Will foreign policy play a role in 2012?
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In the past, the Cold War gave American politics a binary focus. Anti-Soviet or not. Pro-military spending, or not. Millions of refugees from the captive nations of Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, and Cambodia brought a strong anti-Soviet strain into American politics. Chinese immigrants strengthened the “China lobby” that supported the Republic of China in Taiwan. Many immigrant groups were spokesmen and advocates for a Reaganite foreign policy.
With Reagan’s victory and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, this changed. What pressure groups surround a candidate for Congress or president dealing with defense and foreign policy? A politician must be aware and respond to the concerns of the Armenian and Greek lobbies (this usually means annoying Turkey). And politicians of both parties will listen to the Cuba and Israel lobbies. But after that a candidate finds himself without guardrails or guidance. Once elected, a president can support free trade with or shell the port cities of most nations with political impunity. Nixon went to China. Clinton passed NAFTA.
And on defense spending? There is no NRA concerning the really big artillery.
There is a veterans lobby. They wear the VFW hats, but they focus on spending for pensions and health care and rarely speak to choices on defense spending or foreign policy.
Liberals imagine a massive defense industry lobby, but mostly there are front groups that lobby for those weapons systems the Pentagon doesn’t want, such as the Crusader, or the second engine for the F-135.
On the left, the “peace movement” has never recovered from the introduction of the volunteer army. Antiwar rallies lost their vitality with the end of the draft. Who remembers Code Pink?
All this leaves politicians a great deal of running room on foreign policy and defense issues. Republicans and Democrats tend to support their guy, whatever decisions he makes. Reagan refused to get drawn into the civil war in Lebanon, even after the attack on our Marines. Bush 41 invaded Iraq and Republicans cheered and Democrats disapproved. Clinton involved the American military in Yugoslavia with Democrat support and Republicans warning against overreach and nation-building. George W. Bush campaigned on the promise of a more humble foreign policy and against nation-building. He then switched to interventionism and nation-building to the applause of Republicans and one Democrat, Senator Joe Lieberman. Obama campaigned against the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, yet extended Bush’s policies while increasing troop strength in Afghanistan without provoking pushback from his supporters who supposedly voted against Bush for initiating those same policies.
THERE ARE FEW DOMESTIC political pressures guiding or limiting most foreign policy decisions a president or Congress must make.
Unless a war drags on to the point where independents turn against the policy. In 2006, Bush’s negatives were driven by a sense among independents (Republicans stayed loyal and Democrats were consistently opposed) that the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were unending and unexplained. This shift in independents could already be seen in the 2004 presidential election. All those wonderful computer simulations that explain how a president should win big if there is no primary opposition and the economy is strong predicted a 58 percent Bush landslide. He eked by with 51 percent. Iraq had become a boat anchor on an otherwise successful presidency: when Republicans lost in 2006, unemployment was only 4.6 percent and the Dow Jones was at 12,000.
So is this Obama’s war now? Who will benefit if Afghanistan and Iraq are front and center?
Will Republicans vote for Obama if he continues Bush’s nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan? Not likely. Will Democrats vote for the Republican to punish Obama for flip-flopping on his views on wars and occupations? Also unlikely. The swing voters who call themselves independents are the most likely to punish Obama for “more of the same” and doubly so if the unrest in northern Africa make the world look less safe and more hostile to American interests. One, two, many Irans? The charge of incompetence in foreign policy is most credible when wrapped around a set of failed economic policies. (Think Carter.) And the expense of wars is more deeply felt when added to a dramatic expansion of the welfare state. (Think LBJ.)
Whatever happens, once the election is over, the president in 2013 will find himself with more freedom of movement in this area. There is no NRA or AFL-CIO on foreign policy to ensure that the promises of the candidate become the policies of the next administration.