think we can rule out stops in Moscow and Beijing).
By that standard, this is a decent list. The stops in Israel and Poland highlight the frictions the Obama administration's rebalancing and reset strategies have created in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Going to Germany allows Romney to ding Obama on economic policy, as Romney is clearly more sympatico with Angela Merkel's austerity strategy.
If I were planning the itinerary, however, I'd suggest two additional stops. First, India. That's another country where bilateral relations have cooled off a bit during the Obama years. It's also one of the BRIC economies, which would allow Romney to disprove Laura Rozen's charge of being out-of-touch with current geopolitical realities. Second, Seoul. This would allow Romney to blast North Korea with invective while talking about his vision for the Pacific Rim.
What do you think? Where would you have Romney go visit?
Dear Governor Romney,
Congratulations on securing the GOP nomination and earning a roughly 50/50 shot at becoming president in January 2013. It was an ugly primary fight, but you're passed it and have been consolidating your right flank. Politically speaking, nicely done.
Now, I know you want this campaign to be about the economy, the economy, and the economy, but can we talk about foreign policy for just a little bit? Because if you don't talk about international relations, your advisors are gonna continue to bitch and moan to the press, like they did this week to Rich Oppel at the New York Times and Eli Lake at Daily Beast.
This will be an ongoing problem for you, because an emerging meme is that your campaign has remarkably little policy content. Your campaign didn't handle immigration terribly well, for example. Indeed, on foreign policy, you've actually been a bit more forthcoming than on other policy dimensions. The thing is, what you've said in recent months has prompted... er... well... either mockery or derision. No one knows whether you're the second coming of neoconservatism or a more realpolitik foreign policy leader. This lack of certainty is making a lot of people itchy.
One of your consistent themes has been to bash President Obama because "his positions in foreign policy have not communicated American strength and resolve." The thing is, if you can't even control your own foreign policy advisors from blabbing to anyone and everyone who writes about foreign policy, well, then you're not really communicating strength and resolve either, are you?
We agree that this election should primarily be about the economy. But I suspect we also agree that voters need to be comfortable with a presidential candidate as a commander-in-chief and a foreign policy leader. After four years, President Obama has carved out a record that is not without blemishes but is pretty clearly above the bar in terms of foreign policy competence. The burden is on you to demonstrate that you can be above the bar as well. So far, all you've demonstrated is that you might be better at foreign policy than Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, or Rick Perry, which is a really low bar.
President Obama has made a hash of his policy towards Israel and Palestine. Relations with Pakistan, Russia, India and Canada have cooled off considerably since the Bush years. America's relationship with Latin America and Africa seems uncertain at best. Cybersecurity remains an inchoate mess. On foreign economic policy, it's not clear at all that Obama can get the G-20 to agree on anything and the Doha trade round is dead, dead, dead. There's clearly room for improvement, and American foreign policy benefits from a vigorous marketplace of ideas. So show some leadership, get your team in line, and articulate a foreign policy vision that goes beyond the vague nostrums of "An American Century."
Seriously, get it together.
Daniel W. Drezner
So it turned out that this was the week that both the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign decided that foreign policy was an important thing to talk about during election season. Speaking personally, this is great!! I seem to have moved up in the Rolodex of those covering the campaign. Expect lots of juicy quotes in the months to come, and readers are warmly encouraged to proffer useful metaphors that I can provide in soundbite fashion over the next six months.
Unfortunately for the Romney campaign, this was not a great week to ramp up attacks along this line. The reasons is that, all told, the Obama administration had a pretty good foreign policy week. Not all, or even most of this, was of its own doing, but consider the following:
1) Iran has signaled a genuine willingness to talk compromise on its nuclear program in order to avoid the EU oil embargo kicking in. That might just be rhetoric, but it's interesting to note that even senior Israeli officials are starting to talk down the Iranian threat. The less Iran becomes a thing, the
lower gas prices can fall better for the administration.
2) The United States has maybe, just maybe, eliminated a major thorn in bilateral relations with Japan by finally reaching agreement on moving U.S. troops from Okinawa. We'll see if this holds -- everyone assumed that a 2006 agreement had put this problem to rest before successive Japanese governments
shot themselves in the foot raised it again, but this is the thing on this list for which the administration deserves the most credit. As an added bonus, the administration actually got some nice words from John McCain on comity with the Senate.
