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!!
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.
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.
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'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.
It appears that I owe Mitt Romney a partial apology. In yesterday's blog post I quoted from a video procured by Mother Jones' David Corn regarding Romney's perspective on the peace process between Israel and Palestine. The tape suggested that Romney had zero hope for peace. As Politico's Dylan Byers notes, however, the unedited version of the tape contained the following passage right after Romney had said that an ex-Secretary of State had told him that there was a prospect for a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis after the Palestinian elections. After Romney said he didn't "delve" into it, he then added the following:
But I always keep open: the idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world. We have done that time and time and time again. It does not work. So the only answer is show them strength. American strength, American resolve, and the Palestinians will some day reach the point where they want peace more than we’re trying to force peace on them. Then it’s worth having the discussion. So until then, it’s just wishful thinking (emphasis added).
OK, so it would appear that Romney does proffer a way of getting the two sides to talk. My deepest apologies to Governor Romney for only printing the part of the statement that Mother Jones initially released.
And yet... I have anothert question now. I fear that Romney's "more resolve" strategy -- a theme he's echoed since making these comments in May -- raises more questions than answers.
For exhibit A, let's go to the Financial Times' Najmeh Bozorgmehr, who interviewed Speaker of the Iranian Parliament (and possible future PM) Ali Larijani. Here's what he had to say to Bozorgmehr about Mitt Romney:
Military action against Iran would be “highly costly” for the US and threats issued by Mitt Romney as he tries to become the next American president are campaign rhetoric only and can be largely ignored, Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Iranian parliament, has told the FT.
Mr Romney has sought to portray himself as much tougher on Iran than President Barack Obama and more sympathetic to Israel’s concerns. But Mr Larijani is unimpressed, saying the Republican candidate has the “little bit of wisdom” needed to understand the consequences of waging war on the Islamic Republic.
So it would seem that Mr. Larijani doubts Romney's strength and resolve. This is a problem. Romney's Theory of Statecraft seems to be that all U.S. problems in the world can be soled with Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength. Now, even one accepts this premise, the failure of adversaries to believe Romney's promises means he's gonna have to display even more Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength to convince people that he is being strong... and resolute.
The thing is, though, even Romney's allies doubt his strength and resolve... at least, they doubt his strength and resolve with respect to his China policy:
Mitt Romney is hoping his tough talk on China policy will win him votes — but few of his big business donors or fellow Republicans support what he’s saying or believe he’d follow through if elected.
And if he did, many analysts say, he’d likely spark a disastrous and counter-productive trade war that would hurt both American consumers and the workers he says he’s trying to protect....
An actual Romney policy, many corporate executives believe, would have the same kind of focus on bringing cases before the World Trade Organization and negotiating behind closed doors — the same approach of Obama and George W. Bush.
“On his first day on the job, Romney is not going to put himself on the immediate defensive with the world’s second largest economy,” said one top financial industry executive who strongly supports Romney....
Romney hopes his tougher words will make Obama look weak. But the question remains whether Romney’s tough talk is just that: talk.
“It’s kind of a head scratcher,” said the senior financial services executive who supports Romney but questions his China policy. “Is this just rhetoric or is this really the view of the candidate?”
Now, to be fair, it's not just Romney supporters who don't believe Romney's resolve on China. A Bloomberg Global Poll of 847 "decision makers in finance, markets and economics" showed that 82% of respondents were skeptical that Romney would designate China as a currency manipulator, for example.
So we have a presidential candidate who thinks the way to get things done is to show resolve -- but neither his allies nor his adversaries believe Romney's own resolve. Which leads to the following question: is it possible that there is simply no amount of Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength that will allow Romney to bend the rest of the world to his will? And if that's the case, what's his fallback option?
When we last left off, your humble blogger was speculating on the ways in which foreign policy had cost Mitt Romney during the campaign. In this post I want to expand on that theme -- with an assist from the just-released-this-very-minute-from-embargo 2012 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy.
To set the table:
1) Despite the expectations of some Republicans, the traditional economic variables that affect a presidential campaign aren't tilting the needle towards Mitt Romney. As the New York Times' Jeff Sommer reports:
For a year in which a truly dismal economy sealed the electoral fate of an incumbent president, [Ray Fair] says, look at 1980, when President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. In the nine months leading up to that election, per capita gross domestic product actually declined at an average annual rate of 3.7 percent, while inflation increased at an annual rate of 7.9 percent.
Professor Fair estimates that the comparable numbers for President Obama are G.D.P. growth of 1.62 percent and inflation of 1.51 percent. The low inflation rate is a plus for the president, while the mediocre G.D.P. growth rate is a problem — though not a fatal one.
“You can quite properly call this economy ‘weak,’ ” he said, “but it’s nothing like what Carter faced.” Mr. Reagan’s overwhelming victory “fit the economic picture perfectly,” he said. “This is a different situation.”
He added: “If the economy were significantly weaker or significantly stronger — if we were in a recession or if economic growth were really dramatically better — we’d have a much clearer picture of who would win the election. But the economy remains in a range of mediocre growth. It puts us in the margin-of-error range.”....
Professor Fair will compute a fresh prediction based on data available in late October, but at this stage the political probabilities aren’t likely to shift very much, he says. “It looks as though this will be a horse race, a very close one,” he says.
If it's a horse race, then one of the horses has pulled into an ever-so-slight lead. Both FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver and Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen note that the conventions have given a small but crucial advantage to the incumbent. VandeHei and Allen talked to both campaigns, and here is the best hope for the Romney camp:
[W]hen you dig into the small slice of undecided voters (probably only 6 percent to 8 percent of the electorate, according to the campaigns), the demographics are not favorable to Obama: mostly white, many with some college education, economically stressed, largely middle-aged.
