So I woke up this morning to see that Barack Obama was re-elected with numbers that looked an awful lot like what Nate Silver et al said they would be. So, what does this mean? A few things:
1) Hopefully, political science will start to bleed into political coverage in the media in the same way that sabermetrics has successfully been grafted onto baseball coverage. This would be a very, very, very good thing. Seriously, it would be awesome if the Sunday morning talk shows actually started incorporating some political scientists into their roundtables as a matter of course.
2) A glance at the exit polls showed that Obama won the foreign policy question pretty handily. Only five percent of respondents thought that foreign policy was the most critical issue in this campaign -- but of those five percent, voters went for Obama over Romney by 56% to 33%. Voters were also more likely to trust Barack Obama in an international crisis (57%-42%) than Mitt Romney (50%-46%).
This is the first exit poll in at least three decades where the Democrat has outperformed the Republican on foreign policy and national security. And I guarantee that whoever runs from the GOP side in 2016 will not have a ton of foreign policy experience. The GOP has managed to squander an advantage in perceived foreign policy competency that it had owned for decades. This -- combined with shifts on social issues and demographics -- will be a problem that the Republicans are going to need to address.
3) It was interesting that Obama mentioned climate change in his acceptance speech.
4) Second-term presidents tend to pay more attention to foreign affairs, particularly as their lame duck status kicks in. Obama will be no different. Once the fiscal cliff issues are addressed, I predict that foreign economic policy will take the lead.
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!!
The Financial Times' Alan Beattie is in a grumpy mood about the 2012 campaign, which leads to a wonderfully cranky column about the appalling campaign rhetoric on the global economy:
Hypocrisy and exaggeration may be an inevitable part of any election campaign, but the discussions on international economics and trade have had experts in the field longing for next Tuesday’s vote to be over.
Herds of peaceably grazing policy wonks have been left shaking their heads in dismay as the marauding presidential campaigns have rampaged through their turf, leaving a trail of wrong-headed assumptions, non sequiturs and outright falsehoods strewn behind them....
Unfortunately, a realistic debate would involve admitting that some of the biggest international economic threats to the US are outside any administration’s influence, and thus destroy an implicit pact to maintain the myth of presidential omnipotence....
And, most likely, we’ll be back here again in four years’ time, with the challenger accusing the incumbent of selling out to China and letting jobs be shipped overseas and the incumbent, by accepting the premise of the attack, ensuring another debate about the global economy that takes place at an oblique angle to reality.
I'm moderately more optimistic than Beattie on what will happen next year on the foreign economic policy front regardless of who wins on Tuesday, but he's not wrong about the ridiculously stupid four-year political cycle.
Unfortunately, if foreign economic policy wonks were honest with ourselves, we'd have to acknowledge that the truth would not really be a big political winner, unless you think the following speech would really bring out the undecideds:
I strongly favor inking more trade and investment agreements on behalf of the United States. Yes, it's likely true that greater globalization is one of the lesser drivers for increased inequality in the United States. Oh, and no trade deal is going to be a jobs bonanza -- the sectors that trade extensively are becoming so productive that they don't lead to a lot of direct job creation. Will some jobs be lost from these deals? Probably a few, but not a lot. But on average, greater globalization will boost our productivity a bit, which will in turn cause the economy to grow just a bit faster, which will indirectly create some jobs. Goods will be cheaper, which benefits consumers. Oh, and by the way, there are some decent security benefits that come with signing trade agreements.
Finally, the rest of the world is going to keep signing free trade agreeements and bilateral invesment treaties whether we play this game or not. So we can choose to stand pat and have our firms and consumers lose out on the benefits of additional gains from globalization, or we can actually, you know, lead or something. Your call. Greater integration with the rest of the globe is no economic panacea, but the one thing we're pretty sure about is that most of the policy alternatives stink on ice.
Here's a challenge to foreign economic policy wonks -- can the above message be sexed up at all without overpromising? In other words, what would be the best possible campaign rhetoric about foreign economic policy that would have the benefit of also being true?
Your humble blogger has been
eating as much creme brulee as humanly possible in Paris attending a German Marshall Fund/Science Po conference on the 2012 election. Any conference where Mo Fiorina, Bruce Cain, and Greg Wawro talk shop is gonna be fun. Any conference where I'm on a panel with James Mann is gonna be... daunting.
That said, it was William Burke-White who made the most interesting policy observation. He argued that regardless of who would be president in 2013, it would be foreign economic policy that would take center stage for U.S. foreign policymakers. The more I think about it, the more I'm pretty sure he's right.
This is true in part because of what's in the pipeline already. The Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations are already under wa, with additional countries joining in. In the WTO, momentum to launch a plurilateral International Services Agreement is growing. The European Union and United States are "pre-negotiating" a transatlantic economic agreement that wouldn't exactly be a free-trade agreenent but is definitely more important than, say, a bilateral investment treaty. Speaking of which, the Obama administration finally crafted its own model bilateral investment treaty (BIT), and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced that BITs were being negotiated with China and India. Obviously, international trade and foreign direct investment take place regardlesss of whether these agreements exist or not -- but they do suggest greater levels of liberalization, particularly in the service sector.
Now, surely, you must think, whoever wins the election will affect the status of these agreements. Except that I don't. All of these deals are being negotiated by the Obama administration, so I think we can assume that the prsident has signed off on them. If Mitt Romney wins, I don't see him rejecting any of these agreements. If anything, he'll try to add to them. More free trade deals is part of his five point plan to create 12 million jobs
that will be created regardless of who is president. Intriguingly, when he's mentioned this plank in the last few debates, he mentions Latin America in particular. A shameless play for the Hispanic vote? Maybe, but I don't care.
Furthermore, regardless of who wins Congress, these are the kinds of deals that still fall under that shrinking category of "doable in a reasonably bipartisan fashion." If Romney wins I can see the Democrats in the Senate playing a bit more hardball -- but most of these deals would likely go through.
A United States that is both willing and able to sign more economic agreements is a good thing for the country -- oh, and it's a good thing for my argument that, contrary to expectations, global economic governance is doing a pretty decent job.
So, I'm intellectually happy... and I'm in Paris. I haven't felt less cranky since the start of the 2012 presidential election! So au revoir until Monday!!
Let's face it, we are at the stage in the U.S. presidential race when politics junkies like myself are feasting on the tiniest scraps of relevant information about the campaign. And, because I live next door to the swing state of New Hampshire, I'm getting bombarded with negative advertisements up the wazoo.
I bring this up because of the latest BBC poll:
A BBC World Service opinion poll has found sharply higher overseas approval ratings for US President Barack Obama than Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
An average of 50% favoured Mr Obama, with 9% for Mr Romney, in the survey of 21,797 people in 21 countries.
Here are the charts:
Now let's be honest -- this doesn't matter all that much from a foreign policy perspective. Obama scored similar numbers in 2008, and yet the signal lesson of his first year in office is that a president's personal popularity can't be leveraged into tangible concessions at the global stage.
Instead, all I see when I read these numbers are the negative taglines that could be played:
"Can we really trust a president who is super-popular in France? Of course not -- vote for Romney."
The country of Pakistan is a breeding ground for radical Islamic terrorists who want to destroy the United States -- and Pakistanis want Mitt Romney to be president. The choice is clear: vote for Barack Obama."
Readers are warmly encouraged to offer their own ways to twist this data into a negative ad.
Following last night's presidential debate on foreign policy, I'd like to offer three quick apologies:
1) To those readers playing my debate drinking game -- sorry, you got pretty hammered, didn't you? Sorry about that -- I forgot that the one thing conservatives love about the United Nations is the 2002 Arab Human Development Report. When Romney name-checked that, a lot of bottles had to be downed.
2) To those readers who read my quick take in the New York Times on Mitt Romney's pivot to moderation during last night's debate -- there's one crucial word missing. When I said, "Romney’s sotto voce message was that he would be a hot-headed, trigger-happy cowboy – like the Last Republican President Who Shall Not Be Named." I meant to say "Romney’s sotto voce message was that he would not be a hot-headed, trigger-happy cowboy – like the Last Republican President Who Shall Not Be Named."
3) Finally, to those readers who watched the whole debate -- I'm sorry, there wasn't much of a foreign policy debate, was there? Both candidates pivoted towards the economy frequently. When they stayed on foreign policy, Mitt Romney kept agreeing with Barack Obama. I nearly spit out my drink when Romney said the Afghanistan surge had "worked." Methinks he must have read this post from last month.
So -- to repeat -- I'm sorry.
Here endeth my apology tour.
Your humble blogg -- [Wait, screw that, you should be feeling pretty proud today!! -- ed.]
Your proud blogger will be watching tonight's foreign policy debate despite his near-certainty that it's not going to be all that illuminating or informative. He has no choice, as he has a prior commitment to watch the damn thing.