3) For some reason China seems to be in a more productive mood in their dealings with the United States, and Mark Landsler and Steven Lee Myers have taken notice in the New York Times:
For years, China stymied efforts to pressure Iran. Now, in addition to throwing its weight behind the sanctions effort, officials say, Beijing is also playing a more active role in the recently revived nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers — the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany. While in past negotiations, Beijing has followed in lockstep the positions taken by Russia, this time Chinese diplomats are offering their own proposals.
“One of the key elements of making this work is unity among the major powers,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic exchanges. “The Chinese have been very good partners in this regard.”
There are also signs of new cooperation on Syria. Only weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called China’s veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution “despicable,” China is supporting Kofi Annan’s peace plan for the strife-torn country and is deploying monitors to help oversee it. Even on North Korea, which China has long sheltered from tougher international action, the Chinese government quickly signed on to a United Nations statement condemning the North’s recent attempt to launch a satellite.
And there is progress on the economic front: American officials said China recently loosened trading on its currency, the remninbi, which could help close a valuation gap with the dollar that has stoked trade tensions between China and the United States during an election year.
To some seasoned observers of China, these developments are less a harbinger of a new era of cooperation between Beijing and Washington than evidence that, at least for now, the interests of the two countries coincide in some important areas.
The administration will nevertheless be happy to pocket the policy dividends.
4) Staying in Northeast Asia, it turns out that the big bad North Korean ICBMs are little more than a pipe dream -- and western analysts are starting to say that Kim Jong Un is naked in the public square:
North Korea tried to flex its military might with an extravagant parade on April 15, just three days after it admitted that its missile test had been a failure, but analysts now say that the new intercontinental ballistic missiles on display in the meticulously choreographed parade were nothing more than props.
The analysts studied photos of the six missiles and came to their conclusion for three primary reasons: 1. The missiles did not fit the launchers that carried them. 2. The missiles appear to be made out of both liquid-fuel and solid-fuel components that are unable to fly together. 3. The casings on the missiles undulate which suggests the metal is not thick enough to hold up during flight.
"There is no doubt that these missiles were mock-ups," Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker, of Germany's Schmucker Technologie , wrote in a paper recently posted on Armscontrolwonk.com. "It remains unknown if they were designed this way to confuse foreign analysts, or if the designers simply did some sloppy work."
If the U.S. government can claim progress on Iran, China, North Korea, and Japan in one week, that's a good foreign policy week. Of course, for a lot of these issues, the administration is the beneficieary of circumstances rather that pro-active policies. Still, the administration deserves some credit for some of these development.
It's just one week, though. And I fear the most memorable statement about American foreign policy is this rather unfortunate choice of words:
NOTE TO WHITE HOUSE/CAMPAIGN SPEECHWRITERS: In the future, avoid having Biden utter any of the following: "big stick", "hard power", "pounding the enemy", "won't take no for an answer", and "smooth-talking his adversaries".
Am I missing anything?
ABC News reports on a "hot mic" moment between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev:
At the tail end of his 90 minute meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev Monday, President Obama said that he would have “more flexibility” to deal with controversial issues such as missile defense, but incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to give him “space.”
The exchange was picked up by microphones as reporters were let into the room for remarks by the two leaders.
President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.
President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…
President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.
Now, compared to past "hot mic" moments, this certainly seems less, well, profane. Nevertheless, it has gotten the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin all hot and bothered about the hidden Obama that will emerge in 2013:
It’s helpful to have a vivid illustration of this, but is there anyone who thinks Obama, should he get a second term, wouldn’t run wild with policies and positions that the majority of the electorate oppose? Otherwise, he’d roll them out now, of course....
Elections are taken as mandates by elected officials and the media (even if the message is less clear than the winner would have us believe).
In sum, the election is not simply a referendum on President Obama’s actions to date; it’s essentially a blank check for the president’s second term. Romney should be asking wary independent and moderates: Is there a scintilla of a chance that Obama would be less liberal in a second term?
