Public Opinion, Foreign Policy and the Election

Paul Pillar

It has become almost a truism that foreign policy will not be a major determinant of the outcome of this year's presidential election. Foreign policy has played a tiny role in the Republican campaign. Because it takes two to tangle on any campaign issue, foreign affairs are unlikely to become prominent in the remaining eight weeks of the campaign despite any Democratic efforts to make them so, and despite one of the presidential debates in October being devoted to the subject. One of the clearest measures of Republican preferences about foreign affairs as far as the campaign is concerned is how remarkably little attention Mitt Romney gave to the topic in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention. What little he did say cannot fairly be described as laying out policy but instead consisted of dispensing a few phrases about such things as throwing allies under buses.

The conventional interpretation of all this is surely correct: that the Romney campaign simply doesn't see votes to be gained on foreign relations, in the face of what is generally seen as successful foreign policy by the incumbent and a difficulty by the challenger in identifying specific and significant things that he would do differently. The Romney strategists evidently have concluded that any effort on their part to develop new and more substantive lines of attack on foreign affairs would only detract attention from their laser-like focus on blaming President Obama for everything untoward in the nation's fiscal and economic affairs.

Daniel Drezner takes the conventional wisdom a step farther by arguing that insofar as Romney has appeared in his rhetoric to distance himself at all from Obama's foreign policies, acting on that rhetoric would mean going against the current predominant preferences of the American people. Citing findings in the recently released poll of American opinion on foreign policy conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Drezner observes that “most of America—and independents in particular—want pretty much the opposite of” what Romney says he wants regarding increased military spending and more hawkish policies toward Iran, Syria, Russia, China, North Korea and illegal immigration. Drezner further notes that what is striking in the poll results is “how much the majority view on foreign policy jibes with what the Obama administration has been doing in the world: military retrenchment from the Greater Middle East, a reliance on diplomacy and sanctions to deal with rogue states, a refocusing on East Asia, and prudent cuts in defense spending.”

The Chicago Council's poll, now conducted biannually, is one of the richest sources of data on American views on world affairs. This year's survey provides additional food for thought regarding the role of foreign policy in the election by including a section that breaks down responses by self-identified Democrats, Republicans and Independents. The Council's own interpretation of results downplays the significance of partisan differences. The report states that “Democrats and Republicans are very similar in their views on foreign policy. Though they differ in proportion, only rarely do they outright disagree.” That statement, however, understates the importance of the differences that do emerge. The report acknowledges significant differences on immigration and on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. For example, 58 percent of Republicans favor seeking United Nations authorization for a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, but only 41 percent of Democrats or Independents do. Without U.N. authorization, all groups oppose a unilateral U.S. strike, but this is markedly more true of Democrats (79 percent) and Independents (73 percent) than Republicans (57 percent).

One can ask this general question: If the challenger is not making foreign policy much of an issue, and if Republicans and Democrats have “very similar views” on most aspects of foreign policy, how much does the outcome of the election really matter as far as foreign policy is concerned? The answer is that it matters a lot, for at least three reasons.

One is that not all issues in foreign relations matter the same, and the few issues on which there is discernible daylight between partisans can turn out to matter a lot. That is certainly true of some of those Middle Eastern issues, with regard to basic questions of war and peace and the potential for getting the United States into big trouble.

A second reason is that leaders shape opinion in addition to being guided by it. One can see some of the effects of this in the partisan patterns reflected in opinion polls. There is no logical, or even demographic or sociological reason, why certain views about, say, health care ought to be correlated with certain views about Iran, but they are. Many members of the public identify with a particular party and take their cues from leaders of that party as to what they ought to believe regarding foreign-policy issues on which they otherwise know little. In this sense leaders of both the governing and opposition parties have bully pulpits, but the most influential bully pulpit is that of the presidency. Especially if a president is most concerned about sustaining the support of his political base, inclinations disproportionately concentrated in the governing party may prevail over naturally arisen sentiments more broadly shared by the American public.

Third, an election determines not only who occupies the Oval Office but also what will be the ideological coloration of an army of political appointees who will have a great deal to say in making foreign policy. It is not always clear before an election who will win the appointment games that get played after an election, but one can at least see the possibilities and probabilities. In this year's contest, reelection of the incumbent would leave the overall coloration essentially unchanged, despite individual substitutions likely to occur in some key positions such as secretary of state. Election of the challenger would give a significant opening to neoconservatives who held sway in most of the previous administration, notwithstanding the non-neocons who also would be competing for positions and the presidential ear.

A recent and hugely costly and painful episode that illustrates all of these elements was the Iraq War. The outcome of the 2000 presidential election (and the 9/11 terrorist attack) made the war possible, even though the rhetoric of the 2000 campaign did not make it specifically predictable. Neocons won enough of the appointment games so that they, in alliance with assertive nationalists in senior positions and an inexperienced president itching to get out from under his father's foreign-policy shadow, were able to launch their Iraq project. The mammoth effort to sell the war was so able to shape public opinion that a majority of Americans came to believe that the Iraqi regime and Saddam Hussein were involved in 9/11. The shaping was accomplished not through specific assertions by government officials but by a rhetorical drumbeat that continually linked Iraq and 9/11.