Now, in preparation for the debate, I could encourage you to read some excellent preparatory posts by Walter Russell Mead or Spencer Ackerman, or this essay on American incolvency in grand strategy by Michael Mazarr -- but that's no fun.
I could suggest following one of the foreign policy debate drinking games out there -- see the National Journal or Duck of Minerva, for example -- but these drinking games look exceptionally dangerous. Drink when Obama mentions bin Laden? Really? Or when Romney says "resolve"? No one would be upright after the first twenty minutes.
No, I think the only responsible thing to do is to suggest my own debate drinking game. The idea here is to sort the possible answer such that a true "black swan" event would have to occur for the participant to risk alcohol poisoning.
So, in that spirit:
THE OFFICIAL 2012 FOREIGN POLICY DEBATE DRINKING GAME
Take a sip of your drink if....
1. Either candidate makes a geographical mistake (like insisting that the West Bank borders Syria or something like that).
2. Obama says "I'm the commander in chief."
3. Romney says that the U.S. Navy is the smallest it's been since 1916 (a dubious claim).
4. Romney accuses Obama of turning the United States into Greece.
5. Anyone on the stage (including Bob Schieffer) mentions Australia, New Zealand or Canada.
Finish your drink if....
1. Either candidate mentions the benefits of trade with China.
2. Either candidate says that Latin America is a crucial strategic region for the United States.
3. Obama says that there's some wiggle room in the 2014 withdrawal date for U.S. combat forces for Afghanistan.
4. Romney says that that there's no wiggle room in the 2014 withdrawal date for U.S. combat forces for Afghanistan.
5. Anyone onstage acknowledges that China has pretty much stopped intervening to keep its currency undervalued.
Finish your bottle if....
1. Romney says anything positive about the United Nations.
2. Either candidate says that the United States needs to push hard for democratization in Saudi Arabia.
3. Either "Africa" or "Doha round" are mentioned.
4. Either candidate blasts Israel for keeping its currency severely undervalued.
5. Obama accuses Romney of a "speak loudly and carry a magic wand" doctrine.
DRINK YOURSELF TO OBLIVION IF AND ONLY IF....
1. Bob Schieffer asks the candidates what they would do in case of zombies.
Now I'm pretty sure that if you follow these rules, you'll enjoy tonight's debate without regretting that enjoyment tomorrow.
While I was getting drunk in Mexico, I see that the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs commissioned a poll of 600 "active voters" in Ohio and a similar amount in Florida to see what swing state voters think about foreign affairs. In Politico, Graham Allison and Mike Murphy co-author their take:
It has long been accepted wisdom that Americans “don’t know much about history, don’t know much geography”— to recall the words of a golden oldie. So most folks managing, covering, or watching current campaigns will be surprised to learn that the majority of likely voters in the critical swing states of Florida and Ohio not only know more about the world outside, but care more, and want to know more than most candidates imagine.
Well.... sort of. As Allison and Murphy acknowledge later on in the essay:
When asked what international issues they want to hear Romney and Obama speak to, the first responses are Iran’s nuclear weapons program and terrorism, far ahead of the global economy. Both in Ohio and Florida, by a margin of almost 2-1,voters believe the Arab Spring has affected American interests negatively, not positively. Voters have mixed views on U.S. global engagement and are split almost down the middle on isolationism. Given that Florida Republicans and independents overwhelmingly take the view the U.S. should pay less attention to problems overseas, two decidedly internationalist candidates will tread carefully.
But even those who oppose America taking a more active role in foreign affairs believe that understanding foreign affairs is essential because events abroad can increase the threat of terrorism or draw America into foreign wars. This is an especially relevant concern for these two states, where the majority have a relative who has served in the military.
Now on the one hand, this poll makes it clear that isolationists are not know-nothings -- even those individuals who don't want foreign entanglements want to know more about the world. Which is smart... because greater knowledge is a good way to avoid foreign entanglements.
On the other hand, a peek inside the poll numbers makes it clear that this desire to avoid foreign entanglements is pretty strong. When asked whether "it's best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs" or whether the U.S. "should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home," a plurality of Floridians (48% to 45%) prefer concentrating on the home front. Intriguingly, Ohioians are more cosmopolitan, with 51% preferring an active role and only 42% opposed. This is intriguing because the Midwest is often thought to be more isolationist than Florida -- and the poll shows that Floridians are much more well-travelled to Ohioians. Still, the important thing is that compared to past polling on this subject, these are very strong numbers for isolationism -- or, dare I say, a more realpolitik perspective.
The poll also shows that Americans are very wary about the Arab Spring:
Voters are pessimistic about the impact of Arab Spring on American interests. In Florida, 27% said it is good while 47% said it is not good and 25% are unsure. The numbers were similar in Ohio – 26% said good, 41% said not good, with 33% unsure.
Also, in terms of debate topics, the issues that piqued the interest of poll respondents were, in descending order, Iran, terrorism, Afghanistan, human rights, the global economy, China, Arab Spring, and Europe. This must make Bob Schieffer pretty happy. This is one of those cases when the wisdom of crowds doesn't hold however -- because these voters are pretty uninformed about foreign affairs (a strong majority of respondents believes that Japan possesses nuclear weapons).
To be honest, however, the single-scariest data point in this survey is that 70% of Floridian responses said that "cable television news stations like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC" was a main source for their opinions about foreign affairs.
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.
Your humble blogger was all set to pivot from the U.S. presidential campaign to the state of the global economy when he stumbled across Tom Friedman's column this AM. The headline -- "It's Not Just About Us" -- was beguiling. It suggested the limits of U.S. influence in the region -- a suggestion that is not terribly popular with American foreign policy columnists. The bottom of the first paragraph -- following the de rigeur denunciation of Romney's latest foreign policy speech -- also makes this point:
The worst message we can send right now to Middle Easterners is that their future is all bound up in what we do. It is not. The Arab-Muslim world has rarely been more complicated and more in need of radical new approaches by us -- and them.
Okay, so what's our radical approach to a region with countries hostile to Israel, worried about Iran, and vulnerable to takeover by extremists? Friedman elaborates:
How does the U.S. impact a region with so many cross-cutting conflicts and agendas? We start by making clear that the new Arab governments are free to choose any path they desire, but we will only support those who agree that the countries that thrive today: 1) educate their people up to the most modern standards; 2) empower their women; 3) embrace religious pluralism; 4) have multiple parties, regular elections, and a free press; 5) maintain their treaty commitments; and 6) control their violent extremists with security forces governed by the rule of law. That’s what we think is “the answer,” and our race to the top will fund schools and programs that advance those principles. (To their credit, Romney wants to move in this direction and Obama’s Agency for International Development is already doing so.)
Three things. First, if you're recommending a policy that both presidential candidates are also advocating, then there's nothing new. Second, there's a strong whiff of "it's all about us" by the time the column comes to the end.
Oh, and third: Saudi Arabia. Think about it.
This last point raises an extremely important issue. We're going to have a foreign policy debate in less than two weeks, and based on the news cycle the Middle East is going to dominate it. So it would be good, when either candidate evinces broad, sweeping policy pronouncements on the region, to at least acknowledge the inconsistencies.
So... might I suggest to Bob Schieffer that when he moderates the foreign policy debate, he keep the follow-up questions listed below in case of emergencies?
1) You argue that we should aid conditionality and other measures to require democratization, liberalization, and the promotion of human rights in the Middle East. How exactly would this policy apply to Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf sheikhdoms (including Bahrain, home of the Fifth Fleet), and Israel's role in the occupied territories?
2) Is it possible for the United States to tie itself closer to Israel while still maintaining its popularity with newly empowered Arab populations? If so, how?
3) Why do you believe that economic sanctions will not work against Iran but that aid conditionality will work against newly-democratizing Arab regimes?
I've had my fair share of disagreements with Danielle Pletka in the past, but I liked her well-crafted New York Times op-ed on what Romney needs to say today on foreign policy a great deal. In particular:
For an American public fixated on the economy, another Romney valedictory on the advantages of not being Barack Obama will be a waste of time. Americans feel more comfortable when they have a sense of the candidate’s vision, because it gives them a clearer road map for the future....
Criticisms of Mr. Obama’s national security policies have degenerated into a set of clichés about apologies, Israel, Iran and military spending. To be sure, there is more than a germ of truth in many of these accusations. But these are complaints, not alternatives. Worse yet, they betray the same robotic antipathy that animated Bush-haters. “I will not apologize for America” is no more a clarion call than “let’s nation-build at home.”
Mr. Romney must put flesh on the bones of his calls for a renewed American greatness. With a vision for American power, strategically and judiciously applied, we can continue to do great things with fewer resources. The nation’s greatest strength is not its military power or fantastic productivity. It’s the American commitment to our founding principles of political and economic freedom. If Mr. Romney can outline to voters how he will use American power to advance those principles, he will go a long way in persuading them he deserves the job of commander in chief.
