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February 27, 2008

On Foreign Policy Coverage
Posted by Michael Signer

An essay I wrote in the Washington Post on Sunday about foreign policy coverage during this campaign has provoked a wide range of interesting and occasionally bewildering responses, from Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, AJ Rossmiller, Ilan Goldenberg, and Matt Stoller.   

I will get to them in a moment, but first wanted to say that there was an extremely heartening sequence in the MSNBC debate in Cleveland last night.  Tim Russert asked both candidates tough questions about Dmitri Medvedev, Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor as president. 

As I’m still involved in the race in some ways, I won’t comment on the particular merits of each answer, but the exercise proved my original point—when the media engage in a serious way in probing candidates on foreign policy, they can push the candidates to reveal ways they think and qualities they would manifest as commander-in-chief.  I’ve included an excerpt at the end of this post.

Now, for the debate about coverage.  Ezra, Matt, and A.J. all had approving, thoughtful posts both appraising the depth of this disaster and trying to explain its causes a little better.  Ezra observed a lack of thoughtful, in-depth journalistic coverage of policy in general.  Matt said we lack Krugman-esque journalists working on foreign policy.

This is exactly the constructive path we ought to take, and I just hope that some members of the MSM get in the game.

But then there were a couple of posts that took a different path—toward a blame-the-victim pattern that attempted to blame campaigns for the media’s failure to cover their foreign policy proposals.  I'd like to talk about this because I think it's actually a really instructive pressure point in this debate, especially for the blogs who are supposed to be keeping the MSM honest.

It seems to have begun with Matt Stoller, who has written two posts now—one intemperate and a little bizarre, the second a little more thoughtful and constructive.  In the first, here's what he writes:

Here's what Signer writes.

This time around, the three top Democratic candidates all proposed assertive ideas for tackling major problems in roughly the same time frame. In April, May and June respectively, Obama, Edwards and Clinton all gave major speeches on national security. Obama called for "building a 21st-century military." Edwards proposed building a "mission-focused military." Clinton called to "rebuild our strength and widen and deepen [the military's] scope."

You'd think that journalists would do a comparative analysis of what the three candidates had proposed for the U.S. military in the coming decade; what they could do, practically; and what the speeches might predict about national security during their presidencies. But no.

No, Signer, that's what YOU think journalists should do, because you enjoy comparative analysis of bureaucratic sounding language that few outside of military think tanks understand.  What political journalists cover is politics, and they don't do a particularly good job.  That's obvious.  That's been obvious for years.  Why you run your foreign policy discussions as if they do cover substantive issues in depth is the question I have.  The media's problems are the media's problems, but they should not obscure the fact that 'major serious policy addresses' are terrible forums to communicate major serious policy ideas, and that progressive foreign policy elites just don't tend to deal with politics or organizing or engaging with the public itself in a serious sustained fashion.

It's time that Signer look himself in the mirror and recognize that politics matters.  If he or someone like him is not sitting in the room where the decisions about TV, direct mail, and organizing are made, then no one in the press will take his foreign policy addresses seriously.  And you can blame the press if you want, but if 97% of a campaign budget is going towards something other than communicating foreign policy ideas to the public, then what exactly is being done to fix this problem?

What in the world is Stoller talking about? 

Let's set aside the ad hominem tone (would looking at myself in the mirror really solve any of these problems?) and get to some facts about the interrelationship between the policy and political sides of a campaign.

I suspect my role as Edwards' foreign policy advisor was similar to my counterparts on the other campaigns.  I was on our 8 a.m. daily message calls; I worked on statements on highly political subjects, like the Congressional authorization of Iraq spending bills, or the Iran Revolutionary Guard vote; I worked with our political and field folks on constituency efforts that fell squarely into the foreign policy and national security area (examples would include working with the veterans community on our health care proposals and working with the Armenian-American community on language about Turkey); and I was consulted on our direct mail and other paid media.

We also did a lot on the campaign that I would think would be “political” even in Stoller’s estimation.  We strongly opposed Hillary Clinton’s vote to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, and included this during the closing months of 2007 in almost everything Senator Edwards did in the early states. 

