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.