Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy Surprises Ahead

If we've learned anything from past campaigns, it's that the winner will have an unpredictable foreign policy.


Americans who watched Monday's debate learned that Mitt Romney wanted to sound like Barack Obama on major world issues and that Obama wanted to highlight the contrasts. They learned that Romney can be vague and Obama can be condescending. They learned that Bob Schieffer can't keep a discussion from veering off course.

What they didn't learn is what the next president's foreign policy will look like or whether to expect war or peace. That's not the fault of the debate. It's the fault of the candidates—not just these two, but pretty much all presidential candidates. Ultimately, it's the fault of voters, who repeatedly give their presidents a blank check.

Romney was intent on fuzzing the picture of how he will confront international problems. Having waxed hawkish in the primaries to charm Republican voters, he felt the need to show a gentler side to independents.

He said the administration's sanctions on Iran are working. He rejected using the U.S. military in Syria. He promised to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Referring to terrorism, he said, "We can't kill our way out of this mess." Numerous sentences could have been borrowed from Obama, circa 2008.

Obama, however, painted Romney as trigger-happy and unreliable, bouncing irresponsibly from one position to another on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The president promised Iran will not get nukes. He bragged about toppling Moammar Gadhafi and wrapped himself in the Israeli flag. He wanted everyone to know he'll be smarter and tougher than Romney.

Maybe so. But if we've learned anything from past presidential campaigns, it's that we never know what the winner will do when it comes to international affairs. Some candidates won't say what they plan to do with the U.S. military, and some of them don't know.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson publicly rejected a bigger U.S. role in Vietnam, saying, "We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves"—only to plunge into war after defeating Barry Goldwater.

Ronald Reagan campaigned against nuclear arms control as a candidate, but as president, he proposed a deal with the Soviets to eliminate such weapons completely. Bill Clinton faulted George H.W. Bush for refusing to intervene in the Balkan wars—only to stall for years before intervening himself.

George W. Bush criticized Clinton for overextending the American military and bogging us down in nation-building abroad. He then spent his presidency doing the same things on a much bigger, bloodier scale.

When Obama was reminding voters that he had opposed the Iraq invasion, no one dreamed he would use force to achieve regime change in yet another Arab country that lacked nuclear weapons and posed no threat to us: Libya. Nor did voters anticipate Obama's drone wars in Yemen and Somalia.

We should expect more surprises in the next four years. Both candidates oppose using force in Syria right now, but if the carnage grows larger and more visible, the president could very well deploy bombers or even ground troops.

Afghanistan? They agree now on pulling out, but if the security environment deteriorates and the Afghan army proves insufficient to the task—both likely—all bets are off. Chinese and U.S. differences on Taiwan and the South China Sea could suddenly turn into a crisis that leads to shots being fired.

There is also the minor matter of Iran. Both Obama and Romney have indicated they will use force if necessary to stop its nuclear weapons quest. If Iran continues in that direction, Americans may abruptly find themselves in another major Middle Eastern war.

Voters may not like that idea, but the next president won't give great weight to public opinion because he won't need to. Americans rarely hold their leaders accountable for unforeseen, unnecessary wars that cost much and achieve little.

In November 2004, Iraq was clearly a disaster, but Bush won reelection. Clinton paid no price for the "Black Hawk Down" debacle in Mogadishu, Somalia. Reagan won by a landslide a year after terrorists blew up 241 U.S. troops in Lebanon, prompting our departure.

Each time, Americans were surprised. Each time, they were unhappy. But each time, they gave the president a pass. You think Obama and Romney didn't notice?

NEXT: Obama Headed to Chicago to Vote Early

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  1. So, is it the economy, stupid?

  2. Why did you start with LBJ for your list of examples?

    The first, and by some measures, still the worst FP blunder, and surprise, was Jefferson’s. And I’m not talking about the Barbary Pirates, although that incident did contradict his stated foreign policy platform.

    Now don’t go off too soon; I like Jefferson. (Also have some affinity for Rush and Ayn Rand.)

    So let’s assume Jefferson really was the great hero that we make of him. His foreign policy reality did not match his rhetoric before he had to deal with actual events. No plan survives the first contact with the enemy, as they say.

    Maybe it’s unrealistic, and downright silly, to expect Presidents to have ideological foreign policy positions that will never change. Maybe the real world doesn’t bend to our wishes.

    I wish Ron Paul would get a chance to be President. However, I would fully expect that libertarians would be furious with him, because of a lot of things he would do, once he actually had to make real-world decisions in response to reality instead of fairy tales.

    1. How did the Barbary War contradict Jefferson’s foreign policy?

      I don’t know about you, but I think our current policy of trying to indirectly control every corner of the globe, and spending trillions we don’t have to do so, sounds much less reality-based than anything Ron Paul has proposed

      1. Note that I’m not saying that his policy in his first term was wrong (second was a disaster). Going to Tripoli was absolutely the right thing to do.

        But he’d pledged, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations-entangling alliances with none.” This was not a realistic pledge, as the Barbary Pirates soon proved.

        Hence, modern libertarianism uses words like “initiating force”. One cannot promise peaceful commerce; one can only promise what one can control.

        WRT Paul, again, I don’t disagree with what you wrote, but it has little or nothing to do with what I had written. I stand by what I wrote.

        1. To think that Jefferson’s statement implied that hostilities initiated against American interests would not result in retaliation is reading it much too broadly, I think. Even rhetorically, I don’t think Ron Paul would support that idea either, although I couldn’t say that with total certainty given how religious his devotion to isolationism is.

  3. I guess principles (and of course campaign promises) don’t mean much if “reality” causes one to abandon them.

    1. Well, one does need to choose principles wisely. I don’t mean fundamental moral compromises, I mean not turning wishful thinking into “principles”.

      It strikes me as wise, not sleazy, for a candidate NOT to make lots of statements that he can’t back up.

      There are definitely two sides to this issue, in my mind.

      1. Very true. Seeing how politicians today go back and most campaign promises always makes me think how interesting it is that until near the end of the Roman Republic, Roman politicians did not run on political platforms.

  4. If you believe that Obama would use the extra $80 billion in revenue extracted from the rich to reduce the deficit, I have an 11-page glossy jobs pamphlet for you. And Obama’s tax on the rich would hit more than 1 million small businesses, according to the Internal Revenue Service, which would make his tepid supply-side policy item?the kind of policy he regularly mocks, incidentally?useless.
    coach outlet, Still, according to a Bloomberg survey of selected economists, under Obama’s plan, “13,000 jobs would be created in 2013, bringing the total to 288,000 over two years.” That’s hundreds of billion in spending?deficit spending?aimed at creating a few unsustainable jobs without the benefit of any real private-sector outlet

  5. I am rooting for a Romney loss, so that it opens up 2016 for a real fiscal conservative / social liberal, instead of a flip flopper who went from “more progressive than Ted Kennedy” to “severely conservative”. I hope we see a Johnson/Paul ticket in 2016. I am voting for Gary with no reservations this year.

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