Along these lines, we also saw the need to provide a substantive alternative to this Iran approach—so Senator Edwards delivered an address proposing an entirely new approach to Iran in Iowa City on November 5 titled “Learning the Lessons of Iraq: A New Direction on Iran.” 

This was very political.  Senator Edwards was frequently confronting Senator Clinton on what he saw as a major foreign policy blunder, as was Senator Obama. 

Again, you could have heard a pin drop in the mainstream media.  We did see a piece in the New York Times' Caucus blog by Christine Hauser, but it basically just recounted the speech without any research or analysis. 

So, in sum, I just don’t think you can blame the campaigns—they are all trying as hard as they can to make foreign policy a political issue.

But there’s a deeper problem.  Foreign policy does not, empirically, and should not, normatively, conform to the simplistic “politics” that Stoller seems to want it to, and that’s for a good reason.  At base, when candidates offer foreign policy proposals in a campaign, they are binding themselves in the future -- they are making commitments.  For this reason, foreign policy is less relevant as an index of the back-and-forth of a campaign -- the "politics" -- and is more about the candidate's attempt to win an argument about being the best candidate for commander-in-chief. 

As I wrote in my original article, foreign policy proposals can tell you a lot about a candidate:

Even if candidates fail to implement them in office, the proposals they put forth during a campaign are a reflection of their courage (or lack thereof), their intellectual depth, their fluency in difficult subject matter and their knowledge of history.

My argument is that because the candidates—on their own—do tons of foreign policy, the media ought to use these proposals as a platform to explore the candidates themselves, and that this the media’s role and responsibility.  Stoller, on the other hand, seems to be saying that, from the campaign’s perspective, politics ought to come before the policy, and that if it doesn’t, the campaigns are to blame for not giving the media enough of a horse race and show of attacks to “cover.”

This is just too cynical for me to accept, and too condescending toward actual voters to be plausible. 

Obviously, campaigns are engaged in a delicate dance between the thrust-and-parry of a campaign and the desire to convince voters that candidate A is more substantive and compelling than candidate B.  Campaigns—which are comprised of human beings, after all—are aware that everyone likes a fight.  But voters also like someone smart, with a vision, who has real ideas.  In 1992, Bill Clinton would have gone nowhere without the very substantive bulk of policy proposals he had developed as head of the DLC and as a multi-term governor, whether you liked those ideas or not.  Bobby Kennedy’s book To Seek a Newer World, originally published in 1968, when he was running for president, is essentially a compendium of policy proposals, many of them on foreign policy.

Stoller, to his credit, softened his tone considerably in a second follow-up post.

Wonks need to get more political and more in touch with what it means to organize and fight for your foreign policy vision among voters themselves.  But the other side of the coin is that, from what I've noticed, political operatives in the Democratic Party tend to seriously undervalue substantive arguments for a different way of governing. 

Even if this is more balanced, I still don’t see the point and am not sure Stoller really has facts at his disposal to support his proposition. 

In this campaign season, there have been energetic and highly organized political/field/organizing campaigns with thousands of people, fancy schwag, and paid media campaigns on the following issues:  Darfur (the Save Darfur Coalition), the military budget (Ben Cohen’s Sensible Priorities group, whose pie-chart of our discretional spending was extremely visible and whose grassroots activists were dominant in both Iowa and New Hampshire), and global aid (Bono’s ONE and DATA groups, whose activists were also extremely active and ubiquitous on the ground in the early states). 

The Edwards campaign met many times with these groups, worked with them on events, made several major speeches containing bold proposals on these three areas, was endorsed by Citizens for Sensible Priorities in Iowa, and had the most ambitious global aid proposals. 

Yet, again, there was no substantive coverage of our politics, policy, and potential presidential leadership on these three issues—Darfur, the military budget, and global aid. 

Has Stoller himself written about these issues?

Then Kevin Drum -- whose stuff I normally think is terrific -- wrote an atypically inapt post that obscured rather than clarified a couple of the issues under discussion:

[F]oreign policy by its very nature tends to be far mushier than domestic policy. Outside of Iraq the Democratic candidates sparred a bit over preconditions for meeting with foreign leaders and whether or not they supported covert strikes against al-Qaeda in Pakistan, but at the level of speeches it was hard to suss out a lot of substantive differences. It's not an impossible task, but anyone trying it either has to admit that the differences are subtle (i.e., boring) or else run the risk of getting things completely wrong via close reading of ambiguous phrases. If candidates were willing to entertain foreign policy hypotheticals their differences would be a lot easier to figure out, but they're not. So we're stuck.

