“They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly, saying “peace, peace,” where there is no peace.” – Jeremiah 6:14
While foreign policy issues were not uppermost in the minds of most voters this year, such issues played into Barack Obama’s reelection in some interesting ways. Available exit polls from Tuesday night confirm what the pollsters said for much of 2012: that international affairs ranked far behind the economy as a voting determinant, but that Obama had a clear advantage over Mitt Romney for those most concerned about foreign policy. Since we’ve seen no exit polls on the issue of national defense, it’s hard to say whether Obama had any similar advantage there – most likely he did not. In any case, the question for conservatives and Republicans is where to go from here. What lessons should we draw from Obama’s election night advantage on foreign policy issues?
We can expect that a common argument in the days ahead, emanating from a good portion of the press, will be the following: that Romney lost to Obama on foreign policy issues because Republicans are still in thrall to a “neoconservative” set of people and ideas, and because the supposedly super-hawkish Governor offered no serious alternative to Obama’s international approach. These commentators will further say that Obama’s liberal multilateral alternative – including “ending the wars” overseas – has been thoroughly vindicated. Republican isolationists will offer their own modified version of this argument, saying that the results indicate why the GOP should — and now will — embrace a foreign policy of pristine disengagement abroad.
There are several things to say in response to this.
- On Obama’s Foreign Policy: Obama helped secure his reelection, including his domestic political advantage on foreign policy issues, by diverting popular attention away from genuine international security challenges. A short and incomplete list of such diversions would include: refusing to even talk about an ongoing U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, or the looming consequences of American withdrawal; pretending to get tough on Tehran, while apparently hoping for a deal that leaves Iranian nuclear capabilities intact; pretending that the ballyhooed “reset” with Russia has stopped that country from acting as a strategic adversary of the United States; pretending that jihadist militants have not received a major boost from the chaos engendered by the Arab spring, in contradiction to stated U.S. policy; and pretending that Libya has not turned into a humiliating disaster for this administration.
All of this implies the opposite of what is commonly called “diversionary war” theory in political science. Diversionary war theory suggests that national leaders embrace military adventures overseas in order to divert attention from domestic problems at home. For a good example of the dumbed-down version of that argument, think of Michael Moore.
It turns out, however, that democratically elected leaders engage in diversionary warfare very rarely; the phenomenon is much more common under authoritarian regimes. The most common domestic political pressure in modern democracies, including the United States, is away from the prospect of war. The general public in this country prefers strength on national security but frequently shies away from the prospect of direct military intervention overseas. Obama understands this very well. He also has his own reasons for downplaying international security challenges to the U.S. — namely that his number one priority, apart from reelection, was always to secure an ambitious set of liberal domestic reforms and political victories within the United States.
The particular mistake that conservatives have usually made is to underestimate Obama or to think of him as simply weak. He is not. He is a very patient, intelligent, and tactically flexible liberal committed to transforming this country in a liberal direction. And he is well on his way to doing it.
He knows that he has to be just tough enough on national security to neutralize the usual Republican advantage on that issue. But at the end of the day, he would rather not talk about national security issues at all because they divert energy from his domestic agenda. So he does what he must, while subtly downplaying the reality of multiple genuine threats to American interests abroad. It has to be said that this time around, in strictly political terms, it worked. Whether he has planted the seeds of numerous international disasters over the long term is another question entirely.
- On the legendary influence of the neoconservatives: It is true that Romney came out in favor of American exceptionalism, U.S. military strength, and a less accommodating approach toward numerous self-described adversaries of the United States overseas. If this is neoconservative, so be it, but it also reveals the current emptiness of the term. As a matter of fact, Romney did not call for an increased direct U.S. military presence in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else. His preference, repeatedly declared, was for a traditional GOP policy of peace through strength. And he had an impressive, diverse team of foreign policy advisers who ranged across the spectrum of Republican internationalism. The GOP’s leaders (including its foreign policy figures) are well aware of the mistakes George W. Bush made initially in Iraq circa 2003. Anyone who tells you that Republicans have learned absolutely nothing over the past decade on foreign policy is revealing that they have not been a part of the conversation.
- On the supposed vindication of a liberal multilateral approach: If Obama had actually followed a consistently liberal multilateral foreign policy approach, he would not have won any political advantage on international issues. On his signature foreign policy achievement, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, President Obama quite rightly ignored liberal multilateral pieties and instead authorized a U.S. military strike on the territory of a nominal U.S. ally, without that ally’s knowledge or permission. The only thing that distinguishes such behavior from what is commonly called Republican unilateralism is that it was undertaken by a Democratic president. On a number of international and security issues related to counter-terrorism, principled liberals admit that Obama frequently cycled back toward an approach very similar to that of George W. Bush. The most striking difference was that he continually castigated the memory of Bush while doing it. The killing of Bin Laden was an entirely welcome event, and one for which Obama deserves credit. It was also, in domestic political terms, one hell of a bumper sticker. Democrats often complain that on national security, they have the better policies, while Republicans have all the bumper stickers. This year, it was precisely the reverse.