Rubin's logic seems pretty clear: Obama is really a liberal, and free of political constraint -- particularly on the foreign policy remit -- he'll revert to type. There's just one problem: based on recent evidence, there's an excellent chance Obama will be less liberal in the second term.
Consider the last three two-term presidents: Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43. I'll grant this is a very small sample, but bear with me. Did their second-term policies look different from their first-term?
You bectha. Reagan tacked in a decidedly liberal direction with respect to the Soviet Union, switching from rhetoric about the "evil empre" to cutting substantive arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Clinton, on the other hand, tacked in a more conservative direction. After being enamored of multilateralism and leery of using fore in his first term, he became more comfortable with using force and using it outside of UN strictures in his second term. Finally, Bush 43's second terms was decidedly more liberal. In his first term, he declared an "Axis of Evil" and invaded Iraq without UN support. In his second term, however, the Bush administration was decidedly more dovish, working through the UN on both Iran and North Korea, demonstrating a willingness to directly negotiate with the Iranians, and refusing to use force in Syria. This, by the way, is why claiming a continuity between Bush 43 and Obamas is not quite as much of a political jab as people like to claim. The dfifferences between Bush in 2003 and Bush in 2008 were massive.
Now, these narratives are not really as clean as the last paragraph suggests. Reagan also embraced Iran/Contra in his second term. In Clinton's second term he pushed hard to address US arrears to the UN. And Bush had some elements of
compasionate conservatism liberalism in his first term, what with PEPFAR and a refusal to declare a clash of civilizations following the 9/11 attacks.
What's striking, however, is that recent second-termers have not reverted to their ideological bliss point -- if anything it's been the reverse, they've tacked away from their starting point. Part of this is circumstances. Reagan had, in Gorbachev, a real negotiating partner in his second term. Bush had to be more circumspect on Iran and North Korea after the cost and constraint of military operatons in Iraq and Afghanistan. All three presidents had less favorable legislatures in their second term than their first.
Still, it's not all about circumstances. What gives? I'd argue that precisely because presidents have fewer foreign policy constraints than dometic ones, they feel free to pursue their preferred set of policies from day one. Reality, however, quickly determines which ideas are working and which do not have any staying power. Over time, therefore, presidents change tack until they hit on a more successful formula. This usually means overcoming one's personal ideology and embracing new ideas.
I've argued that this is exactly what Obama has done in his first term -- and I'm hardly the only one. And, so, yes, contra Rubin, I think the notion that a second-term of President Obama will be the second coming of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty requires a willful misreading of Obama's first term of foreign policy -- as well as ignorance of the last thirty years of American foreign policy.
Am I missing anything?
The New York Times' Roger Cohen files an optimistic column today, arguing that predictions of American decline are premature. I tend to agree with Cohen's sentiment but not his logic because, well, it's God-awful. Here's the key bits:
Perhaps the most successful U.S. chief executive of the past decade is stepping down this month. Samuel Palmisano of I.B.M. has presided over a remarkable transformation of the technology giant, extracting it from the personal computer business and shifting it toward services and software to power a “Smarter Planet.”
In a fascinating interview with my colleague Steve Lohr, Palmisano said the first of the four questions in his guiding business framework was, “Why would someone spend their money with you — so what is unique about you?” At root, business is still about getting money out of your pocket into mine. By being unsentimental in making I.B.M. unique, Palmisano ensured a lot of money flowed the company’s way.
Profits followed. The stock price surged. Warren Buffett, who knows which way the wind blows, recently acquired a stake of more than 5 percent. I.B.M. has been re-imagined, not least in the way it has shifted from being a U.S. multinational to a global corporation powered by rapid expansion in growth markets like India and China.
The question arises: If an American colossus like I.B.M. can be turned around, can America itself? (emphasis added)
A small aside: if Cohen's logic is correct, then the 2012 election is over and everyone should vote for Mitt Romney. This kind of ruthless turnaround is exactly what Romney did while at Bain. While his track record can be disputed, there's no doubt that he was willing to be ruthless to increase profits. So, whether he knows it or not, Cohen is making the argument that a turnaround specialist like Romney would be just the ticket for the United States, transforming America's political economy into a leaner, more efficient engine for progress.
The thing is -- and this is kind of important -- governments are not corporations. I cannot stress this enough. There's the obvious point that in democracies, legislatures tend to impose a more powerful constraint than shareholders, making it that much harder for leaders to execute the policies they think will be the most efficient.