Of course, things weren't really all that different on the domestic side, were they? Domestic policy tends to be a little more specific, which makes for easier comparisons, but in the case of healthcare (to take an example) all that got us was an endless, dreary debate about mandates. That's interesting to wonks, but not to much of anyone else.

Signer suggests that foreign policy debates have been sharper in the past, but his examples are all from general elections, not primaries. This year should be no different. Iraq will still be the 800-pound gorilla, but the differences between John McCain and the Democratic candidate should be sharp enough to produce some foreign policy fireworks. Who knows? By the time October rolls around we might all be wishing that the press would shut up on the subject.

First of all, as I told Kevin later, my examples were from primary campaigns, so this was wrong.  In my concluding graf, I wrote:

In 1959, John F. Kennedy was arguing that we had a "missile gap" with the Soviet Union -- and increased tensions with Moscow. In 1979, Ronald Reagan said that "negotiation with the Soviet Union must never become appeasement" -- and as president, he ratcheted up the Cold War. There are no guarantees, but what the candidates are saying about foreign policy this time around just might affect the course of history.

These examples were from contested primary campaigns where JFK and Reagan faced reasonably strong opponents, in 1959 and in 1979.  So that was a mistake, and the argument -- that primaries are different from generals, and problems in the former less important (presumably) than in the latter -- also mistaken.

Second and more important, what does Kevin mean when he wrote that foreign policy is “mushier” than domestic policy?  Again, an example from the Edwards campaign.  Here are the proposals Senator Edwards made on Iran—a very hot political issue, an active front between all three campaigns, and at a moment when national press attention was white-hot—on November 5 in Iowa City:

#1:  End the “preventive war” doctrine.  As president, Edwards will ask his National Security Advisor to remove President Bush’s explicit endorsement of “preventive war” from his National Security Strategies.  And he will ask his Joint Chiefs of Staff to form military plans in accordance with the national security strategies that we know can keep us and our allies safe—not discredited and dangerous ideological fancies. 

#2:  Use bolder and more targeted economic sanctions.  First, we must fully enforce the Iran Sanctions Act, a law Congress passed to let the president punish companies that do business with Iran’s extremist regime.  Second, we must work multilaterally—most importantly, with our Western European allies—to strengthen economic sanctions on Iran.  Third, we must completely shut down all Iranian access to the American financial system. 

#3:  Use incentives:  Edwards believes we should also use “carrots”—diplomatic measures to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions and support of terrorism.  Iran, which right now cannot even process its own oil and imports the majority of its fuel, needs greater energy resources.  We should draw Iran into compliance through incentives including increased refinery capacity.  We should also lead a multilateral effort to create a regional fuel bank that Iran could use for peaceful purposes.  Finally, we should use the possibility of bringing Iran into multilateral economic organizations, including the WTO, to draw Iran’s elites into pressuring the regime to change course and abandon its nuclear ambitions. 

#4:  Reengage with Iran:  We should chart a new course for diplomatic relations with Iran by expanding low-level talks between government officials on both sides in a neutral country. 

#5:  Reengage with other major nations on the challenge of Iran:  We must work with China and Russia on the problem of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Both nations have economic relationships with Iran on trade and energy.  But both nations also have a strong interest in stability in the Middle East.  And neither nation wants the nuclear club to expand.  In place of the wayward and ad hoc diplomacy of the Bush Administration, we need more effective and strategic reengagement with both China and Russia.  We need to make Iran a top-level priority in our bilateral relationships with both countries.  We must work with both Russia and China on how they can achieve their economic goals through alternatives that will not assist Iran’s military nuclear capability.  In the first year of his administration, Edwards will convene a conference with his Secretary of State and representatives from the “E.U. 3”—Great Britain, France, and Germany—Russia, China—and Iran.  At this conference, we should discuss a way out of the stalemate caused by the Bush administration.