- Here is another great bumper sticker: Obama is “ending the wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. This one was deliberately and finely tuned to the obvious fatigue on the part of American voters with U.S. military interventions abroad. Unlike the “Bin Laden is dead” bumper sticker, however, this one was complete nonsense. In fact it was downright dangerous and misleading – an excellent example of the diversionary peace.
Obama has not ended a single war anywhere. On the contrary, he has simply begun to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, under an absurdly specific timeline, while that war inevitably continues under conditions less favorable to American interests. On Iraq, if anything, the true credit for dramatic reductions in violence belongs to the much maligned George W. Bush, who authorized a remarkably successful Iraq surge strategy in 2007. In effect, the Iraq war was largely over before Obama assumed office. His main contribution was a failure to secure a status-of-forces agreement with Baghdad that might have enhanced American influence in the region.
On Libya, Obama takes credit for toppling a dictator, but the president and his administration have handled the entire affair in such a half-hearted and politically hypersensitive manner that they have undermined their own narrative. Libya is now clearly a failed state, a breeding ground for jihadist militants, and far from a foreign policy success. In strictly political terms, this White House managed to avoid being held accountable for the Benghazi attacks just in time for Obama’s reelection, but they will live to regret their fecklessness on this issue.
- An upcoming reversion to isolationism? Genuine Republican isolationists, of whom there are actually very few, will argue that these election results prove the GOP must return to the supposedly great days of the interwar period (1919-1939). This is what they argue every four years. The other thing isolationists do every four years is lose.
Republican primary voters have had the opportunity continually since 1940 to embrace a truly isolationist presidential candidate. They have never seen fit to seize it, and with good reason – isolationism didn’t work out so well the last time we tried it.
To be sure, there can and should be a healthy debate among Republicans and conservatives over what exact foreign policy the GOP should stand for, and what precise positions it should embrace. A certain skepticism regarding new interventions overseas is not necessarily the same thing as isolationism. But the genuine isolationists, who call for a thorough dismantling of America’s international presence established after World War Two, are as wrong as they are marginal. They are wrong because the United States remains the linchpin of an international system that is still remarkably prosperous, peaceful, and free by historical standards. They are marginal because neither most Americans, nor most Republicans, truly want to dismantle that linchpin role. In fact, conservative Republicans are, of all U.S. political groupings, the most hostile to the notion to that the United States should surrender international leadership or military power. It’s not that Ron Paul’s extremely dovish and isolationist views don’t have a certain cache among a minority of American opinion. It’s just that their cache is among left-liberal Democrats and low-information independent voters. In other words, Republican isolationists are in the wrong party. It is never too early to predict their defeat in the next GOP presidential primary.
To illustrate the political reality facing Republicans on foreign policy issues today, consider that the GOP has three basic options for how to describe Obama’s foreign policy:
1. Obama’s foreign policy approach is not sufficiently tough.
2. Obama’s foreign policy approach is too tough.
3. Obama’s foreign policy approach is just right.
Option 3, apart from being wrong on the merits, obviously cedes the argument to the Democrats. Why vote Republican if the GOP supports Obama’s own approach across the board?
Option 2 represents the dovish, isolationist view. In the unlikely event that the GOP were to embrace it comprehensively, it would no doubt lose the party more voters than it ever won over. Specifically, a Republican turn towards isolationism might win over some low-information independents who resent all American engagement overseas. Left-liberal doves would probably still vote Democrat in any case, based on domestic issues. And in the meantime, the GOP would have alienated a broad range of voters in the middle and on the right who reject strict isolationism and instead value strength on national security. This is the ultimate irony of the isolationist argument: in their eagerness to respond to the Democrats’ current but temporary advantage on foreign policy issues, GOP isolationists would hand that advantage over to the Democrats for all time.
On foreign policy and defense issues over the next four years, each of America’s two great political parties will continue to play their historically assigned roles. The historic role of Republicans is to act as watchdogs over U.S. national security, whether other people like it or not. The historic role of Democrats is to complain about Republicans.
Much of the elite press will continue to assist the Democrats in making these complaints. Ignore them. Congressional Republicans in particular should keep holding the Administration’s feet to the fire over defense spending, Libya, Afghanistan, Israel, counter-terrorism, Russia, China, arms control, treaty powers, issues of national sovereignty, and intelligence oversight – all areas where this administration might risk undermining U.S. national security interests.
The general public is simply not very interested in foreign policy right now. Obama understood this, played up to it, encouraged it, and gained from it – temporarily. But there will be a reckoning. Ignoring or diverting attention from international challenges doesn’t actually make them go away. It just postpones the consequences. When those consequences become painfully clear for all to see, the American people will do what they always do in the end – they will step up, and resist danger. And when they do, we’ll be back.