This gets to the nub of Mitt Romney's foreign policy problem. If one pushes past the overheated rhetoric, then you discover that Romney wants a lot of the same ends as Barack Obama -- a stable, peaceful and free Middle East, for example. But that's not shocking -- any major party president will want the same ends. The differenes are in the means through which a president will achieve those ends. And -- in op-ed after op-ed, in speech after speech -- Romney either elides the means altogether, mentions means that the Obama administration is already using, or just says the word "resolve" a lot. That's insufficient.
Unfortunately, the pre-speech indicators suggest that Team Romney is ignoring Pletka's advice. Ineeed, if CNN's excerpts of Romney's big foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute today are any indication, there's almost no new policy content in this speech.
I'll check back in after the speech, but David Sanger's NYT front-pager today about how the Romney team is managing the foreign policy side of things is pretty dispiriting:
[W]hile the theme Mr. Romney plans to hit the hardest in his speech at V.M.I. — that the Obama era has been one marked by “weakness” and the abandonment of allies — has political appeal, the specific descriptions of what Mr. Romney would do, on issues like drawing red lines for Iran’s nuclear program and threatening to cut off military aid to difficult allies like Pakistan or Egypt if they veer away from American interests, sound at times quite close to Mr. Obama’s approach....
And the speech appears to glide past positions Mr. Romney himself took more than a year ago, when he voiced opposition to expanding the intervention in Libya to hunt down Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi with what he termed insufficient resources. He called it “mission creep and mission muddle,” though within months Mr. Qaddafi was gone. And last spring, Mr. Romney was caught on tape telling donors he believed there was “just no way” a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could work.
Mr. Romney’s Monday speech calls vaguely for support of Libya’s “efforts to forge a lasting government” and to pursue the “terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed Americans.” And he said he would “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security” with Israel. But he does not say what resources he would devote to those tasks.
The shifts, a half dozen of Mr. Romney’s advisers said in interviews, partly reflect the fact that the candidate himself has not deeply engaged in these issues for most of the campaign, certainly not with the enthusiasm, and instincts, he has on domestic economic issues. But they also represent continuing divisions.
Two of Mr. Romney’s advisers said he did not seem to have the strong instincts that he has on economic issues; he resonates best, one said, to the concept of “projecting strength” and “restoring global economic growth.” But he has appeared unconcerned about the widely differing views within his own campaign about whether spreading American-style freedoms in the Middle East or simply managing, and limiting, the rise of Islamist governments should be a major goal.
Simply put, if Mitt Romney can't demonstrate leadership and resolve in commanding the foreign policy camps that are participating in his campaign, I'm somewhat dubious that he can do the same with either Russia or China.
Am I missing anything?
The conventional wisdom was that Mitt Romney thrashed Barack Obama last night, and I'm part of that conventional wisdom today. In essence, Obama's biggest problem was that he perfectly portrayed Romney's version of Obama -- nice guy, but overmatched by the circumstances. I mean, not as overmatched as Jim Lehrer, but still...
By design, foreign policy did not get mentioned all that much during this debate -- though Spaniards might differ. There was Mitt Romney's riff about not wanting to borrow from China, which was pretty stupid. There was Barack Obama's discussion of sending jobs overseas, which was really stupid. I'm unfortunately used to this level of IPE stupidity in presidential debates, so let's just skip over that unpleasantness. Also, regretfully, both candidates agree with these sentiments, so depressingly there's nothing to debate about.
Still, looking at the transcript, there was one teaser of disagreements to come that seems pretty big to me -- the difference between the two major party candidates on defense spending. It's not quite as good as other teaser trailers -- but it is interesting.
Here was Obama on Romney's five-point plan, a point that he made repeatedly:
I would just say this to the American people. If you believe that we can cut taxes by $5 trillion and add $2 trillion in additional spending that the military is not asking for, $7 trillion -- just to give you a sense, over 10 years, that’s more than our entire defense budget -- and you think that by closing loopholes and deductions for the well-to-do, somehow you will not end up picking up the tab, then Governor Romney’s plan may work for you....
I think it’s important for us to develop new sources of energy here in America, that we change our tax code to make sure that we’re helping small businesses and companies that are investing here in the United States, that we take some of the money that we’re saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America and that we reduce our deficit in a balanced way that allows us to make these critical investments (emphasis added).
Now, here's Romney on the same question:
We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means a military second to none. I do not believe in cutting our military. I believe in maintaining the strength of America’s military....
The president’s reelected you’ll see dramatic cuts to our military. The secretary of defense has said these would be even devastating.
I will not cut our commitment to our military. I will keep America strong.
Now there was zero discussion of what President Obama thinks the right amount of military spending should be -- but it seems clear that it's much smaller than what Romney wants.
I hope this question comes up in the next two debates, because it really is a significant difference between the two candidates.
Another day, another bad foreign policy headline for Barack Obama:
With the surge of American troops over and the Taliban still a potent threat, American generals and civilian officials acknowledge that they have all but written off what was once one of the cornerstones of their strategy to end the war here: battering the Taliban into a peace deal.
This comes on the heels of the kerfuffle over the administration's public explanations for the Benghazi consulate attack. When Jon Stewart starts to lampoon the administration on the issue, it's definitely a body blow for the Democrats.
Now, I'm on record as being very skeptical about this gambit -- but I could easily be wrong. As Dave Weigel shrewdly observed a week or so ago, the foreign policy polling showed that Obama's star had dimmed on this issue compared to six months ago. Having embassies and consulates attacked will do that. Indeed, for the first time in this election cycle, a poll came out showing that voters believe Romney would be tougher on terrorism than Obama.
So was I wrong? Not really. On the one hand, I'm actually glad that the president's foreign policy numbers are going down. This means that votrers are actually, you know, paying attention to foreign policy. I'm on record as wanting that to happen. And Obama's numbers should go down when bad things seem to be happening to the United States in the world. The combination of the ongoing loss of life in Syria, the embassy attacks, and bad Afghan strategy highlights the fact that killing Osama bin Laden is not a grand strategy.
But there are two counterpoints to this, one on politics and one on policy. On the politics, it's worth noting that Romney pivoted to foreign policy at a time when his poll numbers have pivoted in a southward direction. So even if Romney is doing comparatively better on terrorism issues, it's not an issue that voters care all that much about.
Second, I suspect that the narrowing of the gap between Romney and Obama is temporary. The reason goes back to this parable:
Two campers are in the woods. In the morning, as they exit their tent, they see a bear rumbling into their campsite. One of the campers immediately starts putting on his shoes. The other camper turns to him and says, "Are you crazy? Even with your shoes, there's no way you can outrun that bear."
The first camper stands up with his shoes now on and says, "I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you."
If voters make their choice on foreign policy as if it was a referendum on the Obama adminisration, then recvent events would represent a problem for them. But as with domestic policy, I suspect that they do a compare-and-contrast. And here Romney has some issues. He badly botched his initial response to the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi. Politico's story on his campaign wanting to go back to Libya suggests a lack of consensus on exactly how to attack the administration.
This lack of consensus shows up in Romney's latest foreign policy op-ed, which ran in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. There's an extended critique of the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East. That's fine if this was a referendum -- but if it's a choice, then what would Romney do differently? The relevant paragraphs:
In this period of uncertainty, we need to apply a coherent strategy of supporting our partners in the Middle East—that is, both governments and individuals who share our values.
This means restoring our credibility with Iran. When we say an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability—and the regional instability that comes with it—is unacceptable, the ayatollahs must be made to believe us.
It means placing no daylight between the United States and Israel. And it means using the full spectrum of our soft power to encourage liberty and opportunity for those who have for too long known only corruption and oppression. The dignity of work and the ability to steer the course of their lives are the best alternatives to extremism.
But this Middle East policy will be undermined unless we restore the three sinews of our influence: our economic strength, our military strength and the strength of our values. That will require a very different set of policies from those President Obama is pursuing.
You know what's funny about Romney's proposed foreign policy? It's exactly the same as what the Obama administration is doing right now. Clearly the administration is trying to use its economic power to win some friends in Egypt and hurt some enemies in Iran, for example. Hell, even Jennifer Rubin labelled the op-ed as "boring pablum." Romney doesn't offer a different strategy -- hell, he doesn't really offer up any strategy at all in the op-ed, just a lot of boilerplate rhetoric.
Now boilerplate rhetoric might have actually been enough in previous elections, when the GOP had a brand of foreign policy competency. Romney could simply articulate the message that, "Barack Obama and I both want to advance our interests in the world. He's bungled his chance -- I won't." But not enough voters are going to buy that sales pitch, not after Iraq. And since Romney can't hit Obama as being too hawkish, his only choice is going to be to try to out-hawk Obama. And the American people ain't in the mood for that either.
Barack Obama's foreign policy record is full of blemishes, but it doesn't contain the one thing that would give Mitt Romney an edge on this issue -- a truly catastrophic decision that cost ample amounts of blood and treasure. Without that, Romney would have to be note-perfect on foreign affairs to gain an edge -- and he's been anything but.