There's also the deeper point that it's a lot harder for governments to be "unsentimental" when it comes to the provision of public services. It's a lot harder for states to eliminate the functions that are less efficient. Frequently, demand for government services emerges because of the perception that the private sector has fallen down on the job in that area. This means that the government has been tasked with doing the things that are difficult and unprofitable to do. It is precisely because these government outputs are often so hard to measure that Newt Gingrich's claims about Six Sigma sound pretty laughable. Even libertarians who want the government to reduce its operations drastically will acknowledge the political risks and costs of trying to execute this plan.
To be fair, there are some policy dimensions where this analogy holds up better. Cohen implicitly argues that America's willingness to jettison costly and inefficient foreign ventures -- cough, Iraq, cough -- is an example of this kind of turnaround strategy. Fair enough. Even on foreign policy, however, it's hard to execute this kind of ruthless efficiency. Israel is prosperous enough to not need the $3 billion it gets in U.S. aid. Good luck to anyone trying to cut that. Africa is not a vital strategic areas of interest for the United States, but I suspect AFRICOM isn't going anywhere. I've been a big fan of getting the United States out of Central Asia, but critics make a fair point when they observe that the last time the United States tried this gambit, Al Qaeda took advantage of it.
There's been a lot of bragging in the 2012 primary about candidates that have "real world" business experience, and how that translates into an effective ability to govern. That logic is horses**t. Being president is a fundamentally different job than being a CEO -- because countries are not corporations.
Following up on Newt Gingrich and his assessment of threats, I see that the New York Times has a William J. Broad front-pager on Gingrich's obsession with the possibility of adversaries using an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) against the United States:
[I]t is to the risk of an EMP attack that Mr. Gingrich has repeatedly returned. And while the message may play well to hawkish audiences, who might warm to the candidate’s suggestion that the United States engage in pre-emptive military strikes against Iran and North Korea, many nuclear experts dismiss the threat. America’s current missile defense system would thwart such an attack, these experts say, and the nations in question are at the kindergarten stage of developing nuclear arms.
The Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon that maintains an arsenal of ground-based interceptors ready to fly into space and smash enemy warheads, says that defeating such an attack would be as straightforward as any other defense of the continental United States.
“It doesn’t matter if the target is Chicago or 100 miles over Nebraska,” said Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman. “For the interceptor, it’s the same thing.” He called the potential damage from a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack “pretty theoretical.”
Yousaf M. Butt, a nuclear physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who last year did a lengthy analysis of EMP for The Space Review, a weekly online journal, said, “If terrorists want to do something serious, they’ll use a weapon of mass destruction — not mass disruption.” He said, “They don’t want to depend on complicated secondary effects in which the physics is not very clear.”
Mr. Gingrich’s spokesman, R. C. Hammond, did not respond to e-mails asking for comment. But the candidate, a former history professor and House speaker, has defended his characterizations as accurate. At a forum in Des Moines on Saturday for military veterans, Mr. Gingrich said an electromagnetic pulse attack was one of several pressing national security threats the United States faced. “In theory, a relatively small device over Omaha would knock out about half the electricity generated in the United States,” he told the veterans.
I'm neither a security expert nor a rocket scientist. After reading Broad's article, the Space Review annalysis, the rebuttal to that analysis, and Sharon Winberger's excellent FP write-up from last year, however, I'm reasonably confident that the threat posed by EMP is remote for the near-to-medium future. The scenarios in which an EMP would affect the United States rely on a) rogue states making serious leaps forward in their ballistic missile technology and nuclear engineering; and b) those same actors deciding that it's in their national interest to launch a first strike against a country with a reliable second-strike nuclear deterrent.
Nevertheless, I can see why Newt Skywalker would be concerned. Most of the taking-EMP-threat seriously essays harp on the devastating effect of such an attack. Surely, Gingrich would argue, even a small possibility of this actually happening justifies at least some investment into countermeasures and preventive actions. Indeed, Gingrich has explicitly made that argument:
Without adequate preparation, its impact would be so horrifying that we would basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds.... I think it's very important to get people to understand now, before there is a disaster, how truly grave the threat is.*
Fair enough... let's be generous and say there's a 10% chance of this being a real problem over the next two decades. If that's the case, maybe Gingrich is right to bring it up as an underestimated threat.
