Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 25, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FOREIGN AFFAIRS....Michael Signer, who recently finished up a 10-month stint as John Edwards' foreign policy advisor, complains today that the mainstream media has spent that entire time practically ignoring the subject:

This is troubling, because what a candidate says on foreign policy matters. Often, major policy proposals are road maps to what the candidates actually do once elected. George W. Bush's famous national security speech on Sept. 23, 1999, at the Citadel in South Carolina accurately portended his most provocative policies as president, from "transforming" our armed forces through technology and lighter brigades, to disengaging from the Clinton administration's many diplomatic commitments.

....This time around, the three top Democratic candidates all proposed assertive ideas for tackling major problems in roughly the same time frame. In April, May and June respectively, Obama, Edwards and Clinton all gave major speeches on national security. Obama called for "building a 21st-century military." Edwards proposed building a "mission-focused military." Clinton called to "rebuild our strength and widen and deepen [the military's] scope."

You'd think that journalists would do a comparative analysis of what the three candidates had proposed for the U.S. military in the coming decade; what they could do, practically; and what the speeches might predict about national security during their presidencies. But no.

In one sense this is an odd state of affairs, since, as virtually everyone has noted at one time or another, presidents have a lot more control over foreign policy than domestic policy. If Barack Obama wants to withdraw from Iraq, he can almost certainly do it. All he needs is the resolve to see it through. But if he wants to pass universal healthcare, the odds are stacked pretty highly against him. Resolve isn't nearly enough.

But I'd guess that there are a couple of reasons that foreign affairs hasn't gotten a lot of deep analysis this election cycle. First and foremost is the fact that a single subject — Iraq — has dominated the campaign so overwhelmingly that it's sucked all the oxygen out of the foreign policy debate. And Iraq is simplicity itself: all the Democrats want to leave and all the Republicans want to stay. Within the Democratic camp there have been minor differences in emphasis, but hardly enough to hang a few thousand words of navel gazing on. Does anyone really think that they can tell a lot about the candidates by comparing the nuances of Hillary's residual force with the nuances of Obama's residual force?

Second, foreign policy by its very nature tends to be far mushier than domestic policy. Outside of Iraq the Democratic candidates sparred a bit over preconditions for meeting with foreign leaders and whether or not they supported covert strikes against al-Qaeda in Pakistan, but at the level of speeches it was hard to suss out a lot of substantive differences. It's not an impossible task, but anyone trying it either has to admit that the differences are subtle (i.e., boring) or else run the risk of getting things completely wrong via close reading of ambiguous phrases. If candidates were willing to entertain foreign policy hypotheticals their differences would be a lot easier to figure out, but they're not. So we're stuck.

Of course, things weren't really all that different on the domestic side, were they? Domestic policy tends to be a little more specific, which makes for easier comparisons, but in the case of healthcare (to take an example) all that got us was an endless, dreary debate about mandates. That's interesting to wonks, but not to much of anyone else.

Signer suggests that foreign policy debates have been sharper in the past, but his examples are all from general elections, not primaries. This year should be no different. Iraq will still be the 800-pound gorilla, but the differences between John McCain and the Democratic candidate should be sharp enough to produce some foreign policy fireworks. Who knows? By the time October rolls around we might all be wishing that the press would shut up on the subject.

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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Comments

The fireworks may be somewhat dampened by the fact that McCain doesn't actually know anything
about foreign policy.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne on February 25, 2008 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

I had some sympathy for Signer's complaint, but the fact is that we live in an age in which the business of government has been overwhelmed by the business of the campaign.

Media coverage of both focuses on what appears to matter most to voters when they go to the polls. Most of the time, that's not foreign affairs; when it is, it's because of something like the war in Iraq. It's a little odd, actually, for someone who worked for a Presidential candidate who had done hardly anything during the last five years but campaign for national office to appear obtuse on this point.

There's another, related, factor at play, which is that much reporting on campaigns is done by journalists who specialize in reporting on campaigns. They know how to interpret a poll or assess what an FEC means to a Presidential candidacy -- understanding campaign mechanics is integral to a campaign reporters job. Would they know enough about foreign affairs (or intelligence, or the defense budget) to be able to tell if a candidate's speech on that subject was thoughtful, let alone wise?

In most cases, the answer to that question is plainly "no." This has some of the implications Signer alludes to -- no candidate's speeches this year got appreciably more positive coverage than the appalling, ignorant statements Rudolph Giuliani regularly made about foreign affairs. The combination of many campaign journalists not knowing any better and their knowledge that voters rarely end up voting based on candidates positions on foreign affairs greatly reduced the value to campaigns of effort directed at this policy area.

Incidentally, some of the same dynamics are involved in domestic issues. For example, nearly all of the coverage of the health care plans of Sens. Clinton and Obama has revolved around their details. But the last time comprehensive health care reform was attempted, the effort broke down in Congress. How would each candidate prevent that from happening again? Well, Clinton has "learned" from her earlier failure, and Obama would "bring people together". In fact, the media is mostly just repeating what the candidates say. Most reporters don't know enough about how Congress works to ask the question, let alone interpret answers to it.

