Foreign Policy: Big Promises, Harsh Realities

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Jim Young / Reuters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens as President Barack Obama answers a question during the second presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 16, 2012

Here’s something to keep in mind as the U.S. presidential candidates debate foreign policy on Monday night: the course of domestic politics is hard to predict. The course of world events is impossible to predict.

White House hopefuls make all sorts of claims about what they’ll do at home that wind up on the scrap heap. Obama initially opposed a health care mandate. And he attacked John McCain for wanting to tax health care benefits before embracing such a tax in 2009. He might also have lowered expectations on things like climate change if he’d had more warning about the financial crisis.

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Foreign policy is even more unpredictable, and it tends to shape Presidents’ agendas — not the other way around. In those sweetly naive months before the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush inveighed against Democratic visions of “nation building,” then poured hundreds of billions of dollars into rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008, Barack Obama implicitly defended nation building in Afghanistan, calling for more troops and attention there, but after a couple of years in office saw the conflict become an albatross and now seems to have given up on it.

Similarly, Bill Clinton complained in 1992 that George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy — which included an ad hoc response to the stunning fall of communism — was rudderless. But Clinton’s first term was a messy improvisation that veered from a humiliating retreat from Somalia to a belated intervention in the Balkans. By his second term, Clinton was forcefully leading a NATO coalition to bomb Kosovo and shaping a hawkish new foreign policy identity for his party — but it took unexpected chaos in Eastern Europe to make that happen. (Update: Rich Yeselson reminds me that Lyndon Johnson said he’d never have “American boys” fight an Asian war before hugely escalating in Vietnam, and that Woodrow Wilson campaigned in 1916 on the boast that he “kept us out of war,” before sending the U.S. Army to Europe the next year.)

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You’ll hear a lot about China on Monday, especially from Mitt Romney. But while candidates always talk macho about confronting China, Presidents toe a more careful line. Clinton vowed to hold the Chinese more accountable for human rights and political freedom before prioritizing trade relations. In 2008, Obama was blustery — as Romney is now — about calling out China’s currency manipulation. But as President balancing other priorities, like China’s support for Iran sanctions, he has pressed the case quietly behind the scenes and with mixed results.

This is not to suggest tuning out everything the candidates say. Four years ago, Obama said he’d corral our allies to tighten sanctions on Iran, which he has. He threatened to violate Pakistani sovereignty to attack terrorists if necessary — and boy has he ever. Clint Eastwood can knock the broken promise to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp, but Obama tried; congressional Republicans blocked him. Obama said we’d leave Iraq, and we did.

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Still, Obama’s platform wasn’t exactly built around a strategic pivot to Asia. And some of the defining events of his tenure came from out of the blue and didn’t fit neatly into Obama’s vision. Iran’s 2009 Green movement seemed to catch him flat-footed. Likewise, the Arab Spring yielded an improvised, pragmatic response. And who guessed that Obama would intervene militarily in Libya, especially absent a terrorism threat?

It’s always instructive to hear the candidates present and defend their positions — to get a sense of how they think and what they prioritize. Just don’t get too hung up on the particulars. World events certainly don’t.

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