Daniel Larison

Does Foreign Policy Campaign Rhetoric Matter? (II)

James Joyner continues the discussion on Romney and the Republican foreign policy “establishment”:

Like Scowcroft and Powell, I’m a bit concerned about some of Romney’s public statements, notably his saber rattling on Iran and Syria. Ditto his knee-jerk support of hard line Likud policies. The problem, however, is separating stump speech rhetoric from governing priority.

I wrote about this earlier this week, so I don’t want to rehearse all of those arguments again. Separating campaign rhetoric from governing priorities may not be as much of a problem as it seems to be. Consider the statements that concern James. On Syria, Romney has not been quite as reckless in his rhetoric as he has on Iran or Russia, and his policy is indistinguishable from the one that the administration is reportedly implementing. However, the agitation for more “leadership” in Syria is coming mostly from his party. Romney has made a point of defining his foreign policy in terms of asserting American “leadership.” It is doubtful that he would resist pressure from inside his party for even deeper U.S. involvement in Syria if he were in office next year, and this is partly because of his hawkishness towards Iran.

On Iran and Russia, he has boxed himself in with pledges and statements that he will be expected to translate into policy. Romney has asserted that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon if he is president, but it will have one if Obama is re-elected. Viewed one way, that’s just demagoguery, but it does mean that Romney has flatly ruled out the possibility of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. Theoretically, Obama has also ruled out containment, but Romney’s advisers are generally much more hostile to the idea of containing Iran and they are more receptive to taking military action against Iran. It is easier to imagine Obama settling for containment, which would be much more difficult for Romney within his own party.

Obviously, Romney is more than capable of abandoning a position when it is in his political interest to do so, but that doesn’t mean that he would abandon any of his foreign policy positions. After all, these are the only issues on which he had no previous public opinions, which make his foreign policy views the only ones he has consistently held. Unlike many of his views on domestic issues, which reflect the contradictions between his past record and his current agenda, we have no reason to assume that the foreign policy positions he takes are not the ones that he will try to put into practice.

Given the public’s opposition to new foreign wars following more than a decade of warfare, it is significant that Romney insists on portraying himself as more hawkish and aggressive than Obama. That suggests that he is more concerned to establish his “credibility” on foreign policy by adopting hard-line positions on virtually everything, and he seems to feel compelled to make up for what he doesn’t know by reassuring hard-liners in his party that he is on their side. We have seen that when Romney relies on his own judgment, he blunders badly on these issues, and to the extent that he is following his advisers’ guidance he is still going to be conducting foreign policy in the fashion of George W. Bush. Public statements, campaign personnel, and political incentives all suggest that Romney would govern more or less as a reckless hawk. There would be continuities between administrations, because there always are, but there’s really no excuse for pretending that Romney’s foreign policy isn’t the throwback to the Bush era that it clearly is.

P.S. Jonathan Bernstein’s observation about the importance of the party’s preferences is relevant here (via Andrew):

What’s far more important is figuring out what the coalition who nominated him and is trying to elect him really wants, because that’s how he’ll actually govern.

One common theme in Romney’s foreign policy is “anything but Obama,” which is what the vast majority of the Republican coalition wants, and Romney seems likely to deliver that both to satisfy his partisans and to create clear differences between his administration and that of his predecessor.

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The U.S.-Russian “Reset” Has Been Successful

Amitai Etzioni rightly corrects some of the enthusiastic praise for Obama’s foreign policy in Bending History, but then writes this:

The authors suffer from the fact that the world did not hold still in the months that passed between writing and publishing the book. They view the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations as a success; however, it did not last and had few positive spillover effects. START, as I have pointed out elsewhere, focused on a low-priority issue while leaving untouched the more serious threats posed by tactical nuclear weapons. It did not inspire Pakistan or North Korea to give up, or even slow down, their accelerating nuclear-arms buildup.

In fairness, some administration officials presented the arms reduction treaty in terms of leading by example, and they did suggest that arms reduction on the part of the two largest nuclear-weapons states would strengthen nonproliferation efforts elsewhere. That was never likely. This was a classic bit of overselling the merits of the treaty. It is unreasonable to judge the “reset” by the behavior of long-time proliferating states that were never going to be influenced by a U.S.-Russian arms control agreement.

As Etzioni must know, there was no way that tactical nuclear weapons were going to be the subject of any negotiations until after the arms reduction treaty was ratified. To fault the “reset” for failing to address the threat posed by tactical nukes is to create an extremely high standard for what would constitute a successful Russia policy. New START was always a modest treaty that was going to produce modest benefits, but the benefits are real. Like most criticisms of the “reset,” Etzioni’s overlooks Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Russian accession to the WTO. It makes no sense to judge the “reset” without comparing the current state of U.S.-Russian relations to the state of those relations four years ago. One major goal of the “reset” was to repair relations that had fallen to a post-Cold War low in 2008. Even if it has not done as much as it could, it has undeniably done that. Much of the rest of Obama’s foreign policy has been unsatisfactory or underwhelming, but it should be possible to acknowledge that while crediting it for the successes that it has had.

