Foreign Policy, in a Word

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET

This has been quite the week to learn about the foreign policy vision--or lack of vision--for leading presidential contenders on both sides of the aisle.

For wonks of all stripes, Foreign Affairs published head-to-head pieces by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  At first glance, I thought both pieces should have come with a warning: "Caution! Excessive triangulation may cause drowsiness.  Do not read these foreign policy positions while driving or operating heavy equipment.

The problem?  For cryin' out loud! These things all look the same.  Terrorism, diplomacy and "new threats," all served with a lukewarm side of "energy security.

In an America fed up and cynical from the occupation in Iraq, will all presidential candidates ascribe to the same War on Terror Lite?  Tough!  But open.  Resolute!  But a good listener.  Iron hand!  But soft skin.

So, just to see if there were any differences in all these positions, I printed out the Foreign Affairs papers from Obama and Romney,  threw in a few more foreign policy speeches from Edwards and McCain, and then set out to see if I could reduce the four candidates' foreign policy positions down to one word each.

Here's what I found...

"Responsible" - Obama

Barack Obama's foreign policy vision makes references to Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy, but ultimately his vision boils down to a single word: responsible.

America must, according to Obama, "protect the American people and expand opportunity for the next generation," but we must do that by first "bringing the war [in Iraq] to a responsible end." In context, Obama's "responsible" looks like this:

To renew American leadership in the world, we must first bring the Iraq war to a responsible end and refocus our attention on the broader Middle East. Iraq was a diversion from the fight against the terrorists who struck us on 9/11, and incompetent prosecution of the war by America's civilian leaders compounded the strategic blunder of choosing to wage it in the first place. We have now lost over 3,300 American lives, and thousands more suffer wounds both seen and unseen.

Everything begins with this notion of a "responsible end" to the situation in Iraq. What does this mean? Well, it does not mean bringing American soldiers home right away. Obama's proposal is to remove "all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008" -- a date he calls "consistent with the goal set by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. But having put this date down in black and white, Obama then says the following:

This redeployment could be temporarily suspended if the Iraqi government meets the security, political, and economic benchmarks to which it has committed. But we must recognize that, in the end, only Iraqi leaders can bring real peace and stability to their country.

Hmm. When is a withdrawal date not really a withdrawal date? When the larger concern is that America's foreign policy be "responsible."

But "responsible" for what? Many would say the only responsible thing to do at this point is to make a radical change in the Iraq policy -- to alter just about everything about it right now.

It seems, however, that the Obama campaign is actually re-iterating a more vexing and problematic frame, one that has been used by the Republicans and by a small group of Democrats closely associated with Senator Joe Lieberman. In this logic, "withdrawal" is framed as some kind of David Copperfield magic act: one second there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the next second (poof!) -- all gone. This is what that frame looks like when President Bush invoked it during his May 1, 2007 press conference, in which he explained why he vetoed the Democratic insistence on a withdrawal date:

It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing.
All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather
their strength -- and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and
take control of the country of Iraq. I believe setting a deadline for
withdrawal would demoralize the Iraqi people, would encourage killers
across the broader Middle East, and send a signal that America will not
keep its commitments. Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date
for failure -- and that would be irresponsible.

Here we see that the word "irresponsible" is a political stone thrown by Bush at the Democrats who propose serious change to American's Iraq policy. The attack on Democrats takes the form of the false scenario of a "magic" disappearing soldiers and, apparently, has made some Democratic candidates concerned that a foreign policy that proposed an immediate change in strong words will leave them open to this charge of "irresponsible."

So, as great as it may be to read Barack Obama invoke the names of Democratic Presidents past, it does seem that the Obama' campaign's entire foreign policy vision is still reacting to Bush's flawed logic rather than pushing the national debate to new terrain.

"Responsible," at the end of the day, is a code word that really means: no withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq any time soon.

And let's be honest, here. If a foreign policy vision does not begin by proposing big change in the Iraq policy, how can it really claim to be new, let alone "responsible."

"Violent" -- Romney

Mitt Romney's foreign policy vision stakes everything on the idea that most Americans "still fail to comprehend" that "the jihadist threat is the defining challenge of our generation." Thus, Romney's policy can be reduced to the word: violent.

Curiously, While Romney simply restates the violent foreign policy vision of George W. Bush, he does so by translating the word "terrorism" into more technical terms, including "jihad" "balance of forces" (e.g., in technical military terms, "fighting terrorism" is called "asymmetric warfare"). The end result is that Romney's vision reads like a high school lesson on war by a substitute teacher obsessed with scaring the students:

The jihadist threat is the defining challenge of our generation and is symptomatic of a range of new global realities. It is common to the point of cliché to talk about how much the world has changed since 9/11. Our president led a dramatic response to the events of that day and has taken action to protect the U.S. homeland. Yet if one looks at our tools of national power, what is surprising is not how much has changed since then but how little. While we wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. troop levels and our investment in the military as a percentage of GDP remain lower than at any time of major conflict since World War II. Decades after the oil shocks of the 1970s highlighted the United States' vulnerability, we remain dangerously dependent on foreign oil. Many of our instruments of national security were created not only before most Americans had access to the Internet and cell phones but also before they had televisions. Our difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with disturbing gaps in our intelligence, are well known. A growing number of experts question whether we have the capabilities to meet various transnational challenges, ranging from pandemic diseases to international terrorism. And while the United Nations has stood impotent in the face of genocide in Sudan and has been unable to address Iran's rush to build dangerous nuclear capabilities, we have done little more than tweak international alliances and antiquated institutions.

