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September 18, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Decision 2008: Foreign policy

Even though the economic crisis is currently grabbing the headlines, both candidates have placed an unusual degree of emphasis on foreign policy this year. For most Americans, international issues are either too remote or too complicated to deal with, and not many elections are decided by such issues. Two of the biggest exceptions would probably be 1968 and 1980, but in both those years, social and economic problems were also very salient.

To a large extent, Sen. John McCain has staked his candidacy on his greater command of foreign policy issues, and his greater sense of judgment and prudence compared to Sen. Barack Obama. Given the public's slowly waning enthusiasm for fighting the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, such a stance by McCain is perhaps rather surprising. His big challenge will be trying to arouse in the American people a sense that there is great danger in the world, requiring a steady hand in the Oval Office, while reassuring voters that things are progressing gradually in the right direction. It will be hard for him to convey such a subtle, mixed message to an electorate that doesn't always pay close attention.

On Tuesday night, I was among 30-odd people who attended a forum on foreign policy and the 2008 campaign, sponsored by the Augusta Free Press. (The event was also covered by WHSV-TV3.) Chris Graham moderated and introduced the two discussants: Dr. Gordon Bowen, professor of political science and international relations at Mary Baldwin College, and Dr. David McQuilkin, who teaches history and political science at Bridgewater College.

Dr. Bowen is known for being rather hawkish on international security issues, and recently wrote an op-ed article for the News Leader, which I cited. He drew attention to the parallel between Barack Obama and Harry Truman, who was an untested novice in foreign affairs when he suddenly assumed the presidency upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945. Truman struggled to guide the United States in the confusing post-World War II era, when there was an emerging threat from a determined ideological foe (the USSR), and no consensus on how to confront it. It's a lot like the situation today in the "Global War on Terror." Bowen said that experience is necessary to be an effective president, but it must be the "right kind" of experience...

Then, Dr. McQuilkin spoke about all the vast changes in the world, and especially the fact that the United States no longer enjoys hegemonic supremacy as it did in the 1990s. He believes the essential task our next president faces is to discard backward-looking policies and approaches, and look forward, embracing the new realities. That means accepting that the global balance of power is now decidedly multipolar, and addressing security issues will be very difficult without stronger international institutions. He believes in cooperative conflict resolution, whereas Dr. Bowen argues that intractable problems such as the Israeli-Palestine conflict can only be managed, not "resolved."

During the question-and-answer session, I asked Dr. McQuilkin whether NATO is one of the "obsolete Cold War insitutions" he was talking about. I mentioned that one reason for the aggressively hostile foreign policy adopted by Vladimir Putin in recent years is that the expansion of NATO during the 1990s threatened Russia (which is historically paranoid) with strategic encirclement. This question put him on the spot, since he was talking about the positive role played by NATO in various crisis zones. He said he didn't have a good answer, but agreed that NATO's continued existence should be open to debate. Dr. Bowen countered that NATO serves the purpose envisioned by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who called for the establishment of a league of democracies (actually, Kant referred to republics) that would support each other and gradually expand the realm of freedom around the world. Point well taken, but we still need to think very carefully whether the United States should commit itself to defending former Soviet republics such as Estonia (or perhaps Georgia, some day) from Russian invasion.

If there had been enough time, I would have asked the discussants how well suited they thought the two presidential candidates were to candidly telling the American people what a daunting prospect we face in coming years, as China and other countries rapidly gain in power relative to us. To me, the populist campaign approach adopted by both parties makes it even more difficult to talk about such things in a frank, honest way. A few years from now, this country is going to get one hell of a rude slap in the face when we realize we can't influence other countries the way we used to.

During the forum, I was reading a fact sheet handout entitled "Barack Obama on Foreign Policy," which of course highlighted Obama's opposition to the war in Iraq. It also emphasized building the size of our armed forces (!) and increased international cooperation to stop nuclear proliferation. I was struck, however, by the minimal regard for promoting democracy abroad, which was a major element of both the Clinton and Bush (II) administrations. It's striking that a Democratic Party candidate would not emphasize his own party's values more strongly.

NOTE: This event was held at the Democratic headquarters in Waynesboro, and just for the record, I was not spying. smile

Brooks on conservatism today

In the New York Times, David Brooks ponders the meaning of the Sarah Palin phenomenon, in terms of the contemporary drift of conservatism in American toward a more populist nature. He notes that conservatives used to be candidly elitist, and upheld high standards in education and government service. The populist conservatives of today, in contrast, are often skeptical of "book learning" and less concerned with responsible governance. He considers the argument that our Founding Fathers wanted to have common people in positions of government authority, to offset rigidity in thinking.

I would have more sympathy for this view if I hadn't just lived through the last eight years. For if the Bush administration was anything, it was the anti-establishment attitude put into executive practice.

And the problem with this attitude is that, especially in his first term, it made Bush inept at governance. It turns out that governance, the creation and execution of policy, is hard. It requires acquired skills. Most of all, it requires prudence.

Hat tip to Daniel Drezner, who obviously shares the same worry about what Palin represents -- as do I, to a certain extent.

Poll on the economy

With Wall Street gyrating up and down from day to day, many people are wondering how bad the current crisis really is. So, Glenn Reynolds set up an "Insta-poll," asking: "How bad is the economic situation?" I answered, "Like the 1987 Crash," which was (barely) the most frequent response, with 22%; see

Carl Tate

The News Leader featured one of the "best and brightest" of local Republicans -- Carl Tate, who is working hard on behalf of John McCain. It's hard for him to persuade other African-Americans not to vote for Barack Obama, the first black presidential candidate. I remember when Carl introduced himself to the Staunton Republican Committee a few years back, and how excited we were to have a dynamic guy like him on board, helping to broaden the party's appeal. The article recounts Carl's determined political organizing efforts at Liberty University and elsewhere in the face of scorn. Those leadership qualities are exactly what the Republican Party needs today. Here is my response to one of the comments on that article:

GregBruno: Republicans did not "choose" Carl; he chose the Republicans. If you think affirmative action has been largely eliminated, perhaps you live on a different planet. Jesse Helms was not a typical Republican, and Ronald Reagan did not share his racial views.

The Republican Party is committed to expanding opportunities to ALL people who are willing to work, save, and invest, encouraging self-reliance. The Democrats, in contrast, promise "opportunity" to select socio-economic groups, in return for their votes, encouraging greater dependence on government. It's a trap.

Carl is beginning studies at the University of Richmond Law School this fall, which probably explains why he isn't blogging as much as he was during the summer at The Hall of Justice. We wish him the very best success in the legal field.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 19 Sep 2008, 12: 57 AM

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