Saturday, October 27, 2012

It's Time to Have Some Real Foreign Policy Debates


            Unless you’re a baseball fan from San Francisco or St. Louis, I’m betting you spent last Monday evening watching Mitt Romney and Barack Obama face off on the subject of foreign policy.   And unless you’re a political junkie who truly needs meds for your addiction, I’m betting you’ve forgotten virtually everything that was said that evening.  Strike that – you might remember some comment about “horses and bayonets,” but aside from those three words, it’s as if that so-called “debate” never happened.

            You can blame that problem on Mitt Romney, if you want.  After all, he’s the one who decided to agree with virtually everything President Obama said.  But Romney wasn’t solely responsible for the snooze fest, or even primarily responsible.   The real culprits are the American public and what passes in our society for journalists.  Collectively, they have created a climate of near total apathy when it comes to foreign policy.  

Think about it.  Can you name a single hot-button foreign policy issue that has captivated the public’s attention during recent years?  I can’t.  Without any pressing controversies that needed to be addressed, the candidates felt free to respond to every question with generalities and platitudes.  And the moderator couldn’t possibly have felt compelled to probe further as to any of their answers.  In fact, if he had probed, the public might not have cared much about the response.

“It’s the economy, stupid.”   Those words still ring in my ears.  The men and women of the Clinton War Room made that expression the theme of their 1992 campaign.  Because they won, those words have come to represent a shrewd political insight about modern America.  To me, though, they just demonstrate a fundamental hypocrisy in our national mindset. 

On the one hand, we have by far the strongest military in the world and we reserve the right to use this military in order to: (a) invade, bomb, and ultimately seize power over countries across the globe who have attacked neither us nor our closest allies, (b) use unmanned drones to kill people in far-away countries with whom we don’t even claim to be at war (including not only terrorism suspects but also those who happen to be near them when the suspects are tracked), and (c) maintain a massive security presence even in parts of the world that have been peaceful for decades.  On the other hand, when the time comes for us to elect the leaders who get to determine how to use our military and otherwise interact with the outside world, we tend to think very little about these matters. “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Am I the only one who thinks there’s something wrong here?  If we’re going to serve as the world’s policeman, and if our police force reserves the right to behave more like Dirty Harry Callahan than Sergeant Friday, are the rest of us obliged to ensure that we are taking such police work into account when it comes time to select a President, a Senate and a House of Representatives?  Aren’t we obliged to become emotionally as well as intellectually involved in the issues of when and how it is appropriate to wield American power militarily?  And how and when it is appropriate to wield American power diplomatically?

As readers of this blog know, my own foreign-policy obsession is what America can do to help facilitate a just and secure peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.  As an American, that doesn’t so much involve our Department of Defense as it does our Department of State.   From the President, to the Secretary of State, on down the hierarchy, American diplomats face crucial choices in every Administration.  How much time and effort should they devote to the Middle East Peace process?   How many resources should they devote to developing the Palestinian infrastructure so that people can be more amenable to a peaceful solution to the conflict?  To what extent should the Administration go public in announcing its policy preferences?  And what should those preferences be? How important is it for the Administration to behave in an even-handed manner, as opposed to emphasizing America’s special relationship with Israel, our closest ally in the region?   Does the Administration dare publicly criticize the leadership of either the Israelis or the Palestinians?  And how frequently should it call for summits on American soil in which those leaders are asked to participate?

The list goes on.  Suffice it to say, none of those issues was addressed during Monday night’s debate.  We didn’t even discuss Mitt Romney’s audio-taped statement during the campaign trail that all we can do is “kick the can down the road” when it comes to Middle East peace.   Do you remember that comment?  Mitt said it during the same fund-raiser when he made his infamous “47 percent” comments.  That one got all the headlines.  The can-kicking idea was generally ignored.  Yet it would have been well worth discussing on Monday night, because it raises a fundamental question:  Should we working hard to facilitate a peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians in the near term?  Or should we instead devote all our energies to fostering the economic and civil society changes that are needed in the Holy Land before a stable peace is possible?  Serious arguments can be made on both sides of that debate.  The shame is that if the issue had been raised on Monday night, most Americans would have found it snooze worthy.  “It’s the economy, stupid.”  

I suppose I should take a step back and say that the glass is half full.  After all, even though Americans notoriously forget about foreign policy when it comes time to vote, the fact remains that the candidates did agree to devote a full debate to that domain.   What that tells me is that in our minds, we all recognize how important it is, and the smaller the world gets, the more important it seems.  In our hearts, though, foreign policy issues just don’t seem to hit home with most Americans.  They tend to involve what happens in Europe, Africa or Asia, and we’re more concerned about what’s going on here in North America, where we live.

Fair enough.  But just remember, most of what goes on here is out of the President’s control.  Presidents may get publicly judged based on the unemployment rate, the Dow, and the changes in GNP, but at the end of the day, they don’t play the primary role in any of those numbers.  What they do control is America’s foreign policy.  In that regard, they don’t have to share the center stage with Congress, Wall Street, or Main Street.  They serve as Commander, Chief, and Spokesperson for the rest of us as we interact with the outside world.

Given the circumstances, when it comes time to vote for President on November 6th, maybe we should think just a bit more about how the candidates will do across the pond.  And the next time someone says, “It’s the economy, stupid,” tell them that that was SO 20th century.  Now in the 21st century, we can do better.

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