Paul Pillar’s regular contributions to this web site constitute an invaluable gift to all regular readers, as well as to anyone who values smart, incisive, provocative commentary, particularly when it arrives in a steady stream of thinking that bounces off the headlines on a consistent basis. Last week, Pillar issued a warning against a populist approach to presidential decision making in foreign policy—basing decisions on popular sentiment rather than a prudent view of national interest—and suggested that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared to be the kind of man who would succumb to that particular danger. Pillar may be right. In the spirit of the kind of discourse we wish to foster at The National Interest, however, I should like to elaborate on Pillar’s analysis a bit and offer a somewhat different perspective.
Pillar views Romney—quite accurately, based on the record—as a man habitually fixated on pleasing whatever audience is before him at any given time. From this he adduces that the former Massachusetts governor would govern as president in ways designed to ensure a second term. He explains:
So the choice will be between a foreign policy that is shaped overwhelmingly by whatever is seen to be politically advantageous and a foreign policy that is shaped by a less politically minded sense of what is in the U.S. interests. A populist response would be to go with the first alternative, out of a belief in democratic principles and in the idea that, in foreign as well as domestic policy, the people ought to determine what is in their own interests.
The problem here, Pillar suggests, is that most people seldom know what is in their best interests, and hence they can be manipulated by leaders absorbed with visions of national or personal glory. That may sound elitist, he concedes, and "it would be poison for any politician to utter it openly." But the truth of it is demonstrated by a host of faulty and even tragic presidential decisions related to the presidential war power. And Pillar concludes: "During the next presidential term, a foreign policy that responds largely to popular impulses is more likely to result in misdirection than in accomplishment." He sees Romney as a man likely to respond to, or even stir, those popular impulses.
It isn’t difficult to see why Pillar draws the conclusion he does. Romney, after all, has campaigned as a fervent neoconservative bent on demonstrating American power as an index of American global dominance. And, judging from the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, it would appear that that outlook, embraced by all the GOP candidates except Representative Ron Paul (and, to some degree, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman before he dropped out of the race), represents popular sentiment within the Republican electorate. Thus, Pillar’s concern about Romney’s foreign policy would seem to be a natural extrapolation of what everyone has been able to see on the campaign trail since the current race began.
But if, as Pillar suggests, Romney’s foreign policy is likely to be crafted with an eye toward what will get him reelected (or what he thinks will get him reelected), then perhaps a bellicose foreign policy isn’t as likely from the man as Pillar fears. For one thing, it is becoming increasingly clear that the American people are very weary of war—indeed, far more weary of it than one would think based on the Republican rhetoric thus far in this campaign. Polls indicate that more than 60 percent of the electorate wants America out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. And President Obama’s success in getting U.S. troops out of Iraq (executing a George W. Bush timetable decision) is highly popular, notwithstanding neoconservative complaints and criticisms.
Second, history indicates it’s rare in American politics for the electorate to push its leaders into a war that those leaders wished to avoid or forestall. One could say that that happened prior to James Madison’s decision to take America into the War of 1812. He did so following strong agitation in Congress by fiery younger members led by Henry Clay (who thereafter proved quite skittish about prospects for war whenever they emerged). Perhaps the Spanish-American War could be classified as another example. In that instance, public agitation initially outstripped President William McKinley’s appetite for war, but ultimately the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor rendered war inevitable (notwithstanding the lack of any evidence that any malefactors perpetrated the explosion that sank the ship).
More often, it has been the leaders pulling the voters toward the war decision rather than the voters pushing the leaders in that direction. That certainly was the case with Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted America in World War II long before the American people would entertain such an idea. It wasn’t until Pearl Harbor, which Roosevelt helped foster by pushing Japan into a position of near desperation with a severe oil embargo, that public sentiment for war finally matched the president’s. There’s no reason to believe the American people were agitating for the war George W. Bush initiated in Iraq, pushed by the administration with warnings about weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda.
Vietnam is a more complex case, as Pillar suggests. It is true that Lyndon Johnson feared a political backlash if South Vietnam were allowed to fall to the North, and he was not necessarily wrong in fearing that. After all, America’s Cold War policy encompassed a need to man a vast defensive perimeter in order to thwart communist advances throughout the world. But there was no serious agitation for war within the electorate, and so Johnson had at least a prospect of managing the situation with reasonable success short of war (and certainly short of the particular war strategy he ultimately adopted—slow escalation into a deadly war of attrition).
All this suggests presidents have a great deal of leeway in fashioning foreign policy, particularly surrounding the war power. When it comes to domestic policy, particularly economic policy affecting the plenitude or dearth of jobs, the American people watch their presidents closely and demonstrate their irritation quickly if they don’t like what they see. Not so with foreign policy. Voters are more inclined to delegate those decisions to their leaders while following events in that area from a distance. But there is a proviso in this delegation of decision-making prerogative in foreign policy—namely, don’t mess it up. When that happens, the grant of prerogative is rescinded at the next election. That’s what happened to Democrats in 1952 (Korean War debacle), to Lyndon Johnson in 1968 (Vietnam) and to Republicans in 2006 and 2008 (the lingering and ambiguous Iraq War results).
Thus, the presidential war decision is any president’s most politically dangerous decision. The voters almost always go along with the initial action, carried by a natural wave of patriotic sentiment. But it has to work, and if it doesn’t the party in power will inevitably suffer. Any president ignores this reality at his political peril.
Hence, the danger with Romney isn’t so much that voter sentiment will push him toward imprudent foreign-policy adventurism. The danger is that his own impulses will do so. But, as Pillar says, Romney likely would be guided by his desire to position himself for reelection. And so perhaps his impulses will ultimately be checked by a more prudent sensibility—assuming he is smart enough to see the dangers inherent in an adventurous foreign policy.
History tells us, after all, that we seldom can predict with much accuracy what kind of foreign policy will emerge under any president. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson attacked his Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater, for his bellicosity on Vietnam; once elected, Johnson adopted policies quite similar to what Goldwater had advocated. Few could have predicted it would be that fervent anticommunist, Richard Nixon, who would travel to communist China. Ronald Reagan pronounced the Soviet Union an "evil empire" headed for "the dustbin of history" before he extended a hand of friendship to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, with historic results. George W. Bush dismissed the notion of U.S. "nation building" until he undertook what was probably the greatest effort at nation building in our history.
So there’s nothing wrong with raising concerns about a possible Romney foreign policy, based on his campaign rhetoric and the preponderance of sentiment in the Republican establishment. But any imprudent Romney adventurism probably wouldn’t be attributable to the sentiment of the voters. Indeed, it would probably emerge because a President Romney hadn’t sufficiently taken into account the political sanctions that would be imposed by unsentimental voters if his adventurism went awry.
Image: Gage Skidmore