Obama officials have maintained for several weeks that there are too few undecided voters for Romney to get the bounce he needs from the debates. “Romney is not going to win undecided voters 4-to-1,” a senior administration official told reporters on Air Force One on Friday. “If you are losing in Ohio by 4 or 5 points and trailing in Colorado by 2 points, if you are trailing in Nevada by 2 or 3 points, you are not going to win in those states."
So, for Romney to win, he's going to have to run the table with the tiny sliver of undecided independents.
And here is where foreign policy becomes a real problem for Mitt Romney -- because if the Chicago Council results are accurate, independents basically want the exact opposite of what Mitt Romney is selling them.
Let's stipulate that a President Romney might not actually do what he's promising during the campaign -- certainly the smart money doesn't believe him. Still, based on his rhetoric to date, let's also stipulate that Romney really wants America to lead the world. He wants to boost defense spending rather than cut it. He certainly wants to give the appearance that he would pursue a more hawkish policy towards Iran, Syria, Russia, North Korea, China and illegal immigrants than Barack Obama.
That's great -- except it turns out most of America -- and independents in particular -- want pretty much the opposite of that. Indeed, as Marshall Bouton says in the Foreword to the report:
Over time, Independents have become more inclined than either Republicans or Democrats to limit U.S. engagement in world affairs. Because Independents are an increasing share of the electorate, this development in American public opinion warrants attention.
If you read the whole report, what's striking is how much the majority view on foreign policy jibes with what the Obama administration has been doing in the world: military retrenchment from the Greater Middle East, a reliance on diplomacy and sanctions to deal with rogue states, a refocusing on East Asia, and prudent cuts in defense spending.
As for Romney, here are some excerpts from the report that suggest where the entire country -- and independents in particular -- are drifting away from his foreign policy rhetoric:
This survey demonstrates a strong desire to move on from a decade of war, to scale back spending, and avoid major new military entanglements. The lesson many Americans took away from the Iraq war—that nations should be more cautious about using military force to deal with rogue nations—appears to be taking hold more broadly (p. 13)....
Along with the lessons learned from a decade of war and a reduced sense of threat, Americans are also keenly aware of constraints on U.S. economic resources. When asked whether the defense budget should be cut along with other programs in the effort to address the federal budget deficit, 68 percent of Americans say the defense budget should be cut. This is up 10 points from 58 percent in 2010 (p. 15)....
The most preferred approach to ending [the Iranian nuclear] threat, endorsed by 80 percent, is the one that the UN Security Council is pursuing: imposing tighter economic sanctions on Iran. Essentially the same number (79%) approve of continuing diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium. Consistent with this strong support for diplomatic approaches, in a separate question, 67 percent of Americans say the United States should be willing to meet and talk with Iranian leaders (p. 29)....
Republicans see greater threats in nearly all areas tested in the 2012 survey. They are more likely than Democrats and Independents to view U.S. debt to China, immigration, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iran’s nuclear program as critical threats (p. 42).
It would appear that Americans -- particularly independents -- have become even more realpolitik than they were when I wrote this five years ago. Or, to put it more pungently, poll results like these are the kind of thing that will make John Bolton really angry and Jennifer Rubin really scared and William Kristol and the rest of the Weekly Standard gang all hot and bothered -- and not in the good way.
Now, I strongly suspect that this won't matter to most undecideds. Foreign policy really isn't a high priority for most voters. That said, there are three ways in which this could matter.
First, undecideds likely hold that position because they haven't paid a lot of attention to the campaign yet. As they start to, it's going to be easier for them to process the rhetorical differences on Iran than on health care. So if Romney is going to attract the bulk of these undecideds, he's going to do it despite his foreign policy pronouncements -- not because of them. In an election where a 2% advantage seems insurmountable in a lot of states, even tiny disadvantages matter.
Second, the Obama campaign seems to be quite eager to micro-target key audiences on foreign policy/national security, as VandeHei and Allen note in their story:
Obama’s plan is to slice and dice his way through myriad campaigns, all distinct, all designed to turn on — or off — very specific subsets of voters in specific states or even counties. Republicans concede Obama is better organized in the areas getting hit with the micro-campaigns....
The Obama plan also focuses on students with an education message; veterans in states that include Virginia, Florida, Colorado and Nevada; housing in Nevada and Florida, where the market tanked; and military families in Virginia, Florida and Colorado (emphasis added).
I am willing to bet that these groups are not going to be keen to hear anything about a more bellicose foreign policy, and Romney's waning competency on the issue won't help.
Third -- and finally -- look at it this way: if the economy doesn't produce the national poll movements that the Romney campaign wants, they'll have to shift to secondary issues. For the last forty years, the GOP has been able to go to foreign policy and national security. If Romney does that this time, however, he'll alienate the very independents he needs to win.
Could Romney/Ryan simply retool their foreign policy message for the general election to allay the concerns of independents and undecideds? No, I don't think they can. For one thing, it's simply too late to rebrand. For another, when cornered on these questions they seem to like doubling down on past statements. Finally, I get the sense that one reason Romney sounds so hawkish is because the campaign thinks it's a cheap way to appeal to the GOP base. Deviating from that script to woo the undecideds will only fuel suspicion of Romney's conservative bona fides.
So maybe, just maybe, foreign policy will matter a little bit during this election. And not in a way that helps Mitt Romney.
Am I missing anything?
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
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?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.