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.
I have an essay in the New York Times on why it is that presidents seem to care so much about foreign policy when voters care so little. Here's how it opens:
I’d like to apologize to American voters. I’m one of the 5 percent. The 5 percent, that is, who vote in presidential elections based on the foreign policy views of the candidates. It might seem to the other 95 percent of you that we pull the strings. At his taped fund-raiser, for example, Mitt Romney complained that the common folk weren’t asking him enough foreign policy questions. It certainly must appear as if we control presidents once they’re elected — after their first year in office, all we read about is that they’re attending some fancy-pants summit meeting or using force somewhere exotic.
While I wish that this were true, the reality is a lot more complex. Really, those of us paying attention to foreign policy are trying to do the rest of you a favor. Maybe if some of you paid attention to the rest of the world as well, American presidents would be more cautious about expending blood and treasure abroad. That sounds crazy, but it’s true.
You'll have to read the whole thing to see why I make that argument.
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?
In 2012, I've begun to notice that there have been certain instances where events move so rapidly that my blogging about them is futile -- even in the time it takes for me to cogitate and craft a blog post, the situation on the ground changes. This happened with the Chen Guangcheng case, and it happened this week with the rash of protests and violent stormings of U.S. facilities in the Greater Middle East. Now it's certainly possible that I'm losing my fastball, but I think it might be that there are moments when taking a deep breath and stepping back are useful exercises before rendering judgment and analysis.
[Uh, it's been a few days now, so you ready for some judgment and analysis?--ed. Yep. Let's blog this mother!]
The more I think about it, the more bemused I've been by calls for Mitt Romney to give a major speech on foreign policy. Right now, it's the president who needs to deliver a major address. Americans are rightly confused by what the United States is doing in the Middle East, and President Obama had a pretty uneven week. On the one hand, there appears to have been some adroit behind-the-scenes diplomacy on Egypt. On the other hand, there are crisis moments when patience begins to look too much like passivity, and that's beginning to happen to this administration. Sure, there have been times in the past when U.S. embassies and consulates around the world faced even greater threats -- but things still seem pretty uncertain, U.S. lives have been lost, and the only thing that can be said for Barack Obama's leadership this week is that he's not Mitt Romney. Oh, and that the administration's argument that this has been caused by a single stupid Youtube clip is utter horses**t.
The American public is already predisposed towards getting the hell out of the Middle East. Seeing images of consulates burning down, caskets coming home draped in American flags, and Middle East leaders reacting slowly and tepidly to the threat of street mobs will only reinforce this predisposition. Most Americans, facing these images after two long and draining wars in the region, will likely want to reduce the U.S. profile in the Middle East even more.
That would be a mistake, for numerous reasons -- not the least of which is that the U.S. eventually does benefit if these countries manage to transition to genuine electoral democracies. It's telling that in Egypt and Libya it was the losers at the ballot box who created trouble in the streets. A reduction of the U.S. presence in these countries does not necessarily send the best of signals -- just as encouraging the use of deadly force in retaliation wouldn't either.
This strikes me as exactly the kind of "teachable moment" that President Obama used to love. So if I were a foreign policy advisor to president Obama, I'd advise him to deliver a natonally televised speech to the country in which he addressed the following:
1) What measures were being taken to protect U.S. lives at our consulates and embassies across the world;
2) What he thinks the origins of the current conflagrations have been (hint: saying it's a YouTube clip would be a radically incomplete and dishonest answer);
3) Why the United States needs to maintain an active diplomatic, security and commercial presence in the region;
4) What the United States government needs to start doing differently in order to best advance our interests in the region.
Now, obviously, this speech would have to be crafted with an eye towards the region as well -- which is both the beauty and the challenge of it.
Moreover, if I were one of Obama's political advisors, I would sternly warn him against doing this, because the downside risks would be massive. Americans don't care much about foreign policy, and this speech could seem like a distraction from the domestic policy debates of the presidential campaign. Such a speech would have to acknowledge his own administration's foibles and fumbles in the region. The address could easily act as a focal point to trigger another wave of violence and instability.
That said, the U.S. really is stuck in the Middle East -- better to be stuck with full information than with muddling through. Or, at least, full information that we're muddling through.
One of the most frustrating things about Mitt Romney's blunders this week is that they took the pressure off of the Obama administration. When the challenger has set this low of a bar, it's not hard for the administration to claim that they're the adults in the room. Well, it's not enough just to be the adults -- they're the ones in charge, and they're the ones that need to make the case for patience, for persistence, and for diplomatic engagement. Get cracking.
As Fred Kaplan observed in Slate over the weekend, for the first time in a loooooooong time, the Democrats feel more secure on foreign policy and national security issues than the Republicans. When John Kerry starts making derisive references to Rocky IV, you know something strange is going on. As for Barack Obama, his convention acceptance speech was kind of middlin' -- except when he started talking about foreign policy. As Kaplan noted:
President Obama was even more casual in what can fairly be called, at least on these issues, his contempt for the Republican nominee. Romney’s depiction of Russia as America’s “number-one geostrategic foe” reveals that he’s “still stuck in a Cold War mind-warp,” Obama said—adding, in a reference to Romney’s disastrous trip to England this summer, “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”
Romney and Ryan “are new to foreign policy,” Obama said, barely containing a smirk. Yes, Obama was once new to it as well, though not as new—he’d at least served actively on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he picked a running mate, Joe Biden, who was seasoned. The more pertinent point the Democrats were making at their convention, though, is that Obama is not remotely new now.
Now, Peter Feaver will dissent, but short of another terrorist attack he's not going to move public opinion on this issue: every head-to-head poll has given Barack Obama a decided advantage on foreign policy and national security. Every one.
The thing is, I've stipulated over and over than Americans don't care all that much about foreign policy. So one has to wonder whether this really matters. It's an election about the economy, and there's no way to sugarcoat the anemic job growth as of late. So this foreign policy advantage won't amount to much, right?
Probably.... but there might be two ways in which foreign policy might affect the electoral outcome. The first, which as been playing out over the last year or so, is that Mitt Romney's relative competency on foreign policy has declined dramatically -- to the point where voters might believe that he's simply "below the bar."
Let's roll the clock back a year. When Romney was in the GOP primary squaring off against foreign affairs neophytes like Herman Cain and Rick Perry, it was pretty easy for him to look competent by comparison. Romney had gone to the bother of collecting foreign policy advisors and produced a real, live foreign policy white paper. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich obsessed about EMPs. Compared to his GOP opponents, Romney seemed competent by comparison.
Since the primary season ended, however, Romney has badly bungled the foreign policy side of his campaign. Whoever was wrangling the foreign policy advisors couldn't get them to shut up when they felt on the outs, so they kept on leaking -- sometimes to flacks who couldn't quite connect the dots. Romney's public pronouncements seemed logic-free and designed to play to the GOP base. Then came July's foreign trip, during which Romney managed to bungle what should have been some lovely photo-ops. During and immediately after this trip, by the way, Obama doubled his lead over Romney in the Real Clear Politics Poll Average. His VP choice, Paul Ryan, has even less foreign policy experience than Romney -- and no, voting for the Iraq war doesn't count. Finally, at the RNC, Romney failed to talk about the troops in Afghanistan, or veterans' issues, or war more generally -- the first time a GOP nominee has failed to do so since 1952.
At the same time that Romney's foreign policy "performance" has declined, the quality of his competition has improved. Romney isn't running against a former pizza exec now; he's running against a sitting president who oversaw the end of the war in Iraq, the successful prosecution of the Libya intervention, a rebalancing of American foreign policy towards the Pacific Rim, and the death of Osama bin Laden.
The trajectory matters because it calls Romney's basic competency on this issue into question, and because it complicates his fall campaign. No, voters don't care a lot about foreign policy, but they do want to be comfortable that the guy they vote for can handle the commander-in-chief test. A year ago, Mitt Romney would have cleared that hurdle with the American public. Now I'm not so sure.
Could the Romney campaign fix this? Sure, they could criticize the president and refine their own positions. But every day the Romney campaign tries to repair the damage is a day they're not talking about the economy. And if voters start thinking about secondary issues, including foreign policy, then Romney could lose some votes.
So the competency question is the first reason foreign policy might matter in this election. I'll blog about the second reason... oh... about 26 hours from now.
As the Barack Obama gears up his re-election campaign, plenty of political commentators have proffered their advice for which past American election should guide his strategy. Why not look overseas, however? After all, in North Korea, paramount leader Kim Jong Un visited some newly-built apartments that his father Kim Jong Il " paid deep attention from sites to designing and building." Apparently, the residents were crying at the opportunity to meet Kim and his wife. That's leadership.
On the other hand, Kim's visit smacks a bit of standard Western politicking. Maybe Obama should be thinking on a more grandiose level.
