Paul Pillar

Foreign Policy and the Perplexed Voter

The political parties' quadrennial conventions, now that nominations are no longer decided there, are often regarded as opportunities for a nominee to define himself to a national audience. The approach of the Republican convention has been the occasion for considerable commentary about the defining that Mitt Romney still has to do, including on foreign policy. The cover of this week's Economist asks, “So, Mitt, what do you really believe?” The generally right-of-center publication says it “finds much to like” in Romney but expresses some of its strongest doubts regarding what Romney has said so far on foreign policy, specifically mentioning China, immigration, and “his attempts to lure American Jews with near-racist talk about Arabs and belligerence against Iran.” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, in commenting about the undefined aspects of Romney's foreign-policy posture, writes, “Other than his support for Israel and rhetorical shots at Russia and China, it’s a mystery what Romney thinks about major international issues and where he would take the country.”

In trying to identify the direction a President Romney would take the country's foreign relations, Ignatius cites the National Interest's own Robert Merry, who explains that the “default position” of the party that is about to nominate Romney is that of the neoconservatives. Ignatius also presents what he describes as a “contrary view” from an anonymous but prominent neocon who is sympathetic to Romney but disappointed that he “has done nothing to present a coherent foreign policy” and instead has conducted a campaign that on foreign matters has consisted of little more than “opposition research” and “drive-by shooting of Obama.” Actually these two views are not contradictory. The neocon presents a fair description of the foreign-policy side of Romney's campaign, while Merry is correct that in any intramural contest among Republicans over actual policy, there is no other current school of thought that seems able to overpower the neoconservatives.

What is a genuinely open-minded voter who regards foreign policy as important, and wants to cast his or her ballot partly on the basis of foreign policy and not just according to an opinion about abortion or Obamacare or some other domestic issue, to make of this campaign? I am not implying that such voters constitute a large part of the electorate, but any who do exist deserve to be commended for their attitude toward the election and deserve guidance in how to act on their good intentions.

One possible approach would be to accept the inability to make clear foreign-policy distinctions between candidates and just vote based on any preferences one has on domestic issues. Ignatius cites an anonymous “prominent Republican” who would seem to lend support to this approach by saying that once in office any president responds to the foreign realities he faces and that policy doesn't really vary much from one administration to another, regardless of what was said in campaigns. It is true that a large proportion of foreign policy is driven by those realities and that election campaigns artificially amplify apparent differences. But it is simply not true that the electorate's choice matters as little in foreign policy as the statement implies. A glaring case in point is what became by far the biggest part of the immediate past administration's foreign policy: the Iraq War. The war was a project of the neoconservatives and assertive nationalists who dominated that administration. The war had huge costs and consequences for U.S. interests. Such a war would not even have been raised as a possibility under a President Gore.

Choosing a president matters a lot for foreign policy, and a foreign-policy-minded voter can choose intelligently even if unable to predict specific policies that one or the other candidate would implement. The vagueness and omissions of campaign rhetoric are one reason for the unpredictability. Those foreign realities, some of which have a way of suddenly going bump in the night, are another reason. The Iraq War again illustrates the point. Voters could not have predicted in 2000 that one of the candidates would as president initiate such a war, mainly because they could not have predicted the event that made the war politically possible by causing a sea change in American public attitudes about national security: the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Anticipating the foreign policies of different candidates may not be a prediction of specific policies, but it can entail a plausible estimate of different relative likelihoods of different types of policies. Campaign rhetoric and the proclivities of prominent advisers provide some basis for making such an estimate (as could have been done to some extent with candidate George W. Bush and the neocons, some of whom already were openly advocating the use of force to overthrow the Iraqi regime even though their political opportunity to do so had not yet come). The default ideology of a candidate's political party, as described by Merry in the case of today's Republicans, provides still more of a basis. (James Kitfield's article on the influences bearing on Romney's foreign-policy views is an excellent tutorial on the subject.)