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Previewing the Foreign Policy Debate

Will Romney stray from his unpopular, hawkish positions?

Since most of Monday’s foreign policy debate will be taken up with discussion of U.S. policies in the Near East to the detriment of most other parts of the world and other U.S. interests, this finding from the latest Pew survey may be the most important one to bear in mind:

While the candidates do not differ from one another on policy questions as much as their campaigns want the public to believe, there does appear to be a significant difference between the incumbent, whose response to political upheaval in North Africa and the Near East is frequently faulted for its “passivity,” and the challenger, who seems to think that the U.S. needs to be even more assertive and involved in these developments than it already is. If most viewers perceive Obama and Romney that way, it is difficult to see how Romney’s message will be very appealing to most of them. The survey results clearly show that the public doesn’t favor a candidate pushing for a more activist and hard-line approach, and it’s not even a close contest. After the last decade, the only thing that is surprising about this survey result is that there is still any support for more involvement.

There is a belief among some pundits that Obama is politically vulnerable on Syria because they regard his response to the conflict there to be insufficient and belated, but few Americans would share that view. Very few people are clamoring for greater U.S. involvement there or anywhere else, and those that are calling for this are completely out of step with most Americans. Romney’s more aggressive position on Syria is not politically advantageous, and it also happens to be unwise, so he promotes that position Monday night at his peril.

Even among Republicans, there is a majority in favor of decreased U.S. involvement in “Middle East leadership changes.” Democrats and independents are obviously even more strongly in favor of reduced involvement. Overall, there is only a small constituency for greater involvement in the region. A large majority wants the U.S. to steer clear of any new efforts at regime change or attempts to support political uprisings in other countries. As ever, Obama’s political vulnerabilities on foreign policy have come from being too hawkish and activist, not from too much passivity, and the only candidates willing or able to criticize him along these lines (i.e., the minor party candidates) aren’t going to be on the stage on Monday.

The Pew survey result matches findings from other surveys about what U.S. policy towards Syria should be, which show support for sanctions and not much else. The 23% that favors more U.S. involvement in the politics of the region are very likely the same people who think the U.S. should be directly arming the Syrian opposition and bombing Syrian air defenses. Their preferences are also wrong on the merits, but these results show that there is no real electoral price to be paid by ignoring what they want. That 23% is the audience to which Romney has been pandering for the last several months, and he probably has almost all of their votes locked up anyway. If most viewers correctly perceive that Romney is the more aggressive, activist candidate on Syria and on other international issues, he will lose the debate. Insofar as the last debate has an effect on the outcome of the election, he will be sabotaging himself in the final weeks.

Advocates for a more activist U.S. role in Syria or anywhere else in the region are on the wrong side of a 40-point margin. That doesn’t mean that future policy in the region will turn out to be significantly less activist than it is now, but it suggests that publicly calling for greater activism in regional conflicts and internal political struggles is a very foolish political move. To the extent that the debate centers on this question of less vs. more U.S. involvement in the Near East, Romney’s own positions will greatly contribute to his losing the debate. If he can direct attention away from his hawkishness and keep the debate at the level of generic complaints about lack of American “leadership,” Romney might be able to fight his way to a draw.

P.S. I’ll be covering the debate on Twitter (@DanielLarison) with Malou Innocent, James Joyner, Greg Scoblete, and others for RealClearWorld.



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