In the New York Times, Andrew Kramer provides an excellent template, recounting the heroic exploits of Russian President Vladimir Putin:
Russia’s president piloted a motorized hang glider over an Arctic wilderness while leading six endangered Siberian cranes toward their winter habitat, as part of an operation called “The Flight of Hope,” his press office confirmed Wednesday.
While Mr. Putin recently has found some resistance to his stewardship at home, he found a more receptive crowd among his feathered followers. Experts say that when raised in captivity, these cranes quickly form bonds with figures they perceive as parents. That is a role, apparently, that Mr. Putin has been training for....
Mr. Putin on past expeditions has tranquilized a tiger, used a crossbow to extract tissue from a whale and put a tracking collar on a polar bear. News of his latest plan rippled over the Internet all day Wednesday, to great merriment. Some wondered just how far he would go. Would he try to imitate the gasping-shrieking cry of the cranes, to instill more faith in his leadership?
He has also appeared shirtless riding a horse in Siberia and flown on a fighter jet, a bomber and an amphibious firefighting airplane. Last summer, he dived into the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea and, remarkably, quickly discovered fragments of two ancient Greek urns.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, however, was later compelled to admit that the discovery was staged.
Oh, man, now I want Putin to be my president, but only after he strangles three enemies of the United States with his bare hands!! I don't care if the enemies are already dead when he does it -- this is a real leader!!
Sure, skeptics might point out that the last time a president of the United States got all macho and donned a flight suit, it didn't end well. And maybe, just maybe, a political leader trying to act like a superhero is harkening back to the outdated and ephemeral notion of Weberian charismatic leadership. Or, perhaps, this kind of derring-do realy masks personal insecurities and... inadequacies that don't need to be discussed on a family blog. But dammit, in this world of the new normal, we need heroes!!
I hereby challenge my readers to devise new heroic exploits for Barack Obama to accomplish as a way of exercising raw, pure, unfiltered leadership. Here are a few suggestions:
2) Inspired by Man on Fire, Barack Obama goes to Mexico and takes care of the drug cartel problem -- single-handedly.
3) After three years, Barack Obama has laid the groundwork for collecting an assemblage of fellow crusaders for truth, justice and the American Way. With a superteam of Michelle Obama, Bill Gates, Seal Team Six, Tom Cruise, the cast of The Expendables, Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh, Misty-May Treanor, the 1992 and 2012 Dream Teams, and -- of course -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, this elite group of avengers reverse-Red Dawns the Russian Federation, defeating Putin and vanquishing, once and for all, America's number one geopolitical foe.
Any other suggestions?
Your humble blogger has fiercely resisted getting drawn into the scrum regarding Niall Ferguson's Newsweek jeremiad against Barack Obama. I kinda already said my piece about Ferguson as a polemicist more than a year ago. The
fact-check critical blowback and Ferguson's response and the response to Ferguson's response have been truly nasty. And I'm supposed to be on vacation. There are beaches very close to where I am typing this. The Official Blog Wife will be unhappy -- and you do not want to see the Official Blog Wife unhappy on vacation.
At the moment, however, I find myself alone next to a computer. And I have noticed that most of the commentary has been directed at Ferguson's discussion of the U.S. economy. The foreign policy section of the essay has been comparatively neglected (though see here), and I was curious to see how it held up to a fact-check. So -- quickly, before the Official Blog Family returns from the beach -- let's dive in!
The failures of leadership on economic and fiscal policy over the past four years have had geopolitical consequences. The World Bank expects the U.S. to grow by just 2 percent in 2012. China will grow four times faster than that; India three times faster. By 2017, the International Monetary Fund predicts, the GDP of China will overtake that of the United States.
David Frum has already pointed out -- in a defense of Ferguson, mind you -- the ways in which Ferguson's calculatons of the Chinese economy are... er... geopolitically a bit off. By using purchasing power parity rather than market exchange rates, Ferguson is magnifying China's economic power just a wee bit. Or as Frum puts it, "things are not yet quite so dire as Ferguson fears."
Meanwhile, the fiscal train wreck has already initiated a process of steep cuts in the defense budget, at a time when it is very far from clear that the world has become a safer place—least of all in the Middle East.
You know, it's a funny coincidence, cause I was just perusing the Institute for Economics and Peace's 2012 Global Peace Index, which measures "the extent to which countries are involved
in ongoing domestic and international conflicts." A key conclusion they draw in the 2012 report? "The average level of peacefulness in 2012 is approximately the same as it was in 2007 (p. 37)." So, actually, it is somewhat clear that the world -- and the United States -- remains comparatively safe and secure.
For me the president’s greatest failure has been not to think through the implications of these challenges to American power. Far from developing a coherent strategy, he believed—perhaps encouraged by the premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize—that all he needed to do was to make touchy-feely speeches around the world explaining to foreigners that he was not George W. Bush.
I discussed whether the Obama administration had a grand strategy at length in Foreign Affairs last year. I think Ferguson has half a point here on the "touchy-feely speeches" Obama delivered in his first year -- but his administration has clearly pivoted (get it?) away from that first-year approach
In Tokyo in November 2009, the president gave his boilerplate hug-a-foreigner speech: “In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another ... The United States does not seek to contain China ... On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.” Yet by fall 2011, this approach had been jettisoned in favor of a “pivot” back to the Pacific, including risible deployments of troops to Australia and Singapore. From the vantage point of Beijing, neither approach had credibility.
What evidence is there that the rebalancing strategy hasn't worked and lacks credibility? The initial response to the pivot was pretty positive, and it's safe to say that China noticed it. I'm not saying that no evidence exists, mind you. I'm saying that sheer assertion by Ferguson does not in and of itself constiute evidence.
Believing it was his role to repudiate neoconservatism, Obama completely missed the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy—precisely the wave the neocons had hoped to trigger with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When revolution broke out—first in Iran, then in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria—the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail.
In the case of Iran he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. Ditto Syria. In Libya he was cajoled into intervening. In Egypt he tried to have it both ways, exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, then drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.” The result was a foreign-policy debacle. Not only were Egypt’s elites appalled by what seemed to them a betrayal, but the victors—the Muslim Brotherhood—had nothing to be grateful for. America’s closest Middle Eastern allies—Israel and the Saudis—looked on in amazement.
"This is what happens when you get caught by surprise," an anonymous American official told the New York Times in February 2011. “We’ve had endless strategy sessions for the past two years on Mideast peace, on containing Iran. And how many of them factored in the possibility that Egypt moves from stability to turmoil? None.”
Man, there's a lot to unpack here. First, I'm calling bulls**t on the Iran claim. Note to Niall: it's never a good idea to use a Jennifer Rubin talking point. Second, I'm pretty sure the administration has been active in Syria -- just not as active as Ferguson would like. Third, it's waaaaay too soon and simplistic describe Egypt as a "foreign-policy debacle."
Regarding the strategic surprise, Ferguson is telling the truth but not the whole truth. Sure, Obama was caught unawares. So was everyone else. I talked to a lot of high-ranking Israeli leaders/thinkers when I visited the country less than six months before the Arab Spring, and not a single person we talked to even hinted at any kind of pan-Arab uprising. Ferguson attends Herzliya regularly, so I'm curious whether he knows any Israelis who picked up on this.
My point here is that Israel has a powerful incentive to monitor everything going on in the Arab world -- and they didn't pick up on the Arab Spring. Does Ferguson seriously believbe a President McCain would have detected it?
Remarkably the president polls relatively strongly on national security. Yet the public mistakes his administration’s astonishingly uninhibited use of political assassination for a coherent strategy. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, the civilian proportion of drone casualties was 16 percent last year. Ask yourself how the liberal media would have behaved if George W. Bush had used drones this way. Yet somehow it is only ever Republican secretaries of state who are accused of committing “war crimes.”
The real crime is that the assassination program destroys potentially crucial intelligence (as well as antagonizing locals) every time a drone strikes. It symbolizes the administration’s decision to abandon counterinsurgency in favor of a narrow counterterrorism. What that means in practice is the abandonment not only of Iraq but soon of Afghanistan too. Understandably, the men and women who have served there wonder what exactly their sacrifice was for, if any notion that we are nation building has been quietly dumped. Only when both countries sink back into civil war will we realize the real price of Obama’s foreign policy.
Ferguson makes some interesting points here, but can we talk about the elephant in the room? Why does Ferguson think Obama polls well on national security? Killing bin Laden, the Libya war, the rebalancing strategy, and the withdrawal from Iraq are commonly cited. Guess which one on that list Ferguson fails to mention.
As for what veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq think, well, Pew polled vets on this very question in the fall of 2011. The results? "While post-9/11 veterans are more supportive than the general public, just one-third (34%) say that, given the costs and benefits to the U.S., the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have both been worth fighting." Nevertheless, 96% of them felt proud of their military service. So I'm guessing that they want the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan too.
