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Presidential Elections and Foreign Policy

Dan Drezner recently embraced RINO status, but that wasn’t what interested me about this post [1]. One of the comments that wasn’t included in his Spectator article [2] on Republican foreign policy caught my attention:

[A]s an international relations specialist, I find the state of the state of the GOP foreign policy debate to be utterly depressing, but as a political scientist, I’m unsurprised. Still, as an American citizen, this state of affairs is disconcerting on multiple levels. We are not that far removed from elections in which foreign affairs and national security were the crucial issues in a campaign. Gerald Ford sabotaged his 1976 campaign when he insisted that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Both Michael Dukakis and John Kerry doomed their campaigns by appearing weak and vacillating on national security.

Except for the 2004 example, Drezner is describing presidential politics during the Cold War. During this extremely abnormal period of American history, foreign policy and national security received more attention because the U.S. was engaged in a major international rivalry with the USSR. Further, there was a bipartisan consensus that anti-Soviet containment was necessary and important, and presidential candidates were expected to demonstrate that they were competent to handle this responsibility. After 1991, it was natural that these issues stopped dominating presidential politics to the extent that they had earlier, and now that we are beginning to realize that there are no comparably grave threats to the U.S. these issues are starting to fade into the background again.

In the years immediately following 9/11, national security issues defined the political landscape. This made them major issues during the 2004 election, but it also produced the Iraq war debacle. Bush’s re-election was interpreted by the administration as a green light to continue their mismanagement of the occupation and many of their other misguided policies in the world. Considering the hysteria and demagoguery that shaped the national security debate during at least the first half of the last decade, I’m not sure that we are missing out on very much this cycle.

My guess is that Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon lost him a lot more votes than those debate remarks, but with the exception of 1988 these elections resulted in the victory of the less competent candidate when it came to foreign policy and national security issues. That may not have been entirely obvious in 1976, but it was in 2004. To the extent that these elections turned on issues of foreign policy and national security, they did so for utterly superficial reasons. I won’t find it the least bit disconcerting if this election isn’t decided by who happens to “appear weak.” Goodness knows we have had more than enough candidates eager to demonstrate how “strong” and “tough” they are with belligerent and demagogic rhetoric.

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6 Comments To "Presidential Elections and Foreign Policy"

#1 Comment By cfountain72 On November 29, 2011 @ 9:45 am

“with the exception of 1988 these elections resulted in the victory of the less competent candidate when it came to foreign policy and national security issues.”

Hmm…am I misreading this or are you saying Reagan was less competent than Carter or Mondale with respect to foreign policy? I recognize the man failed on occasion (Beirut, Iran-Contra), but net-net it seems like he performed very admirably in doing his part to end the Cold War.

Peace be with you.

#2 Comment By Daniel Larison On November 29, 2011 @ 10:53 am

I wrote this in a bit of a hurry this morning, so it may not have been as clear as it should have been. I was referring to the three elections Drezner used as his examples. I was not making a general statement about all Cold War presidential elections.

#3 Comment By Charlie On November 29, 2011 @ 11:49 am

“…these elections resulted in the victory of the less competent candidate when it came to foreign policy and national security issues. That may not have been entirely obvious in 1976, but it was in 2004.”

‘m not sure it was entirely obvious that Kerry was the more competent candidate when it came to foreign policy. There’s no point rehashing all of the ways in which Bush was ignorant, disinterested and incompetent. But Kerry’s fatal problem on foreign policy in that election was that he’s such a go-along-to-get-along guy. His superior competence and grasp of the issues didn’t matter that much–he supported the war and, once it was underway, more or less went along with everything the Bush administration did.

I don’t fault him for not having a magical solution to a no-win situation created by his opponent, but I do fault him for supporting Bush’s worst decision (the decision to go to war in the first place), never admitting that decision was wrong, and proceeding to nit-pick Bush’s tactics while, as a practical matter, supporting his strategy. All this while claiming that a) he had better judgment than Bush and should therefore be elected; b) explaining away his vote on the Iraq war resolution by saying, essentially, “I didn’t realize giving Bush the discretion to go to war when and how he pleased might result in Bush recklessly going to war when and how he pleased.”

All of which is to say… I voted for John Kerry because I felt the need to register my strong disapproval of the Bush administration, and because I agree with you that Kerry was clearly more competent, but if someone were to say that as a practical matter they were equally contemptible I’m not sure I’d argue with that too much.

#4 Comment By cfountain72 On November 29, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

Daniel,

Thanks for the clarification. It appears I misunderstood what you were saying.

As for Kerry, I wonder if his foreign policy would’ve been much different than Obomba’s has been…

Peace be with you.

#5 Comment By tbraton On November 29, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

“All of which is to say… I voted for John Kerry because I felt the need to register my strong disapproval of the Bush administration, and because I agree with you that Kerry was clearly more competent, but if someone were to say that as a practical matter they were equally contemptible I’m not sure I’d argue with that too much.”

Charlie, I too voted for Kerry, but it was more a disapproval of Bush than an endorsement of Kerry. In addition to the points you listed, you left out the very important fact that Kerry couldn’t make up his mind whether he was for the war or against the war. Had he made up his mind and taken an unambiguous stand against the war, he might have beaten Bush. I think too many voters were turned off by his wishy-washiness. As to whether it would have made any difference, you only have to look at Obama to conclude probably not. Kerry’s support of Obama’s war against Libya revealed what a truly empty suit Kerry is. I would as reluctant to judge him as more competent than Bush as I would to judge the brighter of Dumb and Dumber from the hilarious Farrelly Bros. movie.

#6 Comment By Hamilton Fan On November 30, 2011 @ 7:08 am

Daniel,

What are your thoughts on Gingrich’s foreign policy? His handling of the Libyan revolution certainly left much to be desired. Nevertheless, he is currently leading Romney by 23 points in South Carolina.