Here's my question, however. If we're talking about threats to civilization as we know it, isn't there another possibility that has a much higher probability of occurring -- let's say, better than 50% at least -- and a similarly lax amount of preventive action? Like, say, climate change?
As Uri Friedman and Joshua Keating have documented for FP, however, Gingrich's assessment of that threat has changed recently. Last month, on this issue, he said the following:
I actually don't know whether global warming is occurring.... The earth's temperatures go up and down over geologic times over and over again. As recently as 11,000 years ago the Gulf Stream quit for 600 years. And for 600 years you had an ice age in Europe because there was no warm water coming up. And then it started up again. Nobody knows why it quit, nobody knows why it started up. I'm agnostic.
This is fascinating. On the one hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the planet that commands the consensus of an overwhelming majority of experts in the field. On the other hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the United States that commands nowhere close to the same level of consensus. Based on his rhetoric, Gingrich wants urgent action to be taken on the latter, but not the former. Why?
I'm not bringing this up to suggest that Gingrich is a buffoon. He could plausibly argue that a lot of people are harping on climate change while only Gingrich can call attention to the EMP possibility. It's possible that the costs of preventive action on climate change are much greater than dealing with EMP (though if that includes preventive attacks on Iran and North Korea, I'm dubious).
What I'm wondering is whether there is a partisan divide in assessing threats, as there is in assessing economic principles. I wonder if conservatives are far more likely to focus on threats in which there is a clear agent with a malevolent intent, whereas liberals are more likely to focus on threats that lack agency and are more systemic in nature (climate change, pandemics, nuclear accidents, etc.)
What do you think?
*Incidentally, this is the same logic I used to justify greater research into the threat posed by the living dead. Just saying....
Foreign policy didn't play much of a role at all in last night's GOP debate, but there were a few telling moments about Newt Gingrich's foreign policy worldview -- telling in that they scared the living crap out of your humble blogger.
The foreign policy portion was devoted entirely to Newt Gingrich's description of the Palestinians an "invented people". Gingrich doubled down during the debate, labeling all Palestinians as terrorists. When pushed by Romney on the wisdom of going further rhetorically than Israel's Likud government on this point, Gingrich fell back on the "I'm speaking blunt truths like Reagan when he called the USSR an 'evil empire'" gambit.
This is pretty odd. Last I checked Israel was a democracy, had a healthy amount of free specch, and has a ruling coalition that seems pretty hardline with respect to the Palestinians. I don't think the Israelis need an American candidate to speak truths to them that their government is hiding.
To be honest, however, that wasn't the scariest part of Gingrich's rhetoric. No, the part that set my hair on edge was during the last question on the night, when the candidates were asked what they'd learned from the other candidates.
Gingrich responded by praising Rick Santorum's "consistency and courage on Iran." He then added:
If we do survive, it will be in part because of people like Rick who've had the courage to tell the truth about the Iranians for a long time. (emphasis added)
Now, this was practically a throwaway clause, but still, how can I put this clearly.... this is f***ing insane. Totally, completely, utterly f***ing insane.
Even a nuclear-armed Iran led by the current regime of nutball theocrats cannot threaten America's survival. I get why the United States is concerned about Iran going nuclear, and I get why Israel is really concerned about Iran going nuclear. The only way that developments in Iran could threaten America's survival, however, would be if the US policy response was so hyperbolic that it ignited a general Middle East war that dragged in Russia and China. Which... come to think of it, wouldn't be entirely out of the question under a President Gingrich.
Gingrich's apocalyptic rhetoric will go down well with many neoconservatives and GOP hawks, but to resuscitate a point I've made before:
I'm about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don't equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Gingrich, as he is fond of pointing out nowadays, is a 68-year old grandfather and trained as a historian. He should know better than to sound as apocalyptic in his foreign policy statements as the very mullahs he lambasts.
As Andrew Sullivan (the only other debate-watcher who picked up on this line) observed, "Wow. Does Gingrich really believe that the US faces an existential threat from Iran? Or is he running for the Likud party?"
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.