Foreign Policy 2012 - The Two Sides Square Off
Posted by David Shorr
It's game on, game time, kick-off time -- just pick your favorite hackneyed sports phrase -- for the general election foreign policy debate. We've had dueling open letters, volleying press quotes, and last weekend Americans for Informed Democracy organized the first debate between campaign surrogates -- with Michele Flournoy speaking on behalf of the Obama campaign and Kerry Healey representing Romney.
"In this corner... from Michigan, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Park City, and La Jolla..." Boxing pre-bout analysis was Democracy Arsenal stalwart Michael Cohen's sports cliche of choiice for his latest over at ForeignPolicy.com. Michael does his usual excellent job exposing the desperation and deceit that pervade so much of the Republican foreign policy message. To the extent Michael sees problems for President Obama, they spring from the supposed inability of politics -- and by extension, voters -- to grasp any points that don't fit on a bumper sticker. Unlike the president, Romney doesn't have to wrestle with real-world foreign policy dilemmas:
He can simply lob rhetorical haymakers that hype up the threat of an Iranian bomb or offer Churchillian declarations about his intention to stop such efforts. For example, in an earlier GOP presidential debate, Romney said that with him as president, Iran would not get a bomb -- but that under Obama, the mullahs will join the nuclear club. How exactly this would come to pass given that the two men have almost idenctical policy prescriptions is irrelevant in a dogfight.
Hold on, Michael, not so fast. I think this fight is winnable for the Obama campaign, and without asking voters to be wonkish like us. They don't have to know the finer points of statecraft or the details of the Iran case to know it's a lot harder than Romney makes it sound. And Iran is part of an overall foreign policy contrast between common sense pragmatism and empty bluster.
Republicans have become parodies of themselves, and thus easy to parody -- as in the foreign policy Mad Libs or rules of thumb that I've posted here at DA. Or take one of my favorite lines from another Michael Cohen piece:
To listen to the GOP candidates on Iran is to think that an American president can use a little military force here, drop a few sanctions there, and voilà, the Iranian nuclear program will be stopped dead in its tracks.
In other words, the magical thinking of the Republicans' foreign policy fantasies is an absolutely relevant campaign issue, even in a dogfight.
As I was thinking about how this boils down to a strategy for the 2012 foreign policy debate, I remembered the strategy that Shadow Government's Peter Feaver offered for how to campaign against President Obama's record. Feaver separated the president's policies into two categories -- arguing that Obama has been successful when he has copied his predecessor George W. Bush and failed when he has attempted major changes.
The way I see it, the Republican foreign policy argument / critique comes in two flavors. First, there are the bald and empty assertions that a Republican administration would be more effective at achieving America's international aims -- yet without a plausible explanation of how it would actually work, sometimes without even any specifics of how it would differ from what President Obama is already doing. Of course there are real policy differences too, and most of those involve either starting new wars (Iran) or staying in old ones (Iraq, Afghanistan). So there it is, vague and self-serving promises of effectiveness or war.