It’s Foreign Policy, Stupid!

By Uwe Bott , G.E. Capital (the views expressed here are solely his own and not necessarily those of GE Capital)

In much of America’s recent history, we have listened closely to polls and focus groups in order to determine, which qualifications matter to the U.S. electorate in a presidential candidate. Sometimes, party and fund-raising support has been based on criteria outlined by such surveys. Political junkies — like myself — often complained that few of our primary candidates had national experience and even fewer had any exposure to foreign policy issues. Of course, the political pundits were always quick to remind us that foreign policy experience was largely irrelevant, because U.S. presidential elections were won on a strong domestic agenda. The record seems to support their reasoning: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all had been governors before they were granted the great privilege of leading our nation. Thus, the pundits are probably right, but the American people are most definitely wrong.

Foreign policy experience does matter and the events of 9/11 drive this point home with brutal clarity. During the first eight months of his presidency, George W. Bush seemed to pursue an isolationist, unilateralist and largely indifferent foreign policy. His Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was quickly isolated within the administration and he seemed strangely out-of-the-loop on several occasions. He expressed his surprise, when the U.S. was ousted from the UN’s human rights commission in May. The Powell State Department announced that it was "surprised" again in June, when General Musharraf declared himself President of Pakistan. Although these admissions were admirable in their honesty, they did not instill great confidence.

The Bush administration thought it could safely withdraw from the U.S. role as a peace-broker in the Middle East. Granted previous administrations had shown marginal success in this conflict, but U.S. involvement was not so much about resolving this mess, but to contain damage. Only the Palestinians and Israel have it within their power to create a more peaceful environment that eventually (generations from now) may result in a world were both peoples can live with each other without violence. The main role of the U.S. was and continues to be to prevent the worst from happening and to attempt to nudge both sides towards compromise.

The Bush rejection of the Kyoto Accord and the ABM Treaty were other signs of unilateralism and isolationism. George W. Bush had criticized the Clinton administration for its interventionist approach and its failed effort in "nation building", as President Bush likes to call it. However, during the first eight months of his term, the president seemed to have replaced that strategy with "going it alone", an approach at the other end of the foreign policy spectrum.

But like other presidents before him, this aloof and foreign policy-averse president was soon confronted with the realities of this world, albeit in the most horrific fashion since Pearl Harbor. Sure, FDR created social welfare programs, but most will indeed remember him for Pearl Harbor and World War II. President Truman too had to deal with World War II and made the fateful decision to drop the world’s first nuclear bombs. He then struggled with the beginning of the Cold War, which stretched into the Eisenhower administration only to be overshadowed by the war in Korea.

Jack Kennedy had little foreign policy experience and had been in office for just a few months, when he was confronted with the Cuban missile crisis. The Berlin Wall was erected during his times, and the seeds for the Vietnam War were sowed. LBJ saw the crisis in Southeast Asia grow. Richard Nixon fought the Vietnam War to the bitter end and at the same time opened up to China. Jimmy Carter too was defined by events abroad. He was faced with a war in the Middle East, an oil-embargo and a hostage crisis in Iran. Yet, Jimmy Carter also brokered the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel.

The Soviet Union began to unravel during the Reagan administration, a process that was possibly accelerated by Reagan’s simplistic but highly effective threat to launch war in space against the "evil empire". On the other hand, the Iran-Contra scandal almost brought down his presidency. George Bush Sr. had great foreign policy depth. He needed it. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the U.S. response to it was his defining moment. With hindsight, he exited that war prematurely on the advice, among other people, of Colin Powell. Exhausted from the war effort he chose to ignore Serb genocide in Bosnia by leaving a resolution of this conflict to Western European countries that acted without resolve.

Of course, as governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton had little foreign policy experience and interest himself, when he took the oath in January 1993. His agenda was strictly domestic. Many thought he could afford it, because the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Communism had ushered in a new chapter, one devoid of history. Health care was at the top of Bill Clinton’s agenda and it turned into his greatest failure. On the other hand, foreign policy quickly became an overriding issue as the situation in the Balkans deteriorated. The Dayton peace accord, admittedly a shameful document that gave the Serbs too much, was the best that could be negotiated after the Europeans, the Bush administration and the early Clinton administration had neglected to intervene earlier. President Clinton was a quick study and he did not repeat this mistake in Yugoslavia’s attack on Kosovo. He used his military power and coalition building to defeat the Yugoslav regime, a defeat that ultimately led to the removal and deportation of Yugoslav President Milosevic.

Bill Clinton also played a role in the Oslo Peace Accord signed by the PLO and Israel in 1993, although Norwegian intermediation was very effective in this context. Clinton’s interest in said conflict waned in years to come. This lack of follow-through led to a flurry of diplomatic activity during the last eight months of his administration. The deadlines of various conditions of the Oslo accord had passed and the most important issues stood unresolved. Unfortunately, intermittent neglect wrote the script of ultimate failure.

So it appears that many presidencies are indeed defined by foreign policy events, that most U.S. presidents have little experience or interest in foreign policy, and that it is a mistake that the American people do not give proper weight to foreign policy expertise during the electoral process. At the same time, it is also clear that foreign policy and defense policy are squarely and exclusively in the domain of the federal government. Moreover, these policies are largely controlled by the executive branch. Most domestic polices are in conflict or competition with policies at the state and local level and the legislative branch of the federal government wields considerable control of their nature.

For example, the federal government provides only 7% to overall educational funding. Its influence in determining the nature of curricula is and should be very limited. It is very appealing to candidates and even to the electorate to search for the Education President, but he/she does not exist and never will. Bill Clinton’s failure to address the country’s health care system at the federal level is another good example. Solutions at the state level seem much more effective. Finally, there is the economy. Well, a president can do a lot of harm by undermining public confidence through ill-conceived rhetoric. But over the last twenty years, the federal government has self-reduced its influence in this arena. Deregulation, liberalization, small, but efficient government and fiscal prudence have become generally accepted principles, where the political parties differ only on the margin. Consequently, government has removed itself from interfering in markets.

This leaves us with the constitutionally exclusive right of the federal executive: foreign policy and defense. There is no question that the President of the United States and his cabinet are the key creators of our nation’s foreign policy and that the President is the Commander-in-Chief. Hence, it follows that the American people must pay attention to the foreign policy credentials of their leaders and that our leaders pay attention to what really matters. It might — in the end — determine the success or failure of their terms and decide their place in history.

(click here to return to the table of contents)

Editor: Dr. Scott B. MacDonald, Sr. Consultant

Deputy Editor: Dr. Jonathan Lemco, Director and Sr. Consultant

Associate Editors: Robert Windorf, Darin Feldman

Publisher: Keith W. Rabin, President

Web Design: Michael Feldman, Sr. Consultant

Contributing Writers to this Edition: Scott B. MacDonald, Keith W. Rabin, Keiichiro Kobayashi, Jonathan Lemco, Jonathan Hopfner, Darin Feldman, Uwe Bott

To obtain your free subscription to the KWR International Advisor, please click here to register for the KWR Advisor mailing list

For information concerning advertising, please contact:

Please forward all feedback, comments and submission and reproduction requests to:

© 2001 KWR International, Inc.