Presidential Debates Over: Now What for the World?
Now that Messrs Obama and Romney have had their televised debate on foreign policy, what more do we know about how either man would conduct America's role in the world from the Oval Office?
Very little. But not nothing. We have learned, for example, that there is not that much difference, in fact, regarding what each would do on the major issues facing the Nation. Both, notably, would give unwavering support to Israel and oppose by all means necessary an Iranian quest for the bomb -- indeed, to listen to the tenor of the two presentations, it would seem that these two issues are the centerpiece of US foreign policy. And in the case of Mr. Romney, Iran poses the most serious threat to America's future (Mr. Obama cited global terrorism: neither man spoke then or elsewhere about the continuing global fiscal and financial crisis that must surely rate at or at least near the Top of the Pops).
Both presidential candidates had something to say about China, but were not all that different from one another -- though, perhaps in a slip of the tongue, Mr. Obama balanced "partnership" with China's also being an "adversary," and he also relaunched the term "pivot to Asia," which had been banished in favor of "rebalancing" after the European allies complained about their being relegated to tertiary status. The allies can also be forgiven if they draw that conclusion from Monday night's debate, since Europe, NATO, the European Union, and the EURO crisis didn't even merit a mention, except in passing, including Mr. Obama's claim that America's alliances have never been stronger. This claim doesn't measure well against the lack of any reference to "why?" and "how?"
This is all caviling, however, since the televised debate on foreign policy between the two finalists in the contest to be Leader of the Free World is not about issues. It is about goofs -- which, blessedly, neither man made -- such as President Gerald Ford's famous declaration (1976) that Poland was free, a clear combobulation of what he meant to say, which was that in their hearts the Poles continued to see themselves as aspirants for freedom. But never mind, the damage was done, and the media pounced.
More important, this week's debate, along with aspects of the two presidential debates on domestic policy, was about something entirely different: a concept I first dubbed many presidential campaigns ago as the "commander-in-chief test." Since the average American is wise enough to know that he/she will not know enough to judge the intricacies of complex foreign policies, the test is whether, in one's heart of hearts, a candidate for president looks like he can keep the nation safe. That was the test that Ronald Reagan, who had been portrayed as a not-quite-all-there outlier from California, passed with flying colors in his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter. The polls shifted 10 points almost over night: it suddenly seemed safe to vote against Carter and his double-digit interest rates, unemployment, and inflation.
All in all, however, none of this tells us much about how any contender for president will do in office. The man most often cited as having defied limited expectations was Harry Truman, the failed haberdasher with four months' experience as Vice President who did no less than create the Marshall Plan and NATO and the rehabilitation of Japan. The simple fact is that we can't know how a man (or woman) will perform in the Oval Office on national security because there is no test for the job, none whatsoever.
Of course, we can make judgments about a contender for a second term: but even then, not as much as might at first seem. George W. Bush was not a sterling performer in the office in his first term -- after all, he fell prey to advisers like Vice President Cheney and denizens of the Defense Department, notably Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz -- in driving the US into invading Iraq, one of the worst errors in US history. But in his second term, Bush did credible foreign policy work; he had learned some basic lessons from experience. (It is not for nothing that the two best presidents in foreign policy on entering office since Dwight Eisenhower were Richard Nixon, Mr. Opening to China, and George H.W. Bush, Mr. Wrapping-up the Cold War -- they had used wisely their 8-year terms as Vice President).
This is the point, and also the point about the similarities in the visions that could be winkled out from the domestic political cant in the presentations Monday night by President Obama and Governor Romney: whoever is the US president in 2013 will face the same world, which cares not at all whether there is a Democrat or Republican in the White House. And, progressively, the US sets less and less of the global agenda that the US must join others in pursuing.
Furthermore -- and more important -- the presidency is not a person but a team. The man in the Oval Office is only team captain, and how well he does will depend in critical measure on the quality of the people he chooses for his team and how well he manages them. He must, after all, devote most of his waking hours to the US economy and domestic policy -- the basis for his election and on which he will most be judged, especially if he is a first-termer looking to run for reelection.
Unfortunately, all too often a new president gets wrong this choosing and managing of his national security team. He probably knows few of the players, given that US elections are 98% about the economy and domestic issues like health, education, personal security, abortion, and on and on. Meanwhile, the foreign policy establishment (disclaimer: I belong to that fraternity/sorority) prepares its lists of candidates for office, much like a labor union chooses the shop stewards: Buggins' Turn. There is little the new president can do but accept the list handed to him.
A new president is also almost surely an ingénue (other than Nixon and GHW Bush, as cited above) and needs a lengthy period of "running in," including the fact that the Senate confirmation process means that many jobs, even some senior jobs, will not be filled for many months after Inauguration Day.
Thus, to gain an inkling on how the next president will do as commander-in-chief, watch who he picks to top his foreign policy team but, even more, who occupies the next several layers down: do they really have relevant experience, a sense of what needs to be done, and the ability to relate the world's apples to its oranges? The United States, after all, does not operate, in foreign as in domestic policy, with a bunch of Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey Applebys, but staffs its key positions mostly with political wannabees, some who really "get it," and some who don't -- sadly, all too many of the latter.
Lacking in particular in the US foreign policy culture is understanding of the strong need for genuine strategic thinking, a culture that has been reinforced by US victory in the Cold War, after which it has seemed that its relatively superior power in most key dimensions and the sanctity of two broad oceans will suffice. Notably, the lack in the last three administrations of coherence in Middle East policy -- understanding that there are not about 8 different zones of interest loosely related to one another, but really one overarching set of interests, issues, and challenges that have to be met and dealt with, together, with some overarching strategic perspective and capacity to make relevant connections and trade offs -- has meant that all three of these administrations have been largely confounded by developments in that region critical to America's future and that of the West and the global economy as a whole.
Also, don't expect Mr. Obama, if he is reelected, necessarily to "get it right," though he may hire a stronger team than in his first term, unless he has learned the fundamental lesson about strategic perspective and strategic thinking -- that he needs a Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski, the last such people in high office, now more than 30 years ago. There is as yet no evidence that President Obama has learned this lesson; and Governor. Romney has not the experience nor has had the time to learn the needed lessons in order for him to be expected to do any better, at least at first.
America probably remains the "indispensable nation," as President Obama said again the other night. But if it is to exercise the leadership that others expect of it -- to say nothing about the American people who entrust their destiny in the world to the commander-in-chief -- whoever wins on November 6th must do a better job in fashioning a team, organizing it to act, hiring one or (preferably) several senior people truly capable of strategic thinking, and demanding coherence in US national security policies than has been evident at least since George H.W. Bush left office.