One can find a disturbing similarity in the Chicago Council's survey results, even though Drezner is pleased to conclude that the poll suggests Americans “have become even more realpolitik” than they were a few years ago. In one of the poll's few tests of factual knowledge, respondents were asked what they believe is the current status of Iran's nuclear program. Only 25 percent got it correct, based on the repeatedly and publicly stated judgment of the U.S. intelligence community: that “Iran is developing some of the technical ability to build nuclear weapons, but has not decided whether to produce them or not.” Forty-eight percent thought that Iran has decided to produce nuclear weapons and is actively working to do so. Another 18 percent thought Iran already has nuclear weapons. With politicians in both parties repeatedly beating the Iranian threat drum, this is another disappointing example of the power of rhetorical drumbeats over the minds even of Americans who have developed some views that otherwise look like realpolitik

Image: DonkeyHotey

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsIdeologyThe PresidencyNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranIraqUnited States

Maureen Dowd, Psychic

The Buzz

In a recent blog post for TNI, Jacob Heilbrunn mentions the “rough pounding” Maureen Dowd issued to Barack Obama in her New York Times column last week. He is, I think, being kind.

Dowd’s column is a bizarre, rambling indictment of Obama’s character painted in broad, general strokes. She is writing specifically about what she calls “the great psychodrama of [the Democratic] convention”: the relationship between Obama and Bill Clinton.

She paints the two men as polar opposites. Clinton is the consummate “political natural,” always trying to “linger and schmooze issues with crowds”; Obama is the “diffident debutante,” too often a “dispassionate observer,” the “cold shower to Bill’s warm bath.” 

Even if one takes Dowd’s point that Obama tends to “retreat inside himself at crucial moments, climbing back to his contemplative mountaintop” (and accepts that “contemplative” is an undesirable quality for a president), it’s difficult to get behind her tendency to psychoanalyze Obama as if she were inside his head. She tells us not only that he was irritated, hungry and indignant on his first Iowa campaign trip but also that his first political speech made him feel “both elation at his ability to rouse with words and disdain at how easy it was.” Maureen Dowd, it seems, is privy to Obama’s deepest, most personal feelings.

Dowd does make one point worth noting. She accuses Obama of reassuring “jittery voters that the future can look like the past.” If there’s one thing to take away from the recent conventions, it’s the starring role of nostalgia. Whether it’s Bill Clinton speaking in Charlotte, a four-minute tribute video to Ronald Reagan in Tampa or, conversely, the notable absence of George W. Bush in name and legacy—the Huffington Post called him “The President Who Must Not Be Named” at the RNC—voters are either hungry for a return to their party’s glory days or desperate to forget perceived mistakes. But that observation, however astute, can’t save Dowd’s piece from being labeled a howler.


Did the Neocons Blind Bush to 9/11?

Jacob Heilbrunn

It's the issue that won't go away. Today, on the anniversary of 9/11, it has returned. Was the George W. Bush administration willfully blind to the looming 9/11 attack? Kurt Eichenwald, former New York Times reporter and Vanity Fair contributing editor, offers new revelations about the Bush White House and the neocons in an op-ed called "The Deafness Before the Storm."

Eichenwald's contribution is to suggest that the August 6, 2001, CIA briefing in Texas—the one in which Bush dismissed a CIA analyst with a terse "OK, you've covered your ass"—with the famous headline "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," which he did in the following month. Eichenwald, however, provides a broader context for the briefing. He says that the daily briefings preceding that memo explain much more than the August 6 one. Here is his bottom line:

While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before.

It seems, in other words, that neocons in the administration were arguing that what the CIA was warning about was a bunch of hooey. They had their own pet cause—nailing Saddam Hussein, creating a democracy in Iraq (which appears to be coming apart at the seams). It was Iraq, the neocons believed, or purported to believe, that was the fount of all terror. Why focus on one measly terrorist leader in Afghanistan? He was a distraction. The real prey, the true threat, was none other than Saddam. Here is Eichenwald again:

An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

Here's my prediction: the more that the record of the Bush administration is surveyed and uncovered, the worse the role of the neoconservatives will appear. And this is saying quite something. I don't doubt that the neocons will respond by saying that Eichenwald is engaging in his own version of conspiracy thinking or that he's trying to trip up the Romney campaign, which is filled with neocons. But the issue is an important one: Why has Romney filled his camp with advisers whose advice led to one of the most calamitous and costly debacles in American history?