[UPDATE: Damn Pew's deceptive topline results! Looking a bit deeper, I see support for the war in Afghanistan still commands 50% support among post-9/11 veterans. On the other hand, these post-9/11 veterans also overwhelmingly (87%) support the increased use of unmanned drones that Ferguson dislikes so much.]
America under this president is a superpower in retreat, if not retirement. Small wonder 46 percent of Americans—and 63 percent of Chinese—believe that China already has replaced the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower or eventually will.
I like using survey data to bolster my arguments just as much as the next guy -- but I'm also willing to say quite clearly when the public is wrong about something -- and they're wrong about this. Furthermore, Ferguson knows this perception is wrong. We know from the previous paragraph that he doesn't care for public attitudes when he disagrees with them, but he uses it here. The reason? This time it supports his argument.
My verdict: the foreign policy section isn't as bad as the domestic policy section of Ferguson's article, but it's still sloppy. Ferguson makes a lot of lazy assertions without backing them up with facts. Some of the facts he uses are a bad fit for the arguments he's trying to make. And he values similar data points differently depending on whether they support his argument or not.
There are some good critiques that can be made of the Obama administration's foreign policy, and Ferguson skirts close to some of them. But Romney supporters can do better.
Dear Mr. Hiatt (and Mr. Pexton),
Sorry to be writing to you in such a public format. I'm also sorry to bring up the rather touchy subject of your attempts to find a competent and authentically conservative blogger for the Post. But can we talk about Jennifer Rubin for a second?
As I blogged yesterday, Rubin demonstrated incompetence, laziness and/or mendacity in her "hackstabbing" of Robert Zoellick. In particular, she seemed unable to understand the meaning of the "responsible stakeholder" language that Zoellick started using in 2005, and her weblink to that language wasn't even close to accurate.
Today I wake up to see that she has offered a follow-up post on Zoellick and an update to the controversial post from yesterday. Let me just reprint that update in full.
UPDATE: To clarify, Zoellick in 2005 delivered a speech in which he encouraged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs. From 2005 to the present in speeches, articles and interviews (asked in 2009 in Financial Times interview about China’s “scorecard” on acting as a responsible stakeholder he said “I think China has come a long way”), Zoellick repeatedly praised China’s conduct, despite ample signs China was anything but “responsible” and widespread criticism of the policy Zoellick had championed. Given Mitt Romney’s “take China to the WTO” stance and his unsparing criticism of China’s human rights abuses Romney could not be more different in his view of China.
Now this is a bit of an improvement. Rubin has accurately described what Zoellick was saying in 2005 (as opposed to how it still appears in her original post). She also suggests that that Zoellick rubs some neoconservatives/China hardliners the wrong way on positions like human rights abuses. That's a genuine policy disagreement.
Still, there are some issues. One problem is that even in the update, she's still screwing up her evidence. Her quote from the FT interview of Zoellick is a somewhat out of context -- it seems more like Zoellick was talking about China's economic development in that particular phrase:
Zoellick: I think China has come a very long long way. I have a special perspective because I was living in Hong Kong in 1980. I went to Guangdong province right after Deng Xiaoping started the reform process. All you have to do is compare the China of that era and the China of today. It’s so startling.
As for her embedded links: Rubin's URLs for the "widespread criticism" portion go to two different articles. The first one is accurate, but, alas, Rubin only bats .500. The "criticism" link goes to a paper by Jonathan Czin entitled "Dragon Slayer or Panda Hugger? Chinese Perspectives on 'Responsible Stakeholder' Diplomacy." Here's Czin's conclusion:
Zoellick attempted to move U.S. thinking beyond the wholly inadequate dichotomous roles of friend and enemy to define the grey conceptual space that China occupies. To say that China is neither a friend nor an enemy of the United States is not only a truism; it has also become a cliché. Neither China nor the United States wants to see China become part of a “hub and spokes” alliance system in East Asia. Yet the claim put forth by strategic thinkers such as John Mearsheimer that the changing material balance of power will inexorably and inevitably lead to Sino-American conflict is over-deterministic and threatens to engender a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moreover, it runs counter to the premise of U.S. China policy since Kissinger. Strategically, Zoellick’s “Third Way” offers the most reasonable and palatable option.
I do not think they anyone would characterize this as "criticism" of Zoellick's policy formulation. I read through the whole article, and couldn't really find any criticism of the policy. Between you, me and the lamppost, I suspect Rubin saw the "panda-hugger" headline and just put it in. But I concede that's pure speculation on my part.
Look, this is tedious stuff, and I don't like descending into the weeds all that much. Still, if Rubin can't correct her earlier screw-up without making yet another screw-up, doesn't that suggest that something is seriously wrong here? And don't you, as her publishers, bear just a wee bit of responsibility for this kind of mendacity and laziness?
Daniel W. Drezner
Dear Neoconservative Foreign Policy Flacks Who Work for Mitt Romney:
Hey there -- how's the campaign going? Oh, sorry, touchy topic.
So listen... I can see why you're all pissed off and everything that Robert Zoellick has agreed to act as the foreign policy "transition chief" for the Romney campaign. Zoellick has never really been "one of you," and he's more commonly associated with James Baker than with any neoconservative guru.
So yeah, I can see why you'd leak your complaints about this to Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post. Rubin might have her flaws, but if she's proven anything this election cycle, it's that she's a reliable stenographer for the Mitt Romney campaign.
Here's the thing, though -- if you're gonna leak to Rubin, I think you're also gonna have to do her homework for her. Rubin has been a bit sloppy as of late in her "Right Turn" posts, trivial stuff like confusing "Third Way" with "Third Wave."
With the Zoellick post she just
cut and pasted wrote up, however, I think she's gone from trivial mistakes to out-and-out incompetency and/or lying. Here's one paragraph:
For foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema. As the right hand man in the State Department and Treasury Department of James A, Baker, who was infamous for his anti-Israel stance, Zoellick acquired a reputation as ”soft” on China, weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War, opposed to the first Gulf War and unsupportive of the Jewish state. His stint as U.S. Trade Representative, and Deputy Secretary of State, in the George W. Bush administration did nothing too alter his image with foreign policy hardliners. That tenure will no doubt complicate Romney’s efforts to distance himself from his predecessor. And in 2011, Zoellick shocked foreign policy gurus by delivering a speech praising China, suggesting that it was a “responsible stakeholder” in Asia, at a time human rights abuses and aggressive conduct in Asia were bedeviling the Obama administration.
Now there's a lot of tendentious crap in that paragraph, but the doozy is the embedded link. Cause if you click on it, you get to a story with the headline: "Robert Zoellick: China 'Reluctant Stakeholder' in World Economic Woes". Here's the opening few paragraphs:
China is a vital but "reluctant stakeholder" in the current wave of Western financial woes, said Robert B. Zoellick, President of the World Bank.
Zoellick told listeners that China benefits from the international system and needs to "share the responsibilities" of that engagement, for the sake of both sides of the Pacific.
Hey, did you notice a key word difference between what Rubin claims Zoellick said and what Zoellick actually said? And that the word "responsible" appears nowhere in that story? And that Zoellick's statement here is fully consistent with what he told a Chinese audience the next month? So either Rubin didn't bother reading the embedded link you provided her, or she didn't read the embedded link at Zoellick's Wikipedia entry... or she didn't care. Whichever way it went down, it doesn't look good for either you or Rubin.
[An aside: Now I know what you're going to say -- Zoellick coined the "responsible stakeholder" language. That's partially true -- he introduced the idea in this 2005 speech. However, if you, like, actually read the speech, you'll see that he was arguing that, "We need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder in that system." Zoellick wasn't saying that China was already responsible, as Rubin suggests in her
Wikipedia dump column. He was offering an aspirational goal for the Chinese government.]
You want to hit Zoellick? I think you're wrong, but fine, I get that. You want to use Rubin to do it? Then I suggest you write out exactly what she should print, and then double-check your f**king footnotes. Cause otherwise, the errors and distortions she prints will rebound back onto you.
All the best!
Daniel W. Drezner
Late at night, when your humble blogger is troubled in his sleep because of some crap argument he was making in his day job, some version of this Annie Hall scene plays out in his head:
This is, far and away, my worst nightmare.
During my recent trip to Israel, I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it. In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy.
But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture? In the case of the United States, it is a particular kind of culture that has made us the greatest economic power in the history of the earth. Many significant features come to mind: our work ethic, our appreciation for education, our willingness to take risks, our commitment to honor and oath, our family orientation, our devotion to a purpose greater than ourselves, our patriotism. But one feature of our culture that propels the American economy stands out above all others: freedom. The American economy is fueled by freedom. Free people and their free enterprises are what drive our economic vitality.
"Double down" is appropriate here, because he went from a speech in which he said there were "other factors" that mattered as well to zeroing in on culture. Again, to be fair, a close read of what Romney describes as "culture" in his essay clearly includes political and economic institutions. To get academic-y about it, Romney is being "conceptually fuzzy" with his terms.