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Romney and Obama Have Genuinely Different Policies on Russia

The L.A. Times reports on the foreign policy similarities between Obama and Romney. Most of it is reliable, but the article goes off the rails near the end:

Yet Russia represents another instance in which Romney and Obama don’t differ much, despite the rhetoric.

I don’t know how one can write up a story on Romney’s efforts to differentiate himself from Obama and then fail to acknowledge that Russia policy is the one area where Romney has most consistently differentiated himself in significant ways. It’s also true that Russia policy is the area where Romney has done his best to make a fool of himself, and ideally that should be reflected in the story, too. Romney opposed the “reset” and everything it represented beginning three years ago, he made a point of opposing ratification of New START, and he has repeatedly stated that he would reverse the “reset” once in office. The implication is that he doesn’t like improved relations with Russia, he sees no need for them, and he would like to return to antagonizing and confronting Russia. There could hardly be a more noticeable, substantive difference between the two candidates than their respective positions on Russia policy, but it still sometimes receives the same treatment as their genuinely identical Syria policies or their very similar Iran policies.

Romney’s Russia policy really would be different. He has already broadcast his hostility to Russia on several occasions. Hawkish Republicans find that appealing, and almost everyone else does not, but it is a genuine difference that shouldn’t be papered over or dismissed as mere election-year gimmickry. The same applies to the war in Afghanistan and China policy, which are two more issues on which Romney claims to hold meaningfully different views from the incumbent. Romney would likely face many more constraints on Afghanistan or China, and continuing the war in Afghanistan indefinitely would prove to be politically dangerous for him. He would face no such constraints if he chose to wreck the relationship with Russia, and many members of his own party would cheer him if he did so.

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Romney’s Understanding of American Exceptionalism

Condi Rice’s endorsement of Romney was expected and it isn’t politically significant, but something she said in the endorsement deserves brief comment:

“If America is going to rebuild its strength at home, rebuild its sense of who we are, it needs a leader that also understands how really exceptional the United States of America is, and is not afraid to lead on the basis of that exceptionalism [bold mine-DL],” Rice told about 300 donors.

Granted, these are endorsement remarks, so they are bound to contain a lot of nonsense. It’s not as if Rice can praise Romney’s keen insights into Russian foreign policy, and she has to say something. Even so, what does all this exceptionalism talk mean in this context? Will Romney’s supposedly superior understanding of America’s exceptional status reverse de-industrialization, eliminate wage stagnation, improve social mobility, or reduce income inequality? If his leadership is informed by American exceptionalism, will that suddenly persuade firms to begin hiring on a much larger scale? No doubt the Iranian government will offer Romney their unconditional surrender after they are awed by his conviction that America is not “just another place on the map with a flag.”

American exceptionalism has been a favorite theme of Romney’s campaign, and it has become a regular part of Republican rhetoric over the last three years. In both cases, it has proved to be a very effective substitute for thinking. How does greater enthusiasm for American exceptionalism remedy any contemporary economic or political woes? Romney’s understanding of American exceptionalism is defined by his support for U.S. hegemony abroad, which he wants to maintain with an expanded military. This is a response to a security problem that doesn’t exist, and it comes at enormous cost that would increase the government’s fiscal problems. Other than being more aggressive overseas and more dismissive of international institutions and other states’ interests in the conduct of foreign policy, Romney’s understanding of American exceptionalism seems to have no practical consequences at all. It is just a phrase that is attached to a conventional Republican policy agenda. Far from conveying how “really exceptional” America is, the Romney campaign’s overuse of the theme of American exceptionalism just demonstrates how unimaginative Romney and his campaign are.

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The Pitfalls of “Nation Cultivation”

Nikolas Gvosdev recently proposed an alternative to nation-building:

Nation building is an inherently revolutionary proposition that believes it is both possible and desirable to sweep away the past and install new institutions by fiat. Nation cultivation, in contrast, rests on the observations of Edmund Burke that sustainable, evolutionary change is possible only by working within the existing frameworks bequeathed by tradition and experience.

The greater respect for existing institutions and traditions that this approach entails makes it sound preferable to the sort of upheaval and dislocation that nation-building involves, but “nation cultivation” suffers from a number of the same pitfalls as its more revolutionary counterpart. It still puts an outside government–in this case, ours–in the role of the “cultivator” of another nation, which implies that the outside government has both the right and responsibility to direct and shape the political development of another people. Whether an outside government approaches the task with an engineering or a gardening/farming mentality doesn’t change the reality that it is still an attempt to impose a new political order from outside. “Nation cultivation” might involve grafting new structures onto the old, but it is still an effort to remake another society for our purposes. As such, “nation cultivaton” runs into the same difficulties as nation-building: why should the U.S. be doing this, and why are Americans likely to support a “nation cultivation” project when most of them regard nation-building with disdain?

