Hey, Remember Foreign Policy?
The United States has 80,000 men at arms in two countries, recently dodged a complex and multipronged terrorist attack involving cargo planes, and is governed by a self-described “citizen of the world” who made the improvement of America’s image abroad a key promise of his presidency. And yet, in all the postmortems of the 2010 election—including my own, which begins on page 13—the words “foreign policy” are all but invisible.
How is that possible? The last two midterm elections centered on foreign policy broadly understood. In 2002 we had the 9/11 midterm, a serious national conversation on how aggressively to pursue the war on terror—and one that resulted in a surprise triumph for Republicans, who won two Senate seats and control of that body. In 2006 came the Iraq midterm, in which independents who had supported the war moved dramatically to the Democratic camp to express their displeasure with the way things had gone.
So why not 2010? The obvious answer is that the parlous state of the American economy is all-consuming. Fair enough. But in the 1970s and 1980s, at points when the economy was also in terrible shape, foreign policy still played a central role in the national electoral debate, even when it came to races for the House and Senate. One possible riposte would be that in the 1970s and 80s, we were facing the Soviet Union and its nuclear arsenal, Americans had wildly divergent views on how to deal with the Soviets, and it was logical, therefore, that this divergence became a policy issue of interest to millions of Americans.
But doesn’t it make logical sense that fighting two wars simultaneously should be occupying as much of the nation’s attention as the relationship with the Soviet Union did? And one would think the fact that, since last Christmas, a successful terror strike against the U.S. has twice been minutes to hours away would have been enough to capture at least some of the attention of the electorate.
And yet it didn’t. I think that’s because Barack Obama changed course during his presidency. At heart he might be the same Obama who ran as an anti-war candidate and the same Obama who, in the early months of his presidency, spoke slightingly of American exceptionalism and apologized to Muslims for American excesses. But in practical terms, he is a very different president. He has basically kept his predecessor’s Iraq approach on autopilot. And in Afghanistan, he deepened and hardened the American commitment to securing the country from the threat of the Taliban.
The draping of these policies upon his anti-interventionist frame has made it impossible even to offer a coherent description of Obama’s foreign policy. But without question, the president succeeded in quieting the right on these matters by altering his policies. And by winning such a commanding victory in November 2008, Obama earned enough goodwill to keep his anti-war base relatively dormant. Now he has run through his earnings, as the election results make clear. Matters are unlikely to remain calm for him with his anti-war base.
When he announced the surge in Afghanistan last year, Obama promised to begin withdrawing troops by next August. What if he doesn’t because General David Petraeus says he can’t do so without risking a colossal American defeat? How will anti-war forces inside the Democratic Party take it if Obama tries to stage a Potemkin withdrawal with the token redeployment of a few thousand troops? Or if he does withdraw when the time for withdrawal is not yet ripe, he will ignite a different kind of conflagration, one in which his ideological rivals will go at him for being weak.
The only thing that will spare him from troubles untold is simply this: victory. Not in the midterms. In Afghanistan.