Posted by: Zathras on February 25, 2008 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

Foreign policy & Iraq will becomes focal points once the Democrats and the Republicans have selected their nominees. The Bush administration will manipulate foreign affairs by provoking some events and suppressing others and by maintaining control over the information. McCain (if he survives his current implosion) won't have to know anything about foreign policy. His masters in the White House will tell him what to say.

And I'm afraid that the Democrats won't be prepared to distinguish the truth from the lies.

Posted by: Boolaboola on February 25, 2008 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

I seem to recall a debate between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton in which the questions were asked by the audience present, rather than by pundits. As I recall, there were almost no questions on foreign affairs. The American voter seemed to be much more interested in domestic affairs.

Posted by: ex-liberal on February 25, 2008 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

The positom that pushed over the edge for Obama is his views of nuclear non-proliferation. It's a huge step forwardl, and he can essentially accomplish everything he is trying to do through exectutive order.

Barack Obama has promised to lead a global campaign not just to reduce but to eliminate nuclear weapons. Obama has the most developed plan in the campaigns, based in part on work he has done with Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana and a bill he has introduced with Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. In an October 2007 speech he endorsed a comprehensive plan to control and eliminate nuclear weapons around the world. According to the plan, the US would (1) secure during his first term as president all nuclear materials in the fifty countries that have them; (2) negotiate radical reductions in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles; (3) negotiate a verifiable global ban on the production of fissile materials; (4) create an international nuclear fuel bank; (5) increase funding for the inspections and safeguards done by the IAEA; (6) seek a global ban on all intermediate-range missiles; and (7) lower the current alerts that keep thousands of nuclear warheads ready to launch within fifteen minutes, thus reducing the risk that the weapons would be used by accident or misperception.
Posted by: jayackroyd on February 25, 2008 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK
His masters in the White House will tell him what to say.
I hope so. That will just do Obama's job- of painting McCain as McBush- for him. Posted by: Steve LaBonne on February 25, 2008 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

I think the reason why foreign affairs is such an unimportant issue is because we already know the candidates positions. For Obama, you just have to read his website where he states the liberal position that he's going to withdraw from Iraq immediately. For McCain, he's going to stay the course and let the Surge defeat the terrorists in Iraq. For Hillary, she's trying to flip-flop and says one thing to the public (she's going to leave troops in Iraq) while she says another thing to Democrats (she's going to withdraw). Seeing this, I don't think there's any need for more coverage of something we already know.

Posted by: Al on February 25, 2008 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

AL: says one thing to the public...while she says another thing to Democrats

Thereby separating magically the Democrats from the Public. Al, it's time for a tune-up.

Posted by: thersites on February 25, 2008 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin quotes Michael Signer:

... what a candidate says on foreign policy matters ... Obama called for "building a 21st-century military." Edwards proposed building a "mission-focused military." Clinton called to "rebuild our strength and widen and deepen [the military's] scope."

It is revealing that "foreign policy" is essentially equated to "the military".

Of course, a candidate like Rep. Dennis Kucinich who proposes a foreign policy with the central organizing principle of creating peace through nonviolent conflict resolution, instead of a foreign policy founded on the premise of aggressive militarism, will be ridiculed, marginalized, asked questions about UFOs in the corporate media's fake, phony "debates" and then excluded altogether from the campaign dialog.

So it is understandable that Obama, Clinton and even Edwards feel that in order to be "serious candidates" they must reassure America's Ultra-Rich Ruling Class, Inc. that their so-called "foreign policy" will continue to revolve around enriching the military-industrial-corporate complex with a half trillion dollars per year of the taxpayers' money.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on February 25, 2008 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

jayackroyd quoted from somewhere that "Barack Obama has promised to ... negotiate a verifiable global ban on the production of fissile materials ...".

Such a ban is impossible as long as commercial nuclear power for generating electricity is not also banned. There is no "firewall" between the fuel cycle for nuclear power and the creation of weapons grade materials. That's the basis of the whole controversy about Iran's nuclear programs.

The only way to ban the production of fissile materials for weapons is to ban nuclear power as well.

It's my understanding that Obama receives funding from the nuclear industry and that he supports massive federal subsidies, loan guarantees and disaster insurance for the construction of new nuclear power plants in the USA. It is hard to believe that he would take the steps necessary to begin phasing out nuclear power not only in the USA but around the world (eg. by ending all US support for nuclear power in other countries).

Posted by: SecularAnimist on February 25, 2008 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

No matter who gets in he/she will spend record new highs on defense. We'll still have almost a thousand military bases all over the world and we will continue our "full spectrum dominance."

Our new Rome marches on, have no fear!

(Dr. Wu, asks,"say,what happened to the old Rome?)

