Politics ’08 and Foreign Policy

Wesleyan foreign policy expert Douglas Foyle says that national debate about foreign policy follows the headlines, which is a troubling aspect of our political system.

By David Pesci

Douglas C. Foyle is the Douglas J. and Midge Bowen Bennet Associate Professor of Government. He is an authority on international relations and American foreign policy, as well as on issues relating to polling. He teaches courses on the ability of democracies to formulate effective foreign policies and the public’s ability to understand and influence foreign policy.

DAVID PESCI: How much influence has foreign policy had on presidential elections?

DOUGLAS C. FOYLE: Quite a bit, actually. From 1948 until 1992, it was either the first or second most important issue on voters minds. Throughout the Cold War, anticommunism remained an important overarching foreign policy theme. In 1952, the Korean War figured strongly in Eisenhower’s campaign slogan where he promised to address “Communism, Corruption, and Korea.” In 1960, Kennedy campaigned on getting tough with Cuba, Russia, and China. In 1964 it was the debate on whether Goldwater’s low tolerance for the Soviet Union’s push to spread communism would usher in World War III.

DP: And wasn’t Vietnam a huge factor?

DCF: In 1968, as many people forget, Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey by pledging to end the Vietnam war through “peace with honor” and implying that he had a plan to do so fairly rapidly. In 1972, Vietnam was again at the center of the debate, and Nixon’s steady hand soundly defeated McGovern, who ran on the isolationist platform to “Come Home, America.”

DP: Does the pendulum swing depend upon the level of military threat?

DCF: Yes, and in response to particular crises and the state of the economy. In 1976, Carter ran on improving the economy and a human rights-predicated foreign policy, in contrast to the realpolitik policies of the Nixon and Ford administrations. In 1980, Ronald Reagan used the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, along with the state of the economy, to defeat Carter. In 1984, Reagan was re-elected on a platform that called for staying tough with the Soviet Union.

DP: What happened after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War?

DCF: Foreign policy diminished as a major issue. Between 1992 and 2000, presidential candidates on both sides gave foreign policy little more than lip service. In fact, the only real contrast in foreign policy in 2000 between candidates Bush and Gore that got any major play in the campaigns was that Bush was against nation-building and humanitarian intervention while Gore supported these actions. Then after 9/11, foreign policy rose to the top of the agenda once again.

DP: Are there any historical parallels to the current presidential race that stand out?

DCF: There are some intriguing similarities between Nixon’s campaign in 1968 and Obama in 2008. First of all, the backdrop to the race itself: the incumbent is not running and the country is prosecuting a very unpopular war. In 1968, Nixon was the candidate of hope and change, while Humphrey was perceived by many to represent policy continuity on an unpopular war. Nixon attracted many voters who thought he would end the Vietnam War. He was not considered a presumptive frontrunner early on. The similarities with Obama in that very limited respect are clear, especially with the call for change and the pledge to end American involvement in a costly and unpopular war.

DP: As we speak, McCain is on his way to the Republican nomination, while Clinton and Obama are still fighting it out. How do you see their stances on foreign policy issues?

DCF: McCain has said that with the success of the surge, he is an advocate of leaving troops in Iraq until there is stability in the government and the country can rule itself. If the level of American casualties can be significantly reduced, it might become a more tenable policy with the general public. Americans have shown in places such as Korea and Bosnia that they are more than willing to support sustained overseas American troop commitments as long as casualties are kept quite low. Hillary Clinton’s substantive position on Iraq could end up being quite similar to McCain’s in practice, though she’s been very smart in the way she’s been stating it. Essentially she is saying, “I want to pull out the troops as soon as possible and will do all I can to make that happen, but I will wait until I am president and then take the advice of the commanders on the ground.”

DP: That sounds a lot like what Bush has been saying since the surge began.

DCF: Her position can certainly be read that way. In some respects, a Clinton presidency could end up providing more continuity in Iraq than change, just as the Nixon’s Vietnam policy ended up more similar to the Johnson policy that Nixon criticized.

