The Skeptics

Foreign Policy on Hold?

Marc Lynch blogged a couple of months ago about how little attention Yemen has received compared to events this year in Libya, Syria, Egypt and other places. Lynch argued persuasively that this inattention made the task of getting Saleh to leave power more difficult and that the costs of international inattention were high for Yemen’s opposition. It is true that Yemen received relatively little attention in the U.S. media compared to other Arab Spring uprisings. But the broader and ultimately more painful truth is that the entire Arab Spring movement has already peaked in the U.S. media.

The U.S. media doesn’t pay much attention to foreign affairs in the best of times these days, but the Arab Spring’s timing could hardly be worse. The United States has just entered its quadrennial “quiet period” on foreign policy as the nation spends a year or so navel gazing to elect a president. This year’s ritual inward turn may have especially unfortunate consequences for the U.S. foreign-policy agenda and for the world. During the most critical period of modern Middle Eastern history, the United States is taking its eyes off the ball and will play a less important role in helping shape positive outcomes there than it should.

Figure One illustrates the rise and fall of the Arab Spring as a news topic in U.S. network television news. After an initial burst of coverage, the nations of the Arab spring have fallen out of the spotlight in the United States. The national debate about how to support the various oppositions has withered. At this point it’s not just Yemen having a hard time making the news.

Figure Two presents what has taken the place of the Arab Spring in the nightly news, charting the rise and fall of Republican hopefuls as they jockey for front-runner status. All of the candidates except for Huntsman and Bachmann have seen their coverage rise this fall. Ron Paul was mentioned as many times in November, for example, as Tunisia, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain combined.

Figure Three summarizes the networks’ pivot toward domestic politics and away from the Arab Spring. Since July, the ratio of total coverage of the GOP race has started to dwarf discussion of all the nations of the Arab Spring combined. Despite the rise of Internet news (and insightful foreign-policy-oriented blogs like this one), network television news remains the single greatest source of foreign-policy news for the American public. As television news goes, so goes the national water-cooler chit chat. Needless to say these figures do not bode well for a robust debate about how best to engage the Arab world.

But perhaps this is as it should be. After all, as John Mueller’s recent post pointed out, Obama will get little boost from his foreign-policy “victories” in Libya or elsewhere. The American public cares little about foreign policy when the economy is in the dumper. U.S. foreign-policy debate will thus go on hold until next fall, and a crucial period in Middle Eastern history will pass the American public by without raising many eyebrows. Journalists might prefer that their audience care more about what happens abroad, but in the end the news business is just that—a business. And no one can fault a business for providing what its customers want.