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.
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.
whored mingled enough with the magazine world to understand that publishing "best/worst" lists are fun and engaging. Some choices will be universally acknowledged, others will provoke controversy and debate, and so forth. Lists are always going to engage the readers. It's almost impossible to get them wrong.
I bring this up because The Atlantic's list of the best and worst foreign policy presidents of the past century is really, really wrong.
Democracy Arsenal's Michael Cohen cobbled together the list. Here are his criteria:
After reaching out to host of historians, foreign policy experts, academics and various think tankers here's one stab at answering a question which, in many respects, has no right answer. How you choose the best and worst foreign policy President depends in large measure on what values inform your vision of what a good foreign policy looks like. If you're a foreign policy idealist, Wilson would seem pretty good; a foreign policy realist; you might cast a vote for George H.W Bush or even Richard Nixon. If you prefer your presidents to talk tough, Harry Truman might be your man; if you prefer a more modest and less partisan figure, Dwight Eisenhower might float your boat.
As my list suggests, I tend to lean toward the more restrained, pragmatic realists who are suspicious about the use of force. Conversely, I'm more wary of not only the idealistic and ideologically driven presidents, but also those who use foreign policy, most destructively, as a tool of domestic politics.
OK, fair enough. Here's his list:
The Five Best Presidents: 1) FDR; 2) Dwight Eisenhower; 3) George H.W. Bush; 4) Ronald Reagan; 5) John F. Kennedy
The Five Worst Presidents: 1) LBJ; 2) Jimmy Carter; 3) Woodrow Wilson; 4) Harry Truman; 5) Richard Nixon.
I'll let Tom Ricks rebut the JFK assessment on his own blog. I'll let my readers make other objections -- and there are many ones to make -- with most of he list. My problem is with the assessment of Harry Truman as, somehow, one of the five worst foreign policy presidents of the last century.
Here's Cohen's explanation -- let's do this by paragraph, shall we?
Harry Truman has in the nearly 50 years since he left the White House grown significantly in the estimation of both the public and many historians. To be sure, he deserves enormous credit for protecting and stabilizing Western Europe with the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO. These are signal achievements but as historians from Robert Dallek and Walter Lafeber to Fredrik Logevall have suggested there is a pretty significant downside to Truman's presidency as well.
One must stop here or a second and admire Cohen's ability to glom most of Truman's foreign policy accomplishments into a single sentence. That takes some doing. One could have at least noted that in the span of five years Truman and his foreign policy advisors created pragmatic institutions that not only withstood the Cold War but prospered even after it ended. Nope, nothing on that point. That takes some serious doing.
OK, let's move onto Truman's alleged defects:
First there was Korea. An impulsive response to a cross-border attack that re-shaped American foreign policy. It was the final nail in the coffin of the more modest containment strategy proposed by George Kennan and by default enshrined the notion that the US had a responsibility to contain Communism wherever it showed its fangs. But while the decision to go to war can be considered a debatable one; the failure in rein in Douglas MacArthur's push to the Yalu River, which triggered a Chinese intervention is a disaster that can't be washed away (even by Truman's later decision to fire the general). Considering that more than 20 million North Koreans continue to live in terrible hardship today because of that decision only compounds the mistake (emphasis added).
Why yes, that's so true. Had Truman not decided to respond in force in Korea, there wouldn't be 20 million North Koreans living in terrible hardship -- there would be at least 60 million Koreans living in terrible hardship.
Seriously, this line of reasoning makes no sense to me. I understand but strongly disagree with the logic that intervening in Korea was a mistake. I understand and kinda agree with the contention that crossing the 38th parallel was exceedingly costly in terms of blood and treasure. I simply can't understand, however, the argument that had the U.S. not made that push, North Korea would have evolved differently. Would Kim-Il Sung have abandoned juche if MacArthur hadn't tried for the Yalu?
Speaking of MacArthur, you can't acknowledge Truman's failure to rein him in without also acknowledging that by firing MacArthur, Truman cemented civilian control over the military just as the size of the U.S. military was reaching a new high.
