foreign policy, ideology, and the election

At their final debate, the two major party candidates seemed to converge on a doctrine that might be called cautious amoralism. All that counts are the economic interests of the United States and the security interests of the US and Israel–but we won’t promote those interests through large-scale, unilateral, military actions, because that is too expensive and risky.

This may not be either candidate’s real position. Bill Clinton tried to justify US intervention in Bosnia on the grounds of economic self-interest, and that was a classic example of virtue trying to pass as vice. Likewise, in their different ways, Obama and Romney may be more idealistic than they sounded on Monday night. (Or less so.) But they chose to converge on a rhetoric of cautious amoralism.

Polls show that most Americans don’t care much about foreign policy, but among those who do, two groups should strongly dissent from this consensus. I will name them together without suggesting an equivalence of worthiness or influence. It’s just that in political terms, they are rivals and foils.

Neoconservatives profess to believe in muscular, Wilsonian interventionism, “toughness” in support of American security and “democratization” overseas. They are relatively eager to use on-the-ground military intervention.

The peace movement thinks that American military and intelligence power is not a solution; it is a problem. Guantanamo, drone strikes, US invasions, West Bank settlements, and even the sanctions against Iran are threats to world peace and American values.

Both of these groups “lost” on Monday night, because neither one had a supporter on the debate stage. But the political situation is different for each.

Despite getting no explicit support from Moderate Mitt, neoconservatives have written enthusiastic reviews of his performance. Kevin Drum has a summary. Why would they react so positively? I propose: 1) They think that Romney will actually support their positions, or at least the expansion of military spending, and they want him to win. 2) They are somewhat chastened by reality and don’t believe that we will actually invade Iran, so they will settle for Romney’s recent positions 3) They hope for jobs in a Romney administration–for themselves or their friends–and that depends on his winning. And 4) Even though they disagree in part with Obama, they never believed the Tea Party talking points about “apology tours” and anti-Americanism in the White House, so they don’t mind Romney’s dropping those points to look moderate.

At least some on the peace side of the spectrum have been far more critical. Glenn Greenwald called the debate “horrid,” “wretched, with almost no redeeming qualities.” He live-blogged:

US foreign policy actually does have a significant relationship to the economy- namely, the massive military, the constant aggression, war and occupation, the hundreds of military bases around the world all drain resources away from far more constructive purposes – but neither of these two candidates will dare to question any of those imperial premises, so they can’t actually address the prime economic impact of US foreign policy. … Obama boasts of the massive amount of military spending under his presidency. Romney then says he wants to spend more.

Greenwald argued that Obama was playing George W. Bush to Romney’s John Kerry on Monday night.

Neoconservatives have far more influence than people in Greenwald’s camp, regardless of the current political situation. Neoconservatives always retain their ties to the military, their binders full of experienced individuals who can step into senior administration roles, and their platforms in the US media (rather than the Guardian, where Greenwald blogs). Being more powerful and more in synch with actual policy–even under a Democratic president–they can afford to tolerate a little laxness in their nominee’s rhetoric.

But that doesn’t mean that Obama should ignore the peace camp. There are always people to the left of an incumbent Democratic president; the Median Voter Theorem suggests that’s pretty much inevitable. As someone who’s not very radical on most issues, I don’t especially mind seeing the president outflanked. But this is going to be a close election in which turnout will be key. Obama needs the people to his left to vote. My social network connections tell me that a bunch of them do not intend to turn out. Many were already mad about the president’s economic policy, but I sense they would vote for him–or at least against Romney–if economics were all. Right now, it’s not the lack of a public option in the health bill that concerns them; it’s the drone strikes. They may only represent 2% of the electorate, but that’s about the margin in this election. I think it would be smart politics to give them some respect.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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