“Nation cultivation” may seem more realistic and more likely to “work,” but for the same reason it would likely command even less political support than nation-building does. As a concept, “nation cultivation” takes for granted that its success is far from guaranteed, and it assumes a much longer-term commitment than the recent and ongoing multi-year overseas projects that are already very unpopular. Gvosdev acknowledges that “nation cultivation” would require much more time:

But nation cultivation might force a new and more honest dialogue with the American people, asking them to commit to longer-term time horizons when it can be shown that nation cultivation is truly in the country’s interests, as it certainly proved to be the case in East Asia.

It might be more honest to tell the public that a given mission is going to last for twenty years instead of three or five, but voters don’t want to hear about 30-year plans to encourage institution-building and political reform in another country at their expense. Besides the public’s impatience and fickleness in its support for overseas missions, it isn’t at all clear that “nation cultivation” would serve the country’s interests in most cases. If the U.S. were to adopt “nation cultivation” in place of the nation-building that has been tried and found wanting in the last twenty years, which nations would the government be “cultivating” and why? The same temptation to throw endless resources at the problem will still be there, as it inevitably is in any large-scale public project, and once such a project gets started the government would have strong incentives to persist in trying to make it a success long after its failure was evident to all. Gvosdev cites the decades-long “nation cultivations” in Taiwan and South Korea as examples, but in both cases U.S. support for these states was directly tied to larger strategic goals in the Cold War. It is unclear what goals the U.S. would be advancing through “nation cultivation” today.

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Romney and the “Republican Foreign Policy Establishment”

Jonathan Bernstein objects to the lazy overuse of “establishment” to describe political actors:

Item 2: Mitt Romney has not yet won the endorsements of Republican foreign policy “establishment” types Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft. What makes them, and not their opponents within the party –opponents who, in many cases, have been in office a lot more recently and are more likely to be appointed by Republican nominee Romney if he wins — “establishment”? Or if both sides of the GOP divide (or all sides, if there are more than two) are “establishment,” then how does it help us, the readers, figure out what’s going on?

That’s a very good point about that article, and it’s a useful corrective to the overuse of the word. The misuse of the word establishment in the original title may be why a later version of the story refers to foreign policy “giants” rather than the “foreign policy establishment.” I have to admit that I often fall into the habit of using the word to distinguish between party elites and their critics, but it is not always an accurate or meaningful term. The story about Romney’s lack of support from realists of an earlier generation reflects the extent to which those realists have long since ceased to be influential in the GOP.

It’s true that Romney has not yet received the endorsements of these realists, but from Romney’s perspective those endorsements are redundant and may not even be desirable for him if they could be obtained. These realists are the people whom Bill Kristol is so proud to have driven from positions of influence among Republicans. Perhaps the article was supposed to emphasize Romney’s weakness on foreign policy, but all that it confirmed was that Romney’s foreign policy is antithetical to that of many Republican realists, which is something we already knew. Romney’s campaign may bristle at the neoconservative label, but it would dread being identified with Brent Scowcroft and the foreign policy views he holds. As far as the campaign’s policy positions are concerned, Romney has accommodated himself to the present-day Republican foreign policy establishment (including the neoconservatives) and not the one that existed twenty or forty years ago.

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Barnett on Syria: “Speed the Killing” Because “We Can”

Thomas Barnett wins the prize for making the most cynical, amoral argument for Syrian intervention yet:

We should press the fight and speed the killing in Syria, not because it’s right or because we’re preventing anything.

We should do it because the opportunity has presented itself and we can.

This is not very different from the so-called Ledeen Doctrine, which held that every ten years “the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” It is somewhat refreshing to find a pro-war argument that dispenses with any pretense that attacking Syria would be justified on humanitarian grounds. Barnett’s argument is appalling in its own way, but it is not quite as misleading. A war for regime change in Syria would be nothing more than an exercise in power projection for its own sake.

Barnett pays some lip service to the strategic benefits that a Syrian war would supposedly provide, but that seems to be unimportant to him. What matters is that the U.S. participate in the conflict in some way, so that it doesn’t miss its opportunity to “be in on the kill.” The striking thing is that Barnett assumes Assad’s downfall is assured anyway, so by his own admission joining the conflict is unnecessary. This obviously has nothing to do with American interests or the security of regional allies and clients.

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Is Russia Becoming Irrelevant?

Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini call for removing Russia from the category of emerging-market economies:

Mitt Romney, the Republican party’s likely presidential nominee, recently referred to Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe”. That’s absurd, not because Russia isn’t increasingly antagonistic to US interests, but because it is becoming increasingly less relevant – as a political power or as an attractive emerging market. Russia’s fellow Bric nations may have no interest in dismissing Moscow from their club but the rest of us can (and should) stop speaking of Russia as if it belongs in this company.

Adomanis challenges the authors on their facts concerning Russian economic and demographic growth, among other things. The most important mistake Bremmer and Roubini make is their contention that Russia is becoming less relevant as a market. Russia has just joined the WTO after eighteen years of seeking membership. It is on track to become more economically integrated with the rest of the world than it has ever been in the post-Soviet era. Russia was the largest economy in the world that remained outside the WTO until now, and membership in the organization ought to lead to increased foreign investment. How has the Russian market become “less relevant” than it was in the last decade? The opposite would seem to be the case. It also doesn’t make much sense to declare that Russia is increasingly politically irrelevant in the same op-ed that begins with a complaint about Russian intransigence over Syria at the U.N.

The BRIC “club” was always something of an arbitrary grouping, so I suppose there’s nothing to stop Westerners from arbitrarily excluding Russia from it. What is a bit more puzzling about Bremmer and Roubini’s op-ed is that they aren’t calling on Western governments or investors to do very much differently from what they have been doing. They don’t think Russian membership in Western organizations has yielded positive results, but they aren’t even saying that Russia should be kicked out of the G-8. The authors want Western governments to talk to Russians who want “a democratic Russia with an innovative, modern economy driven by private sector ingenuity,” so they are arguing for deeper engagement with Russian civil society, such as it is. That’s fine as far as it goes, but what do the authors expect this to accomplish?

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Romney’s Campaign Dislikes the Neoconservative Label, But Keeps Embracing Neoconservative Policies

It’s hardly breaking news that Kissinger and Scowcroft aren’t on board with Romney’s foreign policy, but this NYT article included one interesting piece of information:

The Romney campaign bristles at the “neoconservative” description [bold mine-DL], and says its advisers have a range of backgrounds, including some who worked for Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Mr. Powell and Mr. Scowcroft. And they say that Mr. Romney enjoys hearing strong dissenting views.

It’s good that Romney likes to hear strong dissenting views, especially when his campaign has its share of foreign policy advisers strongly dissenting from what he says in public (and making sure that their dissent reaches the media). The campaign is right to bristle at the neoconservative label. That’s not because the label is inaccurate. Romney’s foreign policy statements often sound as if they are drafted by Weekly Standard staff writers. Except for McCain, Romney has been campaigning as the most unapologetic adherent to neoconservative foreign policy views of any Republican nominee. Regardless of the “range of backgrounds” of his advisers, the diversity of their views is not very great. Two-thirds of them worked for George W. Bush in some capacity. The campaign bristles at the description because they understand that the neoconservative label is politically damaging. That doesn’t seem to stop Romney from giving voters every reason to believe that his foreign policy would be a neoconservative one.

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Obama and the “Polish Death Camps”

Andrew remarks on Obama’s “Polish death camp” error:

I have to say the explosive reaction to the terminology – despite the fact that Obama was honoring an anti-Nazi Pole – blindsided me. No doubt there will be a formal apology. But ginning this up into some kind of campaign attack seems silly to me. Which means Romney will probably try to exploit it.

Obama’s phrase was incredibly sloppy. It’s surprising that a politician from Chicago wouldn’t already know not to say something like this. After all, the Chicago metro area has the largest Polish population outside Poland. As provocative as the phrase was, it doesn’t say anything about U.S. policy in the region or U.S.-Polish relations in general. It was an unfortunate and entirely avoidable blunder on Obama’s part, and he’ll have to suffer some deserved embarrassment for it.

I suspect it will be shoehorned into the exceedingly dishonest Romney/GOP narrative that Obama has repeatedly betrayed and snubbed allies for the last three years. Unfortunately for Obama, this blunder is real and it actually did offend an allied government. Unlike the usual litany of insults and snubs that Republicans attribute to Obama, this one happened and it was taken as an insult, albeit an unintentional one. On the other hand, Obama has been falsely attacked over these supposed snubs and betrayals so many times that another attack may have no effect at all.

Update: On cue, Marc Thiessen repeats some Nile Gardiner nonsense about U.S.-Polish relations.

Second Update: Daniel Knowles’ reaction to this mini-controversy is worth reading:

The idea that Mr Obama should apologise to Donald Tusk is ludicrously over the top. This was a gaffe, at an event at the White House intended to honour a Polish resistance fighter. Even if common sense didn’t, the context would have made it clear what the President was referring to. If it wasn’t for Mr Sikorski, very few people would even have noticed.

And this constant policing of politicians’ every utterance by grievance-obsessed special interests is exactly what makes British politics so boring. I really hope that American politics won’t follow.

Too late!

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