Beyond Korea, the Truman Doctrine and its declaration that it was the "policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" laid the groundwork for the limitless definition of US national interests that unfolded over the next 60 years. As Kennan would later note, it was one thing to contain Communism in Europe (a goal on which Truman succeeded). It was quite another to broaden that goal to the rest of the world. There is, as a result, a straight line between Truman's foreign policy choices and the war in Vietnam.
Right, this is why Eisenhower felt compelled to intervene in Vietnam during Dien Bien Phu -- oh, wait, as Cohen points out in his Eisenhower write-up, he did the exact opposite of that. I don't buy straight-line arguments that take two decades to play out.
Then there was Truman's use of anti-Communist rhetoric for political advantage that turned what might have been a balance of power, geo-political clash into an ideological one. This, of course, also helped to politicize the Cold War in the United States and heightened the issue of anti-Communism. Indeed, few Presidents more flagrantly used foreign policy as a political punching bag as frequently as Truman.
I'd be more charitable towards this point if Cohen hadn't also said that Eisenhower "used Cold War fears to push for national highway system and more money for higher education, two smart national security investments." When is using foreign policy fears at home good and when is it bad, exactly? Based on Cohen's list, I can't tell.
Finally, ask yourself a counter-factual: how would the Cold War have unfolded if FDR had lived out his fourth term, rather than having the inexperienced Truman become the leader of the Free World? It's not hard to imagine that the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, so deftly handled by FDR during WWII, would have been minimized and a less militarist and dangerous conflict might have emerged. At the very least, as Robert Dallek points out even if superpower, ideological conflict between the US and Soviet Union was inevitable, Truman never really sought to find an alternative (emphasis added).
Again, I'm not sure what to make of this. First, Cohen acknowledged that FDR "sold out the Eastern Europe countries at Yalta." Does he believe that FDR would have somehow been able to repulse Stalin in Iran, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere without a Cold War -- or do those countries not matter?
Second, if the bipolar distribution of power made superpower conflict inevitable, why exactly should Truman be blamed for not dickering around with alternatives that would have crashed and burned? According to this logic, Truman is one of the five worst foreign policy presidents of the last century because he failed to pursue unfeasible options. I'm sorry, but clearly I don't get it.
In his blog post explaining the list, Cohen acknowledges that:
I'm probably far too generous to John F. Kennedy, who makes the best list, and far too harsh to Richard Nixon, who makes the worst list. This is a pretty fair critique and if I had my druthers I'd put both men somewhere in the middle, but the need for editorial symmetry was too strong!
Fair enough -- but I'm sorry, listing Harry Truman as one of the five-worst foreign policy presidents is absurd.
Am, I missing anything?
The combination of President Obama's Afghanistan speech, recent congressional votes on Libya, and the tenor of the GOP presidential debate have prompted gnashing of teeth from the usual suspects about the rise of isolationism and the decline of America. This is good -- a robust debate should be had about balancing America's role abroad with fiscal demands at home, what it means for the United States to have a robust overseas presence, and so forth.
Please, however, for the love of God, can this debate take place without Niall Ferguson?
I ask because his latest essay for Newsweek contains the laziest paragraph I will read today. In this column, Ferguson strains to displace Tom Friedman as The Creator of Inane Metaphors. He coins "IOU-solationism" to descibe the instinct to retrench because of domestic difficulties. There's a pedestrian description of rising sentiment for retrenchment. Then we get to the lazy paragraph, which happens to be the only one in his column that provides a justification for why defense cuts are a bad idea:
Salma Hayek is hot" without providing any supporting evidence -- these stylized facts represent common knowledge. The rising power of radical Islam does not fall into this category, however. Seriously, this might be the worst paragraph I've seen in a published column this year. It's all casual assertion and no evidence.I understand that not every assertion can be backed up in an 800 word column. Really, I get that. It's perfectly fine to assert "the U.S. economy is weak" or "China is rising" or "
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.