Posted by: Dr WU-the last of the big time thinkers on February 25, 2008 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

jayackroyd - only point 7 of Obama's stated policy can be done by executive order. The other points require cooperation by other nations (who may chose to ignore the US president's executive order) or by congress who provide the funds for it.

The points of Obama's policy have all been put forth before. Several of them have proven to be unworkable. This is not a serious policy position, it's fluff, and it shows a definite naivety.

Posted by: optical weenie on February 25, 2008 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, Kevin, there has been little exploration of foreign policy for the last five years or so, not just during this campaign. I mean really exploring the fundamental interests of American foreign policy outside the context of finish the job in Iraq/leave Iraq as soon as possible.

Even the Iraq war opponents have never described a serious policy for the Middle East and neighborhood other than "Bush bad, we should never have invaded, out now". Debate has degenerated into useless rehashing of the leadup to and execution of the Bush administration's policies.

There are no credible alternative policies being seriously debated and explored, with the ramifications considered. Just backwards-looking heated arguments about the ramifications that resulted from the courses eventually taken.

Unfortunately, the Democrats who could sustain convincing arguments for a serious and comprehensive foreign policy are seduced by the easy gratification of appearing to alleviate the current short-term pain of the Iraq commitment ASAP, to make the unpleasantness just go away now.

To choose has consequences, to fail to choose also has consequences, and some of them are unintended. What are the chances of having such a debate when both parties are fixated on a looming November general election?

Posted by: Seppo on February 25, 2008 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

Who knows? By the time October rolls around we might all be wishing that the press would shut up on the subject.

I don't think the press will be all over it as much as you think-domestic concerns will keep stealing most of the headlines. Iraq is a five year something or other that never goes away and people are tired of it and many also will just not give a shit when they are losing their jobs and can't get health insurance. It will be a goddamned miracle if the Republicans can keep people from lining up at the banks all around the country like they did at the gas pumps on 9/11.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on February 25, 2008 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK
Of course, things weren't really all that different on the domestic side, were they? Domestic policy tends to be a little more specific, which makes for easier comparisons, but in the case of healthcare (to take an example) all that got us was an endless, dreary debate about mandates. That's interesting to wonks, but not to much of anyone else.

Its only not interesting to anyone else because the media does its best to obscure the issues and make it disinteresting, because if people felt comfortable evaluating politicians issues stances themselves, they would need to watch of a string of "analysts" (most of whom aren't experts, unbiased or otherwise, in policy analysis, but instead mostly political celebrities) argue the issues back and forth to no resolution to try to understand what is going on. And if people didn't do that, how would the news networks sell ads? Like everything else in the TV business, they aren't in the business of efficiently informing, they are in the vision of retaining eyeballs so as to sell advertising time.

Which is also why, of course, even prior to the existence of Fox News, the findings were pretty consistent that the amount of time a person spends watching TV news has an inverse correlation to the degree that they are informed about current events.

Posted by: cmdicely on February 25, 2008 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

Bush seems to have a neurotic need to antagonize everyone, so it think it is assumed that any candidate would be more or less normal in relating to other nations.

Posted by: Luther on February 25, 2008 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

"ex-liberal" wrote: I seem to recall a debate between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton in which the questions were asked by the audience present, rather than by pundits. As I recall, there were almost no questions on foreign affairs. The American voter seemed to be much more interested in domestic affairs.

And of course, since then there's been no reason at all why the American people would be more concerned about foreign affairs since then. Sheesh, "ex-liberal," we know you aren't here for good-faith commentary, but that was lame even for you.

Posted by: Gregory on February 25, 2008 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

Democrats want to leave Iraq? Not just "combat troops," however narrowly that would surely be defined, but, leave Iraq? Maybe Dennis Kucinich does, but he's not running for President, Kevin.

Indeed, otherwise, Dems will continue to spend on the "war against terror." They'll continue to use the phrase "war against terror" as surely as they'll continue to use the phrase "war against drugs." And none of you will really consider voting, oh, say, Green.

To quote Pogo, "We have met the problem and he is us." (Except myself.)

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on February 25, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

McCain will nuke anyone or anything, including Exxon. Obama might only nuke Pakistan. That is a pretty big difference, if you can support American nuclear war power.

Posted by: Brojo on February 25, 2008 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

As is often the case the American people are far ahead of the politicians. They don't care to discern between candidates' foreign involvement plans because they are against foreign involvement in general. They naturally tend toward George Washington's view as stated in his farewell address:

"The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop."

This galls people like Michael Signer who make their political living off foreign involvement.

Then there is the feeling that no matter what the people want they will get wars shoved down their throats. Now where did that come from? Well, it came from American Exceptionalists like Michael Signer who, in his "City on a Hill" essay, declared that the invasion of Iraq was a fine idea.

Posted by: Don Bacon on February 25, 2008 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

The MSM didn't just ignore foreign policy, they ignored Edewards (per substance.) For shame, he had good ideas and management skills.

Posted by: Neil B. on February 25, 2008 at 6:12 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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