DP: And Obama’s position?

DCF: He says he will withdraw all combat brigades, except for a small residual force, from Iraq within 16 months. Whether he would be willing to implement such a withdrawal against military advice would likely be the first real test of an Obama administration.

DP: You were quoted recently in a major newspaper as saying that the next president will need to maintain troops at their current levels possibly until at least 2012. Why?

DCF: That’s the reality of the situation as described by American commanders in Iraq and by nonpartisan reports, and again this brings us to 1968. Like Obama, Nixon pledged to get out of Vietnam. But as president, he needed to balance the requirements of the military and political situation in Vietnam with the eroding support for the war at home. He then embarked on a slow drawdown of American forces, which heavily disappointed individuals who hoped for a faster withdrawal.

DP: Barak Obama is not Richard Nixon.

DCF: I agree. The striking ideological and personal differences between them might cause Obama to react to this challenge in a different manner. But instability in Iraq subsequent to an American withdrawal could have more profound implications for the economy, given our reliance on oil, and for regional American allies. Obama has been very explicit about the timetable for withdrawal, far more so than Nixon ever was.

DP: What will happen if we leave on Obama’s timetable?

DCF: There are two schools of thought. One says that the 16-month timetable will give the Iraqi government the incentive they’ve been lacking to make things work, that essentially our troops have been a safety net allowing them to drag their feet on difficult political compromises while relying on American help to hold off Iran, fight Al Qaeda, and other internal forces. The alternative is that external and internal groups who want to see the new Iraqi government fail or wish to take advantage of a weakened Iraq—Al Qaeda, militant internal Shiite factions, Iran, and possibly Syria and Turkey—will simply bide their time, wait until the bulk of the American forces are gone and then make their moves. Iran would be the biggest player, but many observers of the region theorize that Syria may make a push for some of the oil fields and Turkey will mount an all-out assault on the Kurds and claim the oil rich land in the north, saying it was theirs and taken away at the collapse of Ottoman Empire after World War I.

DP: What do you think will happen?

DCFI honestly don’t know, but the risk becomes far greater by actually committing to a timetable at this point. The second scenario would almost certainly result in a bloodbath, and the international community would hold the president responsible for that. In the end, there is no good immediate fix for this. It’s a mess.

DP: None of the candidates has said much about bin Laden or the simmering unrest in Pakistan.

DCF: The public’s interest in specific foreign policy issues, and candidate attention along with it, shifts with the headlines. This failure to engage foreign policy issues in a serious manner before they reach crisis proportions is perhaps one of the more troubling aspects of how our political system deals with foreign policy. While Iraq rightly receives much attention, issues of potentially long-term consequence such as China’s political and economic rise and greenhouse warming receive little sustained engagement by the political system, just as al Qaeda’s threat before 9/11 received only sporadic attention outside a small number of experts.

DP: What other foreign policy issues figure strongly in this election?

DCF: Trade is one that could emerge. Obama has been linking domestic economic difficulties with corporations shipping jobs overseas and terms of trade issues. If the economy moves into recession, that linkage issue could gain some traction. Obama has argued strenuously in favor of a much more multilateralist approach. As the candidate most linked with the Bush foreign policy, McCain has supported a harder-line foreign policy, exemplified by his aggressive stance toward Iran. Finally, illegal immigration has figured prominently in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.

DP: How do you think the foreign policy issues will all play out in the general election?

DCF: Things can always change between now and November, but given what is happening today, the economy will probably be the number one issue and Iraq will be second, with immigration or trade a close third. In a race between McCain and Clinton, their foreign policy stances on Iraq will be very similar. If it is McCain versus Obama, then the choice will be much clearer, though I still contend that Obama may well be forced to change his position on the withdrawal if he is in the White House. Given his clear stance during the campaign, this would be a difficult maneuver to accomplish without alienating his electoral base.