So sure, Romney has been pilloried by political reporters and left-wing columnists and foreign policy writers and former U.S. diplomats and snooty British publications for a bad trip... but they've mostly been focusing on the "gaffes."
This morning, however, Romney is having his Marshall McLuhan moment. In the New York Times, Jared Diamond grades Romney's citation of his book Guns, Germs and Steel:
Mitt Romney's latest controversial remark, about the role of culture in explaining why some countries are rich and powerful while others are poor and weak, has attracted much comment. I was especially interested in his remark because he misrepresented my views and, in contrasting them with another scholar’s arguments, oversimplified the issue.
It is not true that my book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” as Mr. Romney described it in a speech in Jerusalem, “basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth.”
That is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it.
Then there's Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson here in FP, attacking Romney on the conceptual fuzziness thing:
Unfortunately, Romney's views are seriously out of sync with those of the great mass of social scientists. For one, as his more extended argument in the National Review illustrates, he confuses "culture" with institutions. By culture, social scientists mean people's values and beliefs. Romney refers to Americans' "work ethic," which is cultural, but he also claims that political and economic freedoms are the real keys to economic success. But political and economic freedom are not guaranteed by (or even related to) culture but by institutions, such as the U.S. Constitution or its system of property rights. Romney did cite Harvard University historian David Landes, who did indeed argue that values and beliefs are crucial for economic development, as providing the intellectual origins of his views -- but his focus on institutions is much more in line with our book Why Nations Fail than with Landes. Indeed, the facts on the ground in the Middle East illustrate the power not of culture, but of institutions.
Fareed Zakaria weighs in the Washington Post [Wait, he counts?--ed. He earned his Ph.D. in political science at Harvard under Samuel Huntington. So yeah, on this, he definitely counts]:
Had Romney spent more time reading Milton Friedman, he would have realized that historically the key driver for economic growth has been the adoption of capitalism and its related institutions and policies across diverse cultures.
The link between economic policies and performance can be seen even in the country on which Romney was lavishing praise. Israel had many admirable traits in its early decades, but no one would have called it an economic miracle. Its economy was highly statist. Things changed in the 1990s with market-oriented reforms — initiated by Benyamin Netanyahu — and sound monetary policies. As a result, Israel’s economy grew much faster than it had in the 1980s. The miracle Romney was praising had to do with new policies rather than deep culture.
Ironically, the argument that culture is central to a country’s success has been used most frequently by Asian strongmen to argue that their countries need not adopt Western-style democracy. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew has made this case passionately for decades. It is an odd claim, because Singapore’s own success would seem to contradict it. It is not so different from neighboring Malaysia. The crucial difference is that Singapore had extremely good leadership that pursued good economic policies with relentless discipline.
Finally, there's the Center for Global Development's Charles Kenny, who is far and away the most supportive of Romney's argument:
Mitt Romney created a stir this week when he pointed to the immense difference in wealth between Israel and the Palestinian territories and explained it with his interpretation of Harvard economic historian David Landes’s work that “culture makes all the difference.”
By now there is wide agreement that Romney used a pretty terrible example to illustrate Landes’s point. And yet the proposition that “culture” is a factor in long-term economic performance is increasingly accepted among development economists. What Romney seems to have missed is that culture is a declining barrier to development worldwide.
Still, three out of four social scientists have flunked Romney's comparative political economy comp. Will this make a whit of difference in the campaign? That depends entirely on whether you believe that voters still respond to cues from elites... so for me the answer is "probably not." This entire episode is nevertheless an instructive parable for graduate students studying for comps everywhere:
1) Define your terms clearly;
2) Make sure you've done your reading and not
staffed it out relied on book reviews or summaries of the Big Arguments -- cause those summaries can be way off base;
3) Don't double down when you make a bad argument.
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 New York Times' Ashley Parker reports that Mitt Romney got into a spot of trouble on the first leg of his
fundraising foreign affairs tour:
Mitt Romney's carefully choreographed trip to London caused a diplomatic stir when he called the British Olympic preparations “disconcerting” and questioned whether Londoners would turn out to support the Games.
“The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging,” Mr. Romney said in an interview with NBC on Tuesday.
That prompted a tart rejoinder from the British prime minister, David Cameron. “We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” an allusion to Salt Lake City, which hosted Games that Mr. Romney oversaw (emphasis added).
American commentators want to focus on what Romney said, but it strikes me as pretty anodyne. As Feargus O'Sullivan notes in The Atlantic, "it's not like Romney’s worries haven’t been expressed many times already in the British media." Or, for that matter, The Daily Show:
Furthermore, it's not like these are the only screw-ups that have occurred before the openng ceremonies.
Cameron's comments, on the other hand, strike me as pretty offensive. Salt Lake City is a lovely mid-sized city that pulled off a lovely Olympics. Why act petty about that? Why describe it as in the "middle of nowhere" when, last I checked, a fair number of airlines fly to Utah's capital?
Fnally, this comment from Cameron is also kinda disappointing:
Mr Cameron also refused to back calls for a minute's silence to remember eleven Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists at the Munich Olympic Games forty years ago.
The Prime Minister said it was important to remember what happened in 1972, but that planned memorial events were the proper way to do that.
His comments came after the widows of two Israeli athletes who were killed in the attack pleaded with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow a minute's silence during Friday's opening ceremony.
Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, whose husbands Andrei Spitzer and Yosef Romano were among 11 athletes killed in the attack at the Olympic Village in Germany, handed a petition to IOC chiefs yesterday containing more than 105,000 signatures from people around the world backing the call for a silence.
The standard response to this kind of plea is that the Olympics is a celebration of sport and politics should be kept offstage. This is akin to saying that the Miss Universe competition has nothing to do with beauty -- it's not true and insults the intelligence of anyone within earshot.
Romney has walked back his comments already. I hope Cameron does the same on both counts.
Mitt Romney kicked off his "see, I do too know something about foreign policy" world tour today. Before his homage to Barack Obama's 2008 tour, however, he gave what was labeled as a "major foreign policy address" at the VFW convention. Mark Halperin has the text. I'll just comment on a few pieces of it:
[W]hen it comes to national security and foreign policy, as with our economy, the last few years have been a time of declining influence and missed opportunity.
Just consider some of the challenges I discussed at your last national convention:
Since then, has the American economy recovered?
Has our ability to shape world events been enhanced, or diminished?
Have we gained greater confidence among our allies, and greater respect from our adversaries?
And, perhaps most importantly, has the most severe security threat facing America and our friends, a nuclear-armed Iran, become more or less likely? (emphasis added)
OK, stop, hold it right there. Now Iran is "the most severe security threat"? Is that better or worse than Russia being the number one geopolitical foe?
[Note to self: if Romney loses in November, propose co-hosting awards show with him on Fox News -- call it "The Greatest American Enemies." Categories would include "Greatest Geopolitical Threat," "Greatest Security Threat," "Greatest Existential Threat," and "Best Supporting Threat in Comedy or Musical." Ratings gold.]
I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country. I am not ashamed of American power. I take pride that throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair. I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced. I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever. And I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.
Somewhere, the realist wing of Romney's foreign policy advisors are drowning in whiskey.
[S]adly, this president has diminished American leadership, and we are reaping the consequences. The world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic.
In an American Century, we have the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, we secure peace through our strength. And if by absolute necessity we must employ it, we must wield our strength with resolve. In an American Century, we lead the free world and the free world leads the entire world.
If we do not have the strength or vision to lead, then other powers will take our place, pulling history in a very different direction. A just and peaceful world depends on a strong and confident America. I pledge to you that if I become commander-in-chief, the United States of America will fulfill its duty, and its destiny.
That sound you hear is Bob Kagan smiling somewhere.
After secret operational details of the bin Laden raid were given to reporters, Secretary Gates walked into the West Wing and told the Obama team to “shut up.” He added a colorful word for emphasis.
Lives of American servicemen and women are at stake. But astonishingly, the administration failed to change its ways. More top-secret operations were leaked, even some involving covert action in Iran.
This isn’t a partisan issue; it’s a national security crisis. And yesterday, Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, quote, “I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks.”
Bully for Romney. This is totally fair issue, and the response I'm hearing from Obama loyalists that "Bush did it too" is pretty weak beer.
I'm going to skip the "Obama is abandoning out allies" and "I would act differently in Afghanistan" sections, because they're pretty much unchanged from what Romney has said in the past. Which means, by the way, that he's exaggerating both the discontent of our allies and the differences he has with Obama's Afghanistan policy.
On to China:
We face another continuing challenge in a rising China. China is attentive to the interests of its government – but it too often disregards the rights of its people. It is selective in the freedoms it allows; and, as with its one-child policy, it can be ruthless in crushing the freedoms it denies. In conducting trade with America, it permits flagrant patent and copyright violations … forestalls American businesses from competing in its market … and manipulates its currency to obtain unfair advantage. It is in our mutual interest for China to be a partner for a stable and secure world, and we welcome its participation in trade. But the cheating must finally be brought to a stop. President Obama hasn’t done it and won’t do it. I will (emphasis added)
The bolded section represents the nicest thing Romney has said about China during the campaign. I'd also note with some surprise that he didn't mention his pledge to label China as a currency manipulator on day one.
