Richard H. Immerman, October 2012
The maxim that foreign policy does not matter in U.S. presidential elections is not an absolute. In just the recent past one can cite 1968-1972, and 2004-08 as exceptions, although how decisive foreign policy was in each case remains cause for debate. Assessing 2008 is particularly complicated. Barack Obama purposely and effectively exploited the wide-spread disillusionment with the war in Iraq. Yet in matters of foreign policy, he was an innocent compared to John McCain—and for that matter Hillary Clinton.
As was evident from last night’s debate, notwithstanding polling and punditry since the kerfuffle over the administration’s explanation of Christopher Stevens’s assassination in Benghazi, Obama can only hope that foreign policy will again be salient in this year’s election. In sharp contrast to 2008, he left no doubt that he was not only in command of the issues, but he is the alpha candidate. No longer the Wilsonian who focused on ideals and values, his chief priority, Obama declared on the anniversary of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, was to make the American people safe. He judged his record a success, identifying “terrorist networks” as the gravest threat to U.S. national security, and reminding the electorate that without asking Pakistan’s permission, “we had killed bin Laden.” In Libya, too, he highlighted, he had “finished the job” by eliminating Gaddafi. But in contrast to the “wrong and reckless” policies espoused by Mitt Romney, he did so in a “careful, thoughtful way.”
But the candidate Obama confronted in the debate did not espouse “wrong and reckless” policies. Absent was the bellicose rhetoric about red lines in Iran, military intervention in Syria, revisiting the wisdom of withdrawing from Afghanistan, or even misidentifying the causes of the riots in Libya. Romney was specific in listing the areas of global “tumult” that the United States confronted, in part to criticize Obama’s weakness and lack of leadership, but in larger part to demonstrate he was an expert on the names of countries and their leaders. When it came to proffering prescriptions, however, rejecting both Cheney-type muscular realism and Wolfowitz-type “principled” realism, Romney fell back on pious platitudes. The United States cannot “kill our way out of this mess,” he decreed. It needed a “comprehensive strategy to establish a “peaceful planet.” Yet Romney embraced virtually every pillar of Obama’s strategy. The one exception: the lament that the president had allowed the U.S. navy to shrink to its lowest size since prior to American’s entry into World War I, provided Obama with his most fertile opening. Governor Romney evidently has not learned that the “nature of our miltary’s changed,” he jabbed. America does have fewer ships now than it did when Wilson was president. The same holds true with horses and bayonets.
Returning to the issue of whether foreign policy matters in a presidential election, probably both candidates met their goals. By placing Romney on the defensive from the start, focusing on his accomplishments, and portraying himself as heir to the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower more than that of John Kennedy, Obama probably won on points. By doing so, he cemented his recovery from the first debate. But he did not score a knock-out. Romney committed no gaffe similar to Gerald Ford’s declaration in 1976 that the Soviets did not dominate Eastern Europe. Indeed, by demonstrating that while not a master of foreign policy he was not a dunce either, and by eschewing extremism in favor of moderation, he did everything he could to ensure that in the final vote count, foreign policy would not matter. Pundits to the contrary, Romney still sees the economy as Obama’s Achilles heel. His closing comments avoided foreign policy altogether.
What was evident throughout was that the goal of neither Obama nor Romney was to enlighten and stimulate thinking. The tenor of the debate was consistently pedestrian. Rather than arguing about whether the U.S. should place any daylight between itself and Israel, the candidates made sure that there was no daylight between the two of them. Both would stand by Israel; not a word was said about the peace process with Palestine. Similarly, no hard questions were asked about post-2014 Afghanistan, both Iraq and NATO were missing from the conversation, and ethical concerns about drones and kill lists went unexamined. Based on the electoral map, Obama and Romney may well have been satisfied with the outcome. Those interested in foreign policy, however, must have been disappointed.
Richard H. Immerman is professor and Edward J. Buthusiem Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow in History and Marvin Wachman Director, Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy, at Temple University.