At first glance, Romney seems to be laying out an agenda for waging war against the product line at Best Buy! But what we see, here, in Romney is something akin to the rebirth of dark and doom-filled Cheney-speak. It's not that we're fighting just another war, says Romney, but that we have "disturbing gaps in our intelligence" that means the jihadists can get us anywhere.

Romney, apparently inspired by Cheney's murder-death-kill style of talking about foreign policy, couches his entire vision in fear and threat of impending and horrific violence.

But what does "violence" mean in Romney's foreign policy statement, anyway? It's a tricky question to answer, but it seems that for Romney, "violence" is what happens when the United States not wealthy enough and doe snot have a larger enough military. In other words: Mitt is a neo-con who believes that peace and prosperity on a global scale can only happen with the United States dominating economically and militarily at all times.

It is stunning that Romney should put forth a dark vision that reiterates Cheneyism, doing little more than changing "terrorism" to "jihad." But that does seem to be what Romney has done.

Anyone who believes such a "violent" foreign policy vision would be effective need only look back at the past seven years. Feel safer? Me neither.

"Reengage" -- Edwards

In remarks delivered May 23, 2007 to the Council on Foreign Relations, John Edwards demonstrated that his foreign policy vision boils down to the word: reengagement.

The problem with Iraq, says Edwards, is not just that it's a failed policy, but that it's has been the product of a fundamentally corrupt way of crafting foreign policy. The "Global War on Terror," according to Edwards, has been used like a "sledgehammer to justify the wost abuses and biggest mistakes" and, as result, Iraq has long since ceased being a policy focused on protecting Americans (if it ever was):

We need a post-Bush, post-9/11, post-Iraq American military that is mission-focused on protecting Americans from 21st century threats, not misused for discredited ideological pursuits. We need to recognize that we have far more powerful weapons available to us than just bombs, and we need to bring them to bear. We need to reengage the world with the full weight of our moral leadership.

What we need is not more slogans but a comprehensive strategy to deal with the complex challenge of both delivering justice and being just. Not hard power. Not soft power. Smart power.

Here we see that everything for Edwards depends on this idea that we need to "reengage the world" in order to be safe -- that Bush's foreign policy is not only bad, but dangerous because it leaves the U.S. isolated.

Interestingly, Edwards' also makes "reengage" the broad frame that defines other terms, such as "force" and "intelligence." A foreign policy that engages the world again would become a "smart" foreign policy.

This broad frame allows Edwards to say that our foreign policy depends on U.S. pulling troops out of Iraq, but engaging U.S. diplomacy and military deeper in the region. But a word of caution: "reengagement," here, is not just a fancy word for "stay longer." It is an attempt by Edwards to talk about the difficult challenge the Bush policy has created: the challenge of ending one form of military engagement and starting another at the exact same time and in the same region.

In other words, to end the Iraq policy we must start a new one and vice versa. And ultimately, Edwards' "reengagement" notion is an attempt to move away from the belligerence of the past 7 years to reground American foreign policy in the legacy of American ingenuity and vision with reconstruction. It is no surprise, in other words, that the ancestor haunting Edwards' vision is General George Marshall, the man whose vision enable the greatest reconstruction in world history: the rebuilding of Europe after World War II.

Reengaging means rebuilding, means reworking, means getting "smart" again. And we can see in this term a very basic idea from the classroom: the student who learns nothing is the student who is not engaged with either the material nor the other students. What an apt description of George W. Bush's problem as a student of foreign policy. Reengagement, it seems, will not just bring better "grades," but save lives and grow confidence as well.

"Backwards" -- McCain

Speaking to the Hoover Institute May 1, 2007, John McCain showed how is foreign policy vision is grounded, by and large, in descriptions of the particular threat faced by America, today. These are threats that seek to take the world: backwards.

While it may seem that McCain is just pushing the same policies as Bush and Cheney, his use of "backwards" takes us in a new direction:

There is so much promise in today's world. We live in an era of unprecedented human progress. An increasingly global commerce is spreading a better and freer life to millions. Our scientists and physicians are eradicating diseases that once ravaged populations. More people live under democracy than at any time in human history. More than ever before, a father and mother can pass on to their children a happier, healthier, longer, and freer life than they themselves knew. Yet as we seize and expand these opportunities, we must recognize the dangers posed by the forces of terrorism and tyranny that look backward into a world of darkness and violence. With our democratic friends and allies around the world, we need to build a new global order of peace, a peace that can last not just for a decade but for a century, where the dangers and threats we face diminish, and where human progress reaches new heights.