In any case, quarrels about the election campaign do not alter the gravamen of Eichenwald's charge. He ends by saying that "we can't ever know" if the attacks would have been stopped. But it's worse than than that. The Bush administration, it seems, never even tried. Its negligence, which is a charitable way of putting it, testifies to the danger of elevating ideology above analytical rigor. Now the CIA, long demonized by the neocons, is striking back to try and set the record straight.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Tenacious Sanctions

Paul Pillar

Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik.How's this for old baggage: one of the topics Secretary of State Clinton is discussing with the Russians while in Vladivostok for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting is whether the United States will lift the 1974-vintage trade sanction known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment. One of the coauthors of that legislation, Representative Charles Vanik, left Congress in in 1981. The other coauthor, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, died in office in 1983. The Soviet Union, which was the obvious target of the legislation even though the law was worded in general terms, died over twenty years ago, although the sanctions have continued to apply to Russia as the successor state.

The original impetus for the legislation was opposition to restrictions the Soviets were placing on Jewish emigration in the 1970s. That situation changed long ago. Mikhail Gorbachev opened the doors for what would become large-scale emigration of Russian Jews in the 1990s. If the amendment has accomplished some other purpose related to human rights, it is hard to see what that is. The mark of a sanction that has succeeded is that it gets lifted.

Keeping Jackson-Vanik in place has at least potential economic costs to the United States. Although U.S. presidents have repeatedly issued waivers permitted under the law, keeping the law on the books violates rules of the World Trade Organization. Russia's accession to the WTO gives it the right to retaliate against U.S. business.

This baggage demonstrates how it is far harder to remove a sanction—either a special-purpose injunction such as Jackson-Vanik or placement on a list such as the one for state sponsors of terrorism—than to impose it in the first place. Imposition is usually a gesture of disapproval rather than a well-conceived tactic to elicit a change in behavior. Moreover, lifting of a sanction, regardless of changes in conditions that may justify lifting, gets perceived as making nice to the regime in question, and that can be a domestic political liability. As a result, sanctions that have already demonstrated their ineffectiveness get perpetuated; any disagreeable behavior by the targeted regime, even if it has little or nothing to do with the reason the sanction was imposed, is portrayed as a reason to keep the sanction in place.

Part of the domestic U.S. backdrop to any move on Jackson-Vanik is a draft bill in Congress that is critical of the human-rights situation in Russia and is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died after being imprisoned on allegedly trumped-up charges. President Obama opposes both the Magnitsky bill and the linking of it to trade. Mitt Romney supports the bill and says he would remove trade sanctions on Russia only if the bill were enacted. All of this is a perfect example of how domestic politics works to keep an obsolete sanction in place.

The difficulty in lifting whatever is imposed ought to be carefully considered before imposing any sanction. But of course the very political dynamics that make lifting difficult also tend to discourage taking that difficulty into account to begin with. There is no shortage of other examples besides the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Some of the oldest examples relate to Cuba. It also is a good bet that the sanctions being piled on Iran will make it difficult in the future to reset relations with Tehran, no matter what change there may be in Iranian policies and behavior. Don't expect even regime change to eliminate the problem; after all, there has been some regime change in Moscow since the 1970s.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsHuman RightsWTOSanctionsTrade RegionsRussiaCubaIranUnited States

The DNC Roast of Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy

The Buzz

If there was any doubt that the Democrats have claimed the political upper hand on foreign-policy and national-security issues, the conventions of the last two weeks have erased it. The GOP barely mentioned the world beyond America’s borders in Tampa, but the Democrats aggressively defended President Obama’s foreign-policy record in Charlotte. Even more tellingly, they scarcely felt the need to engage the Republicans on many of the issues, and instead simply dismissed some of Mitt Romney’s missteps with jokes and one-liners.

The best example was John Kerry’s address, which at times felt like it belonged more at the Friars Club than a political convention. On Afghanistan, he quipped, “It isn’t fair to say Mitt Romney doesn’t have a position on Afghanistan. He has every position.” He said Romney “talks like he’s only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV.” Even Obama got in on the act, mocking Romney’s overseas trip with the line, “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can't visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”

As Fred Kaplan noted at Slate, the contrast with previous campaigns could not have been starker. Naturally, Obama’s order to take out Osama bin Laden, which the Democrats celebrated repeatedly, had quite a bit to do with this. But, as Kaplan wrote, Democrats “feel so assured in their new role as guardians of national defense” that they were also willing to highlight the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and the New START agreement with Russia. They are confident that they have seized the broad political center on national security (as Les Gelb argued in TNI), and they’re not worried that stressing these issues will make them appear weak.

An op-ed written earlier this week by four former GOP secretaries of state reinforces this point. In the Washington Times, Condoleezza Rice, James Baker, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger endorsed Romney for president. Interestingly, their piece was titled “Romney for recovery” and hinged almost entirely on economic arguments. They contend that Romney is better positioned to lead an economic recovery than Obama, which is necessary for America to maintain its military power and influence abroad. But they do not make a single direct criticism of Obama’s foreign policy. The fact that even these distinguished statesmen make their case for Romney this way shows how much ground the GOP has implicitly ceded.

Of course, this does not mean that there aren’t strong critiques of the administration’s foreign policy to be made—only that leading Republicans are not currently making them. Given the truly dismal state of the economy, this may be politically smart. But it’s worth noting what a dramatic reversal this is from only a few short years ago.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States