Is Kevin seriously saying that this (and there are dozens of examples from all of the campaigns of similar proposals) lacked specifics?  But again, there was really no coverage—and it can’t be because of Stoller’s explanation, that our campaign was somehow apolitical, or because of Kevin’s explanation, that it was somehow more “mushy.”

I return to my original argument—which is very simple, really.  The mainstream media ought to be doing more probing, serious, analytical coverage of foreign policy. 

And maybe some of the blogs should be as well!

* * *

P.S. Here’s the excerpt from the debate I talked about at the beginning:

RUSSERT: Before the primary on Tuesday, on Sunday, March 2, there's an election in Russia for the successor to President Putin. What can you tell me about the man who's going to be Mr. Putin's successor?

CLINTON: Well, I can tell you that he's a hand-picked successor, that he is someone who is obviously being installed by Putin, who Putin can control, who has very little independence, the best we know. You know, there's a lot of information still to be acquired. That the so-called opposition was basically run out of the political opportunity to wage a campaign against Putin's hand-picked successor, and the so-called leading opposition figure spends most of his time praising Putin. So this is a clever but transparent way for Putin to hold on to power, and it raises serious issues about how we're going to deal with Russia going forward.

I have been very critical of the Bush administration for what I believe to have been an incoherent policy toward Russia. And with the reassertion of Russia's role in Europe, with some of the mischief that they seem to be causing in supporting Iran's nuclear ambitions, for example, it's imperative that we begin to have a more realistic and effective strategy toward Russia. But I have no doubt, as president, even though technically the meetings may be with the man who is labeled as president, the decisions will be made by Putin.

RUSSERT: Who will it be? Do you know his name?

CLINTON: Medvedev -- whatever.



RUSSERT: Senator Obama, do you know anything about him?

OBAMA: Well, I think Senator Clinton speaks accurately about him. He is somebody who was hand-picked by Putin. Putin has been very clear that he will continue to have the strongest hand in Russia in terms of running the government. And, you know, it looks -- just think back to the beginning of President Bush's administration when he said -- you know, he met with Putin, looked into his eyes and saw his soul, and figured he could do business with him.

He then proceeded to neglect our relationship with Russia at a time when Putin was strangling any opposition in the country when he was consolidating power, rattling sabers against his European neighbors, as well as satellites of the former Soviet Union. And so we did not send a signal to Mr. Putin that, in fact, we were going to be serious about issues like human rights, issues like international cooperation that were critical to us. That is something that we have to change.

RUSSERT: He's 42 years old, he's a former law professor. He is Mr. Putin's campaign manager. He is going to be the new president of Russia. And if he says to the Russian troops, you know what, why don't you go help Serbia retake Kosovo, what does President Obama do?

OBAMA: Well, I think that we work with the international community that has also recognized Kosovo, and state that that's unacceptable. But, fortunately, we have a strong international structure anchored in NATO to deal with this issue.

We don't have to work in isolation. And this is an area where I think that the Clinton administration deserves a lot of credit, is, you know, the way in which they put together a coalition that has functioned.

OBAMA: It has not been perfect, but it saved lives. And we created a situation in which not only Kosovo, but other parts of the former Yugoslavia at least have the potential to over time build democracies and enter into the broader European community.

But, you know, be very clear: We have recognized the country of Kosovo as an independent, sovereign nation, as has Great Britain and many other countries in the region. And I think that that carries with it, then, certain obligations to ensure that they are not invaded. 


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what do you mean by "I'm still involved in the race in some ways"? Did you sign up with another campaign?

There’s another angle to this issue which as far as I can tell has not yet been addressed—namely, the informational context within which foreign policy debates and news coverage of same (or lack thereof) take place. One thing that has often inhibited detailed discussion of foreign policy is the fact that an overwhelming majority of American adults are utterly ignorant of history, geography, even the names of their senators and congresspeople. In fact many don’t even know the name of the vice president of the United States. There is, of course, a dialectical relationship between an ignorant public and an uninformed and uninformative news media. Media apologists like to obscure responsibility for their part fo this relationship by claiming that in refusing to air detailed, substantive policy discussions, they’re merely giving the public what it wants. Adding to the fun is the increasing self-absorption of many in the U.S., a process that seems to have accelerated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and which reinforces the arguments among news media advocates for programming aimed at perpetuating intellectual laziness on the part of the public.

