Paul Pillar

The Campaign and Feckless Foreign Policy Debate

The current presidential-election campaign, as it has shaped up so far, has been almost worthless as a vehicle for informed debate about U.S. foreign policy. In fact, it has been worse than useless, in the sense of imparting misconceptions and puerile formulations rather than highlighting important choices. It is easy to forget, of course, the undesirable characteristics of earlier campaigns, and if the current one seems worse that may partly be because it happens to be the one that right now is unfolding its unattractive form before our eyes. But for anyone who cares both about sound foreign policy and vigorous democratic politics—and hopes that in the American context those two things can be compatible—there is ample reason for concern.

The single biggest foreign-policy dimension of the contest among Republican presidential candidates has been a striving to see who can sound most bellicose about Iran. Much of the other Republican criticism of the Obama administration's foreign and security policy, on matters such as defense spending or the Arab Spring, seems like a striving to stake out a different position from the administration for the sake of being different from the administration, with little or no explanation of why U.S. interests would be better served by the particular alternative course being offered. As some commentators have noted, the Republicans' posturing reflects their political difficulty in dealing with Mr. Obama's foreign-policy successes. These especially include fulfillment of his commitment to end the U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq (a step that, despite creative efforts on the right to make an issue of this, is further insulated from strong criticism because it involved implementation of a troop-withdrawal agreement reached by the Bush administration). The successes also include the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the arch protagonist of Bush's “war on terror.” The candidates have to say something about foreign policy without just complimenting the president, and the rabidly anti-Iran rhetoric is most of what is left.

Another common observation is that what we are seeing right now is a primary campaign, and of course much of what we hear consists of red meat being tossed to the “base” on the right. We should be reassured, we are told, that this will change in the general-election campaign and will not be the basis for policy if one of these candidates makes it to the White House. A pragmatic chameleon such as Mitt Romney is just saying what he is saying because he needs to get his party's nomination first. Perhaps so, but that leads to several other thoughts that are hardly reassuring. One, it means electing someone in spite of what he is saying rather than because of what he is saying. Two, it raises questions about what sort of person would say anything to get nominated and elected. Three, the campaign rhetoric in the meantime is damaging to U.S. public understanding of important issues. And four, the same rhetoric is listened to, and reacted to, by foreign governments and other audiences abroad in ways that may be harmful to U.S. interests. Bellicosity, for example, nearly always induces bellicosity in return.

We are witnessing in the foreign-policy facets of the campaign, of course, one more manifestation of the heightened partisanship, and the demagoguery that often accompanies it, that is on display nearly every day in Washington. Although the partisan divide is at least as sharp and filled with animosity as ever, however, the actual course of U.S. national-security policy through several Democratic and Republican administrations has stayed within a narrow band of assumptions and habits that were nurtured during the Cold War. Those assumptions and habits include a focus on a foreign bête noire, a tendency to equate U.S. national security with international security, a related belief that the United States needs to try to manage messy situations around the globe and a tendency to rely on military force as the prime tool of management. This constellation of outlooks is essentially what Andrew Bacevich has critically described as “Washington rules.” Richard Betts similarly criticizes, carefully and with insight in his latest book, the persistence of this Cold War-nurtured outlook on U.S. foreign and security policy.

There are important choices for the United States that an election campaign, in something closer to an ideal political world, could do a lot to illuminate. Those choices would mostly involve the sorts of challenges that Bacevich and Betts make against the consensus approach that both Democratic and Republican administrations have taken. Applied to some big current issues, such challenges would involve, for example, examining exactly why acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Iran would supposedly be as awful as the rhetoric is making it out to be. The challenges also would involve questioning why the shape of the future political and social order in a country such as Afghanistan does or does not matter highly to U.S. interests. And they would involve far more careful examination than we generally see in public debate of what the consequences of any particular use of military force would be.