Now to the Middle East.
Egypt is at the center of this historical drama. In many ways, it has the power to tip the balance in the Arab world toward freedom and modernity. As president, I will not only direct the billions in assistance we give to Egypt toward that goal, but I will also work with partner nations to place conditions on their assistance as well. Unifying our collective influence behind a common purpose will foster the development of a government that represents all Egyptians, maintains peace with Israel, and promotes peace throughout the region. The United States is willing to help Egypt support peace and prosperity, but we will not be complicit in oppression and instability.
I put this in here because I haven't the faintest clue what it means in terms of actual policy beyond "aid to Egypt will be conditional on something." Conditional on what, exactly? How is this different from current policy?
And finally, we get to a kernel of Romney's strategic thinking:
It is a mistake – and sometimes a tragic one – to think that firmness in American foreign policy can bring only tension or conflict. The surest path to danger is always weakness and indecision. In the end, it is resolve that moves events in our direction, and strength that keeps the peace.
I will not surrender America’s leadership in the world. We must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose, and resolve in our might.
This is very simple: if you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I am not your President. You have that President today.
If this really is Romney's foreign policy philosophy, then he's right, it's a pretty sharp contrast with the incumbent. Not the "strongest nation on earth" business, but rather the importance of resolve. I'm not sure, however, that this is the contrast he wants. The last time someone ran foreign policy based on this philosophy was during the first term of the Bush administration. It didn't end well.
After the speech, Chuck Todd tweeted that "The Romney VFW speech felt like it was aimed at GOP voters, not swing voters." I'd agree. Foreign policy doesn't matter that much to swing voters, but rhetoric like this is a great way to appeal to and energize the base. If Romney were to actually follow through on this speech, then the consequences would range from insignificant to quite serious. But it could be that Romney simply doesn't care about foreign policy all that much, and is using these kind of speeches strictly as a tool to cater to key political constitutencies.
What do you think?
For the past few days I've been getting emails asking whether I'm gonna comment on one of the most offensive and brutally effective campaign ads I have ever seen:
It's brutal because... well, let's face it, that Romney tic was always the most cringe-worthy aspect of the campaign. Anything negative that Romney did, contrasted with that song, would be powerful.
It's ridiculously offensive, however, because it baldly asserts that doing business with Mexico, China or Switzerland is un-American. Other idiocies like the Olympic-uniform controversy feed into the public perception that having the other countries make stuff is an abomination of the first degree.
So, does it matter for policy? Well.... no.
Mario Cuomo once said "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." Now, Mario Cuomo was clearly the world's worst poetry connoisseur. Still, to update his observation for our current needs, we can say, "You campaign as a mercantilist; you govern as a free-trader." The reason that Romney has seemed so discombobulated by the Bain attacks is that he's been China-bashing since Day One ofhis campaign, so it's tough to then
flip-flop pivot to a free trade stance. As for Obama, Matthew Yglesias noted the following last week:
[A]ll indications are that Barack Obama also doesn't think Bain was doing anything wrong. As president he's made no moves to make it illegal for companies to shift production work abroad and has publicly associated himself with a wide range of American firms—from GE to Apple and beyond—who've done just that to varying extents. And we all remember what happened to Obama's promise to renegotiate NAFTA after taking office, right?
Or, David Brooks today:
Over the years of his presidency, Obama has not been a critic of globalization. There’s no real evidence that, when he’s off the campaign trail, he has any problem with outsourcing and offshoring. He has lavishly praised people like Steve Jobs who were prominent practitioners. He has hired people like Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, whose company embodies the upsides of globalization. His economic advisers have generally touted the benefits of globalization even as they worked to help those who are hurt by its downsides.
But, politically, this aggressive tactic has worked.
Brooks' colleague Nate Silver might quibble a bit with the "politically working" point, but that's a small quibble. Americans loooooooove mercantilism, so this kind of rhetoric makes tactical sense during a campaign. As stomach-churning as I find this kind of ad, I must reluctantly agree with Yglesias and Brooks that it doesn't matter all that much for governing. Even this Washington Post story that talks about Obama's "rethinking" of free trade doesn't really deliver the goods on significant policy shifts. And it appears that even the Chinese government recognize campaign bluster for what it is.
So -- to repeat a theme -- I don't think the mercantilist campaign rhetoric will amount to much.
Still, as someone who thinks offshore outsourcing is an unobjectionable practice, this is going to be a nauseating campaign.
The news that Mitt Romney is planning a overseas trip/foreign policy address has led to some... interesting reactions among libertarians/realists. Even before the trip was announced, Daniel Larison thought it was a bad idea for Romney to focus on foreign policy at all. After the trip was trial-ballooned, Larison still thought it was a bad idea -- as did Justin Logan at the Cato Institute (guest-posting on Steve Walt's blog).
As someone who thought this wasn't the worst notion in the world, it's worth reviewing their objections. In toto:
1) Romney's neoconservative-friendly foreign policy views are unpopular in both the United States and many of the countries on Romney's itinerary -- so there's no upside. As Larison puts it: "Romney’s hawkish critics haven’t fully grasped that foreign policy has become a weakness for the GOP over the last six years, so it makes no sense to them that it might help their presidential candidate to avoid talking about it."
2) This is an election about the economy, and any energy Romney devotes to foreign policy is wasted. As Logan notes, "Sometimes foreign-policy wonks have trouble divorcing what they are interested in from what voters are interested in.... Unless I'm missing something big here, every minute Romney spends overseas is a minute he's spending away from winning the election."
3) Even if (1) and (2) do not apply, there is very little political upside to be gained from visiting other countries. Larison goes through the various possible upsides for a challenger to go abroad, but doesn't find them terribly convincing.
So, how to respond? First, let's parse this out into two questions. First, should candidates talk more about foreign policy because it's good for democracy? Second, is it in their own political interests to talk more/visit other countries?
I hope Larison and Logan would agree that, political imperatives aside, it would be A Good Thing for the Country if presidential candidates talked more about foreign policy. Presidents have much more leeway in conducting foreign policy than domestic policy. They wind up spending about half their time and energy as president on foreign policy. Given its importance to the office, the fact that it's not talked about all that much during the campaign is kinda problematic. It might be worthwhile for major party candidates to openly discuss/think about their foreign policy views just a bit.
Now, on whether it's politically savvy for presidential candidates to talk about this stuff, I largely agree with Logan and Larison. Voters don't care about foreign policy. In Romney's case, however, there are a few reasons why a summer foreign policy trip makes some sense.
First, er, it's the summer. Logan is correct that foreign policy wonks tend to confuse what interests them with what interests the public, but so do campaign advisors. The undecideds aren't dwelling on politics at the moment, and likely won't do so until after the Summer Olympics are over. All these peple will do is process the occasional headline. If Romney has to choose between this headline and ones about foreign policy, he might prefer the latter.
Second, at least one of his foreign policy trips will play well domestically. Larison and Logan grumble about it, but they both appear to acknowledge that the Israel leg of the trip would likely fire up the evangelical base and peel off disaffected Jews from Obama's coalition. If he's going all the way to Israel, then a few more days/stops make some sense.
Third, and finally, Romney dug his own grave on this issue. In op-ed after op-ed, Romney has relied on blowhard rhetoric and a near-total absence of detail to make his case. In doing so, Romney is the one who has sowed the doubts about his foreign policy gravitas in the first place. If his campaign manages to produce a successful foreign policy speech/road trip, he can dial down one source of base criticism -- and focus again on the economy in the fall. And eliminating base citicism matters domestically -- the media tends to magnify within-party critiques as being more newsworthy.
The best criticism is Larison's contention that the actual content of Romney's foreign policy vision might not go down so well with the American people. This might be true, but it might not be. The thing is, no one is entirely sure what Romney thinks about foreign policy. Maybe his op-eds were nothing but rhetorical bluster -- as campaign musings about foreign policy tend to be. It's also possible/likely that whatever foreign policy speeches he delivers in the next month or so wouldn't match his actions once in office. As I noted last year, however, there is value in having a presidential candidate demonstrate "generic foreign policy knowledge."
I suspect both Larison and Logan would prefer a foreign policy in which the United States doesn't aim to do as much abroad, allowing the country to retrench and revitalize the domestic economy. That's a compelling argument (and, actually, one that President Obama made in his first few years of office). Just because Romney might disagree with that approach, however, is no reason for him to clam up on foreign affairs this summer. As a democracy, we're entitled to hear about how he thinks about these issues. Politically, a well-executed foreign policy trip won't net him a lot of votes, but it would cauterize a festering politcal wound and allow him to pivot back to the economy.
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?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.