Shockingly, John McCain -- self-proclaimed Reagan follower -- frames his foreign policy the explicit language of progress. Progress! The dangers we face in the world, in other words, are not terrorists, per se. Terrorism to McCain is more of a method than a movement. The dangers are threats that seek to push progress "back" instead of forward. We live in a world, says McCain, full of technological promise for making our lives better. We are moving along as we always have been, but out there are people who want to arrest this progress.

Incredibly, McCain seems to be channeling Harry Truman quite effectively -- referencing him from time to time as well. We may recall Truman's powerful inaugural speech (Jan 20, 1949), in which he talked about the "faith" Americans held in our system of government:

The American people stand firm in the faith which has inspired this Nation from the beginning. We believe that all men have a right to equal justice under law and equal opportunity to share in the common good. We believe that all men have a right to freedom of thought and expression. We believe that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God.

From this faith we will not be moved.

The American people desire, and are determined to work for, a world in which all nations and all peoples are free to govern themselves as they see fit, and to achieve a decent and satisfying life. Above all else, our people desire, and are determined to work for, peace on earth -- a just and lasting peace -- based on genuine agreement freely arrived at by equals.

In the pursuit of these aims, the United States and other like-minded nations find themselves directly opposed by a regime with contrary aims and a totally different concept of life.

That regime adheres to a false philosophy which purports to offer freedom, security, and greater opportunity to mankind. Misled by that philosophy, many peoples have sacrificed their liberties only to learn to their sorrow that deceit and mockery, poverty and tyranny, are their reward.

That false philosophy is communism.

It is this same idea of "faith" from Truman that frames McCain's ideas. The threat we face in the world is not just "violence" -- although McCain talks about violence quite a bit. The threat is to our "faith" in government from a philosophy that looks backwards to a different vision.

But strangely, McCain's vision is also clouded by Reagen-esque rose tinted glasses, whereas Truman had the courage to describe the world as it is.

Truman talked of a world filled with people in poverty and in dire need of American selflessness. McCain, like Reagan before him, describes the world as if it is a bed of roses just getting better all the time -- the challenge is not to build a better world for everyone, but to make sure the bad guys don't ruin what's already perfect.

We may be faced by the threat of philosophies that look "backwards," but if that's the case, then it would be helpful if the foreign policy vision crafted to protect us actually described the world as it is. Progress, sure. We all have iPods, now. But aren't there health care and global warming crises?

Responsible, Violence, Reengage, Backwards

The list four words that set off our four candidates from one another are by no means exhaustive, but they help to distinguish each position and get down to brass tacks.

Ultimately, in trying to figure out what a candidate is actually saying about foreign policy, I find it helpful not to get too lost in the details at first, but to ask a few basic questions:

  • What is their plan for Iraq?
  • How do they define the big threat out there?
  • What is the big idea for what we should do about it all?

In thinking about those three questions, we see that Obama's vision is ultimately cautious, Romney's is dark, Edwards' is regional, and McCain's is sentimental.

Of the big leaders that precede them, Obama seems to be invoking Kennedy, Romeney seems to be channeling Cheney, Edwards is reaching for Marshall, and McCain is trying to splice Truman onto Reagan (ouch).

Who will end the mess in Iraq faster?

While that question may be tempting, it is probably best to ask: Who will change the dynamic of the Iraq policy in the most profound and immediate way? I'd say -- based on these foreign policy statements -- Edwards, McCain and then Obama Edwards would likely turn the U.S. occupation into a regional redeployment -- stopping the deaths of soldiers and starting the difficult task of rebuilding and refocusing. McCain would probably launch the equivalent of a second invasion -- a big change, nonetheless. Obama, it seems, would take small steps that would seem more like readjustments that big changes, but would still be changes. Romney doesn't make the list at all because, frankly, I don't think Romney will change anything about the Iraq policy.

Who would make us feel safer? This is a tough question. Obama, McCain and Romney all seem comfortable with the idea that America is now in a "Global War on Terror" phase of history and that we need to figure out how to win. Edwards, by contrast, is not satisfied with that nomenclature and wants to figure out how to define this next period of history. I would say, then, that we would be safest under Edwards who, most likely, would use an inaugural speech to define that big new concept and likely give the country a new sense of beginning.

Whose vision would likely get the most votes? Pulling out my crystal ball... I would have to say McCain, Edwards, Obama and then Romney. Like it or not, McCain invokes Truman whose style of speaking about foreign policy has great appeal. McCain is also the most comfortable talking about America, and in terms of electoral success that is a huge asset. Edwards, by contrast, seems to have the most "new" of all the four I discussed (Dennis Kucinich, for example, is the most directly "anti-war/occupation" of the candidates, but for reasons difficult to pin down, Kucinich has not broken through to voters) and that "new" has potential to inspire votes. Obama's big thinking inspiration is chilled considerably by the wonkishness of his policy detail. But his ability to move a room with his words is a big asset. Romney, I suspect, will not get very many votes for talking about the thread of "jihadism" over and over again. It is likely that we will see a big shift in the Romney foreign policy script over the next month as this one tanks in the polling.

(cross posted from Frameshop)