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February 26, 2008

Politics and Foreign Policy
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

There has been a lot of reaction to Michael Signer’s piece in the Washington Post this weekend regarding the media’s inability to cover foreign policy responsibly.  Stoller, Yglesias, Ezra and Drum all make fair points here.  But as someone who works for an organization whose mission is to bring foreign policy wonks into the political debate, there are a couple of observations still worth making.

First, Stoller rips the foreign policy community a new one for its unwillingness to get involved in politics.

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?

I think this is fair.  Too often foreign policy wonks are unwilling to engage in politics and that is something we are trying to change. But I don’t it’s fair to just blame the foreign policy community here.  There are some structural problems that need to be addressed.  Yglesias observes:

Not only are foreign policy issues very important, but the president's level of control over them is much, much, much higher.

Here I think is the core of the problem.  Precisely what makes foreign policy so important at the national level is what guarantees that there is no political training ground for national security progressives until they are suddenly involved in national campaigns.

If you are someone who truly deeply cares about domestic policy then you might just decide to become a State Senator.  Through that experience you learn that to get your agenda passed you have to be able to play politics and you learn how issues like trade, immigration, or healthcare play at the local level and how to use them politically.  But if you are someone who wants to devote your career to foreign policy or national security, you are not going to start at the Iowa state legislature.  You are going to come to Washington and probably work for the Executive Branch, where what matters is bureaucratic ability to push your agenda – not political ability.  We don’t have national security experts working their way through the political system.  Most of the strong Congressional Democrats with serious national security credentials never ran a campaign before running for national office (See Jim Webb or Joe Sestak).  Or they have been in the Senate for so long that they have become experts on this issue (See Joe Biden or Carl Levin). 

This problem also translates to the consultants.  Consultants make their way up the ladder by first winning local races.  So all those direct mailing skills that they learn about domestic issues just don’t apply to foreign policy and national security.  Then they find themselves in national races and are not nearly as comfortable with the issue and prefer to fall back on domestic issues.  Of course there is the traditional Democratic aversion to these issues, which traditionally have been a Republican strength. 

So in short.  Part of the problem is with the foreign policy wonks who need to play a more active role in politics and accept that fact.  But part of the problem is also with progressive and Democratic politicians who haven’t always been comfortable with these issues.  What needs to change here is that there needs to be some responsibility on the part of local politicians who aspire for national office to get interested in national security issues earlier.  And there needs to be more work in the progressive community to build that kind of support system that helps these types of politicians and also trains more foreign policy wonks in the ways of politics.  This is something that we have been working on here at NSN and I know there are a lot of others in the progressive community (including Matt Stoller) who have seen the need, and are doing good work.

Anyway, that’ my main point.  A couple of other thoughts below the fold.

I agree with Ezra that the issue here is not foreign policy but to some extent how all policy issues get covered during campaigns, especially in a primary where people basically agree.  I pay close attention to the campaigns foreign policy statements so I can actually distinguish between some of the differences, but I’ve found that the whole argument has pretty much been boiled down to will you meet with dictators?  In the same way, the entire argument about Healthcare has been boiled down to mandates.  I don’t remember the media doing an amazing job covering major addresses on energy, the economy, healthcare or Social security.  I still have a hard time distinguishing the differences and I’ve been paying closer attention to the election than 99.9% of the population. 

I think Drum is absolutely right when he says that:

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.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out in all of this that the 2006 elections revolved around Iraq and Democrats dominated the issue.  It was probably the single most important factor (Although not the only factor) in the election.  It dominated 2007 as a political issue.  And if Iraq isn’t a foreign policy issue, I really don’t know what is?  I think Democrats are getting better and better at this, but there is still work to be done.

Update:  A reader points out that Signer does in fact talk about the foreign policy approach during primary season:

History shows it. 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.

That's fair.  So, Drum's point is factually incorrect and a bit unfair.  Still, I don't really know how much coverage these debates got in the primary versus how much they got in the general.  If the world is as it should be, then we'd expect to see the conversation continue into the general election where it might in fact get more coverage.  Undoubtedly Obama's focus on Pakistan and talking to others and McCain's focus on Iraq should hopefully continue into the general, where I hope they will be more throughly vetted and discussed.  If that doesn't happen, then I think Signer is right and we have a problem.  But if thre is a sharp focus then I think Drum is right.  We'll have to wait and see.


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Most people who do campaign politics for a living would be no good at foreign affairs. The reverse is also true.

In America, everyone thinks they can do politics. It's not really true. Campaign politics require specialized knowledge and -- even more important -- a specialized kind of judgment that people who deal with foreign policy all the time often don't have. There are some exceptions, of course. But for the most part foreign policy professionals are best confining themselves to comunicating to elected officials what they think American interests overseas are. Trying to figure out what the American people want is a job better left to others.

The Democrats and the media are still traumatized by the Vietnam War and also still afraid to criticize the Cold War Triumphilism of the nineties. Both the Democrats and the media are afraid that if they criticize the Iraq War too much they will be blamed for losing the war much as they took the blame for the fall of South Vietnam. Plus a great many in the Democratic Party and the media were influenced by the Cold War Triumphilism of the nineties which stated that the United States can do no wrong or that force or a tough foreign policy like Reagans was the only way to deal with rogue states.

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