Americans have every right to press President Obama to clarify his off-mic remarks to Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, particularly the troubling phrase, “After my election I have more flexibility.” One cannot help but be reminded of the infamous memo prepared by Canadian officials who met with Barack Obama’s economics advisor Austan Goolsbee during the 2008 campaign in which “Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign . . . [but] he cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans.”
The Goolsbee memo left the impression that candidate Obama might say one thing on the campaign trail in order to win votes but that, once in office, he would move in a different direction. Similarly, campaign promises made to Armenian Americans who were early and passionate supporters of the senator—particularly about recognizing the 1915 Ottoman deportations as an act of genocide—went by the wayside and have not guided the actual policies of the Obama administration.
The off-mic remarks also raise the question as to what has guided the policy choices of the administration thus far. Are they based on core principles strongly held by the president himself? How much depends on who “has the president’s ear” at any given moment—a question Joan Johnson-Freese notes that Chinese officials have been asking in trying to make sense of the administration’s mixed approach to East Asia? Or is policy driven largely by political weakness in trying to deal with continued obstructions by “obstinate political opponents?”
In other words, come November 2012, the president’s party could regain complete control of Congress and, with the expected departure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first-term “team of rivals” in national-security affairs will have been completely replaced by Obama loyalists. In this scenario, would Obama feel himself freer to act and implement a foreign-policy agenda that would result in a dramatic departure from what has transpired during his first term—and one which would also contradict his public assurances on the campaign trail?
These are legitimate questions, and the Romney campaign should be free to raise them. At the same time, however, to pretend that foreign policy is always driven by a pure vision of the national interest unconnected to the realities of domestic politics is also naive. President Obama would prefer to postpone a series of looming crises to beyond the November ballot. Tapping down the crisis in the Persian Gulf—in part to help keep gasoline prices from spiraling out of control in the crucial summer months before the election (which could also derail the modest recovery which has improved Obama’s reelection chances)—makes perfect sense. Having Medvedev carry a message to president-elect Vladimir Putin not to push for a showdown on missile defense at the forthcoming NATO summit—which remains the most contentious issue in the U.S.-Russia relationship and the most likely to derail the reset, the signature foreign-policy success of the Obama administration’s first term—also makes political sense.
Just as Ronald Reagan ran strong on national defense in the 1984 election (including strong public skepticism of the value of arms-control agreements with the Soviets) and then proceeded in his second term to push forward negotiations with Moscow, Obama seems to have been trying to signal that right now, he is in “campaign mode”—and that he will return to “statesman mode” should he be reelected.
This is what makes the response of the Romney campaign, particularly the open letter released earlier this week, troubling. The United States remains the world’s preeminent power, but it is not a global hegemon. Advancing U.S. interest requires the ability to compromise and prioritize. One can certainly criticize where the Obama administration has chosen to compromise and what it has chosen to prioritize—but to suggest that Mitt Romney, if elected president, would somehow have the power to avoid making choices and trade-offs, or that every time an American preference is not upheld, it is due solely to the weakness or fecklessness of the president, is disingenuous. On defense, a president Romney would still have to decide where to make budget cuts and how to reshape U.S. military forces to best defend American interests within the realities of a constrained fiscal environment. Very quickly, he too would have to shift from “campaign mode” to “statesman mode”—with all the ambiguities and shades of gray that come with such a change.
It would also be quite naive for the Romney campaign not to acknowledge that domestic politics do play a role in our foreign-policy choices. His advisors may lambast the weakening of the embargo against Cuba, for instance—but it bears remembering that Republican senators from agricultural states who have wanted to expand markets for American farmers have joined with liberal Democrats in loosening the strictures of economic sanctions against Havana.
From the campaign trail, it is easy to speak in absolutes. But campaign promises don’t always translate into effective policies. This election demands a serious, and long-overdue, debate over the role America should play in the world—and what burdens it is prepared to assume to maintain its global leadership. But the electorate doesn’t have a clear picture as to who the “real” Obama or Romney is—and the country’s interests are certainly not served if both candidates view their foreign- and defense-policy positions articulated on the trail as nothing more than an Etch A Sketch drawing that can be shaken up and replaced prior to Inauguration Day 2013.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.