This, I’m afraid, will be a cynical post.
Strangely, almost frighteningly, the election on November 6 may be coming down to matters of foreign policy. Not the substance of foreign policy, of course – very few presidents, let alone candidates, ever set foot on that ground. Yet a debate over foreign policy now stands between each of these men and four years in the White House. So let’s, just for a moment, take seriously the idea that things outside America’s borders may make some small impression on our electorate.
What will the debaters talk about?
Almost certainly, the debate will focus on issues that are in the headlines, but not on the long term solutions to those issues or even what they mean over the long-term to the United States. Like most political “conversations” in our country these days, developments overseas are just so many buoys around which to deftly navigate, opportunities to make the other side look bad rather than to demonstrate one’s one grasp on the subtleties.
Consider the likely topics of this clash of foreign policy titans:
· There will be a fruitless back-and-forth over who is “soft on China,” as if the US is in a position to be harsh with the country that covers its deficit spending each year on international markets.
· They will vie with each other, these two gentiles, to be more pro-Israel than Alan Dershowitz, promising to back Israel come what may, with the Palestinians cast as a kind of annoyance if, indeed, they come up at all.
· There will be the same empty threats cast at Iran: Each, in his own way, has said what Obama did at the UN last month – that as president he would ensure “we do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” But neither has a creative plan for doing so, and as a result the Israelis and Iranians set the agenda and the world slips closer and closer to accidental conflict (with all the economic and human tragedy that would bring).
· And, of course, there will be great time wasted on the recent violence in Libya. Here I feel less guilty being so cynical, for what could be more cynical than elevating whatever it is that happened in Benghazi to the level of a major foreign policy issue. It’s not – this is not man bites dog, this is dog bites man. In a country awash with weapons and struggling to regain its footing after the ouster of one of the 20th century’s most despicable dictators, shit is gonna happen. Should we have had more security in Benghazi? Yes. Should our intelligence agencies and political leaders have been better at reporting the actual facts afterward? Yes. Did the GOP repeatedly cut funding for such security? Yes. Does this have any deep meaning? No. Libya today is a dangerous, unpredictable place, like the Lebanon of 1982 that Ronald Reagan dispatched US troops to, or the Somalia of 1993 (where officials reporting to both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton turned down requests to deploy armored vehicles). Americans are targets in such places and if we’re going to be on the ground there we’re going to lose people on occasion.
What do I wish they’d talk about? Pressed for a list of the Top 5 topics that would benefit from such a debate, it seems inconceivable my choices would appear in a presidential debate (read: marketing exercise). The topics, like reality, don’t necessarily conform to “foreign policy” as an academic would define the topic. The world doesn’t work that way, folks, if it ever did. But caveats aside, my five would be as follows:
· 1. Restructuring US foreign and defense policy for a world where no single power dominates. To me, this is the long game defined. It means removing almost all American forces from Europe, lightening our footprint in the Middle East, opening top international leadership posts (like the World Bank and IMF presidencies) to someone other than the US and Europe, and informing our more powerful allies (Japan, Germany, South Korea, the Saudis) that they have to start footing the bill for their own national security. We want stability long-term, then we need to avoid becoming brittle.
· 2. Convening a regional nuclear conference in the Middle East. Here, at least, would be a constructive way to break with the futility of the current approach. Just spit balling here, but if the US offered diplomatic recognition to the Iranian government and a gradual reduction in sanctions in exchange for open talks with Israel and Israel’s accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), we would at least have the basis for a discussion. We offer Israel an above-board military defense treaty, like the one we have with Japan, in exchange for its cooperation. Right now, we’re talking to Iran through diplomatic channels about a program they pretend doesn’t exist. The result of such an approach has an obvious end: See North Korea. We talked to Mao, we talked to Stalin: Is it really so impossible to talk to Khamenei?
· 3. Proposing a comprehensive reform of the UN Security Council that eliminated entirely the permanent (P-5) veto power and reconstituted the panel as follows: US, China, Britain, Russia, France, Germany, India, Brazil, Nigeria, Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, Japan, Turkey and Indonesia. The rest can, well, rotate. This not only reflects modern economic and political realities. It also creates a panel where, on almost any issue, there is a majority for the world’s democracies. The veto merely provides an excuse for any P-5 country to avoid compromise, whether it’s Russia on Syria, China on its islet fetish, or the US on Israel. Get rid of it (or at least show we're willing to try).
· 4. Proposing an Asia-Pacific Community that charts a path toward a free trade zone and insists as a condition of membership that all nations submit any territorial disputes to the International Court of Justice for mediation. Hint strongly to Beijing that the alternative is a Pacific version of NATO (Japan, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, possibly India) aimed at helping US allies defend their claims from a rising China. That is a Chinese nightmare but it’s also precisely where all this leads if America is not proactive while it’s still the big kid on the block. Then it becomes an American nightmare.
· 5. Downsizing in the Persian Gulf: As less and less of our energy needs are met by Middle Eastern sources (and China, India, Japan and Europe grow more dependent), the US should lead the conversation about what replaces the US Navy as the ultimate guarantor of Asian and European energy supplies. While oil is a global commodity and any choking off of supply raises prices everywhere, the incentives for the US are changing. The discovery of major Brazilian oil deposits, the increase in American domestic sources through tight oil and offshore drilling, along with the fact that Venezuela has recently displaced Saudi Arabia as the nation thought to have the largest reserves of oil on the planet, means that our dependency on the Mideast is waning. In 30 years, the US simply won’t have the incentives to play policeman there, and if we can use our influence today to create an international naval agreement to demilitarize the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Straits and other major waterways. Just as Europe freeloads on US defense capabilities in its backyard, Asia – and China, especially – depends desperately on the “public service” provided by the US navy in keeping shipping lanes safe and open. As incentives change, Asia needs to pay its way, one way or another.
So, what are the chances any of this will get aired? probably less than zero. Even when long-term thinking would actually benefit a candidate’s cause, in this race at least, they’re not up to it.
Last night provided Obama an opportunity to score a major point when Mitt Romney harped on the damage the “last four years” allegedly did to “middle income families. Obama’s inability to articulate the counter-argument - that the US middle class has actually been losing ground for three decades, since at least 1980 – was deeply depressing. Instead, he lamely offered that the problem had been around “10 or 15 years,” as if income inequality began during the Clinton years.
How, given the incentive he has to make a cogent case on this topic, could he not know that:
· In 1988, according to the IRS, average income in the US was about $33,400, adjusted for inflation. In 2008, that number was $33,000. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw their incomes grow by 33 percent over the same period. (Not to mention the fact that they can now keep far more of that income away from the tax man, while the poorer middle class cannot, by and large).
· In 1980, a high school diploma helped a worker earn about 71 percent of what a college-educated worker could pull in. In 2010, that number fell to 55 percent.
It makes you want to cry – both the facts and the fact that the uber-articulate incumbent is incapable of explaining this to the electorate. What hope of any real discussion in the more abstract world of foreign affairs?