This situation cries out for a new Herbert Marcuse-styled critique (hopefully more intellectually rigorous and consistent) of the status quo, but that’s another story and a much bigger and more elusive agenda than we’ve got time for. More to the point, it makes detailed discussions of foreign (and domestic) policy very difficult to present.

One thing we obviously have in our favor at the moment is the fact that foreign policy is on everyone’s mind due to the sheer volume of crises we face. My fear, however, is that once we find a way to either solve these crises or make them disappear from the front page (thereby alleviating the widespread sense of personal threat), the American public will once again go back to examining its collective navel.

I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t try to engage in public discussions of these sorts of things—only that we ought to take into account all the variables involved.

I return to my original argument—which is very simple, really. The mainstream media ought to be doing more probing, serious, analytical coverage of foreign policy.

Sure. They ought to have better foreign policy coverage. And the viewers and readers to whom the mainstream media sell their wares ought to be more interested in foreign policy. They ought to pay more attention to the world outside America, and thus generate the market demand that would push news editors and producers into providing more foreign policy coverage to meet that demand. Similarly, they ought to eat better, get more exercise, cultivate stronger interests in literature and the fine arts, and be more careful about running up credit card debt. There are a whole lot of things Americans ought to do, but don't do.

What percentage of Americans do you think pay any attention to events in Pakistan in a typical week when no major Pakistani figure is assassinated? What percentage of Americans understand that we currently have a "preventive war doctrine" or could state clearly what that doctrine amounts to, and how it differs from traditional doctrines about preemption as opposed to prevention?

There is a significant minority of Americans who do pay attention to these issues, and they seek out the coverage they want from the relatively small number of serious periodicals that cover foreign policy in depth, or from various online sites. The rest really don't care that much about foreign policy beyond the very small number of crisis topics that engross their attention: what to do about Iraq for example.

So you can exhort people all you want, Michael, by telling them what they ought to do and ought to read. But what is your actual plan for getting the American public to take a broader, more consistent and more in-depth interest in foreign affairs and foreign policy?

I'm sympathetic to many aspects of Signer's argument. Having said that, I should also point out that just as campaign reporting is a specialized trade that doesn't reward in-depth analysis of foreign affairs, reporting on foreign policy is a kind of specialty in itself. So are reporting on intelligence and the defense budget, respectively, both of which practically come with their own languages, related to English only insofar as they use the same alphabet.

That part of the media -- and this includes most of the blogosphere -- that does follow foreign affairs intently tends to pay attention to public officials influential in that policy area. John Edwards was never one of those officials. I know this contradicts his campaign's spin (as well as Clinton's and Obama's) but Edwards did not make his reputation in public office, or before that in private life, in international relations. If elected President he would have been a foreign policy novice, a greenhorn, a rookie. This is a worthwhile story in itself, especially since the current President (and the one before that, and most of the candidates this year in both parties) also fit this description before being elected; I would certainly agree that this story has been undercovered. But until such a candidate's election is imminent, naturally the foreign policy media will devote more attention to politicians like Sens. McCain or Biden, or any of several administration figures, with a record of interest and responsible activity in the field.


I largely agree with your WaPo article, but I don't see eye to eye with you on the Russert question. I've written a brief critique which is currently running both at my own blog, Foreign Policy Watch, and at The Moderate Voice. I'd be curious as to your feedback.

Take a look:

I don't agree with Stoller, but I get where he's coming from. He thinks -- and I think Drum is saying the same thing with the "mushier" line -- that there's a connective thread between politics and policy. That's obviously true, but it's much more clearly true with domestic policy. After all, there are actual voters who will be directly impacted by, say, health care. So they have a much more direct, rational interest in certain policies.

Stoller seems to want you to corral support for a Russia policy the way you'd organize, say, opposition to NAFTA. But it doesn't work that way. That may or may not be why reporters don't cover it, I couldn't say, but I think that the answer is in there somewhere.

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