Why the World Should Ignore the Presidential Campaign Foreign Policy Debates

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Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) participate in a Fox News, Wall Street Journal-sponsored debate at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, on January 16, 2012 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Voters in South Carolina will head to the polls on January 21st. to vote in the Republican primary election to pick their choice for U.S. presidential candidate.

As Republican presidential contenders prepare for yet another televised primary debate in South Carolina on Thursday, much of the world may be wondering who’ll be the next victim of some ignorant insult. Already, the GOP primary season has seen the Palestinians branded an “invented” people by Newt Gingrich; Herman Cain making light of his indifference to Uzbekistan; and Rick Perry telling the Turks that the government they have twice elected is headed by “Islamic terrorists.”

Even if you set aside the Halloween antics from his challengers — Gingrich advocating military means to topple Iran’s regime, say, or Perry’s call for a re-invasion of Iraq — even some of the more sober pronouncements of front runner Mitt Romney seems to portend a radical shakeup of U.S. foreign policy. Romney has, after all,

  •  attacked Obama for negotiating a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, which he says is trying to recreate the Soviet Union;
  •  accused the President of “throwing Israel under a bus”;
  •  rejected any negotiations with the Taliban;
  •  promised to declare China a currency manipulator and take appropriate action; and, most ominously, declared
  • “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon … If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.”

Tough talk, to be sure, but foreign policy vows made on the presidential campaign trail — at least those that promise significant changes — are almost invariably forgotten by the winning candidate once in office. The antiwar Democrats who propelled President Barack Obama to his party’s nomination might ruefully recall his promises to close the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, for example, while few would have much good to say about his doubling down on the war in Afghanistan or his Iran policy. Sure, he oversaw the ending of the Iraq war, but simply by sticking to the agreement concluded with the Iraqi government by President George W. Bush in December 2008 (a fact conveniently ignored, certainly, by some of the current crop of Republicans berating Obama over Iraq).

Foreign policy discussion on the hustings, particularly in a year when Americans’ overwhelming concern is the domestic economy, requires that candidates please the crowd with dramatic statements, always casting themselves as tougher and more principled than the incumbent, while making promises unmoored to the realities faced by those in power.

Attacking a Democratic president as weak on national security (regardless of his performance) is a well-established trope for Republicans, just as trash-talking China and promising to love Israel more and better than the incumbent has become a campaign standard for candidates of both parties.

Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in ’92 promised to get tougher on what he called “the butchers of Beijing” than President George H.W. Bush had been; but in 2000 it was George W. Bush promised to get tougher on China than Clinton had been. Obama took up the cudgels in 2008, vowing to challenge China’s currency manipulation and urging Bush to consider boycotting the Olympic Games opening ceremony and demanding that he press China to negotiate with the Dalai Lama. Now, it’s Romney who is promising to be tougher on China than President Obama has been. And yet, despite these rhetorical flourishes and occasional tactical adjustments, U.S. China policy has been remarkably consistent over the past six presidential terms.

Candidate Clinton also sought to distinguish himself from President Bush (41) on Israel, promising to demonstrate his love by moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Congress in 1995 even passed a law recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and stating that “the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.” The legislation did allow the  President, at six-monthly intervals, to waive implementing the decision if the interests of “national security” required it — and that’s what Clinton did for the remainder of his presidency. Candidate George W. Bush promised that, unlike Clinton, he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but he too waived the issue every six months, keeping up pretense by adding the sentence “My Administration remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem” each time he signed the waiver.

Candidate Obama in 2008 made no mention of the embassy issue, but vowed that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” But the U.S. hasn’t formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and its embassy remains in Tel Aviv. Moreover, Obama demanded that Israel halt settlement construction in East Jerusalem, which Israel’s partisans say makes nonsense of his “undivided” pledge. And, of course, he has continued to sign the six-monthly waiver, just as Bush and Clinton did.

Sure enough, Gingrich, Santorum and Perry are now making the same embassy promise as Clinton did in 1992. Romney, confident of winning the nomination, has stopped short of promising to move the embassy, saying only that he would consult with the Israeli government before making such a move. Of course, the Israeli government would very much like the U.S. embassy to be in the city it calls its capital, but still — don’t bet on an embassy move. Nor, for that matter a significant change in China policy. Negotiations with the Taliban are unavoidable if the U.S. plans ever to leave Afghanistan. The Russia missile treaty was ratified with the support of nearly half the Republicans in the Senate, and had the backing of the nation’s military chiefs and such stalwarts of the GOP foreign policy establishment as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Aside from more public displays of affection such as visiting Israel, it’s hard to see how in substantial policy terms Romney would demonstrate greater commitment to Israel than Obama is currently doing. And promising that Iran will have a nuclear weapon if Obama is president but won’t if Romney wins the White House is a dangerous boast:  For one thing, U.S. and even Israeli intelligence concurs that Iran is not currently building nuclear weapons and has not, in fact, decided to do so as yet; and the Pentagon has warned that even military action would at best delay Iran’s progress by a year or two should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons.

Reading through Romney’s more detailed foreign policy statement what’s striking is that despite one or two specific changes, its overall thrust suggests a basic continuity in U.S. foreign policy, simply promising to do it better than Obama has done. Sure, things could turn out very differently: The “humble” foreign policy promised by candidate George W. Bush in 2000 makes President Obama look like a neocon, for example. The sound and fury of the campaign trail, in other words, signifies very little about how the candidates will conduct foreign policy once in office.