POMED Notes: Realism, Idealism & the Politics of Obama’s Foreign Policy
On October 16, Georgetown University Institute for the Study of Diplomacy hosted a discussion by former Los Angeles Times correspondent Jim Mann and Washington Post correspondent Tom Hamburger. Mann discussed the premise of his new book, “The Obamians” and along with Hamburger, spoke on politics, foreign policy, and the current presidential campaign.
For full notes, continue reading, or click here for a PDF.
Jim Mann addressed the role of foreign policy in the current presidential debates. He noted that foreign policy is traditionally low priority to the average voter and assumed it would play a secondary role to economic issues. Mann stated that, given Mitt Romney’s background, many thought he would use domestic issues to convince voters of his leadership potential; however, his domestic image had been effectively tarnished by the Obama campaign. Under this assumption, Romney had to prove his leadership ability in the foreign policy arena, an example of which has been his general stance on the recent embassy attacks. In Mann’s opinion, Romney is hoping to show his ability to handle domestic economic issues without focusing on the economy directly.
Mann said another reason for Romney’s attack on Obama’s foreign policy is the perception that Democrats are weak on national defense. Mann described how George McGovern in 1972 created, and Michael Dukakis in 1988 re-affirmed the perception, in their losses to Republican opponents. Jimmy Carter also ruined the Democrat reputation after being held responsible for the Iran hostage crises in 1979. The contrast to Carter was Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. Though Bush Sr. tried to use Clinton’s prior travels to Russia to suggest he may have been a communist sympathizer, Clinton won on his economic policies. Mann partially attributed this to the fact that the nation no longer cared about the Cold War and felt comfortable about national defense following the Gulf War. Mann suggested Obama’s legacy could very well be a repeat of ’92 following the death of Osama bin-Laden if Americans again go into elections feeling comfortable about national defense and vote based on economic concerns. With the death of a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi and attacks on embassies in the Middle East however, Obama also risks a ’79 Carter repeat, that could push the vote towards Mitt Romney.
By Mann’s account, the Obama administration has been unpredictable, split between members of a Cold War generation and what he calls “the Obamians,” a generation of Americans who came of age post-2000. Mann described individuals such as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry and the Bush administration as part of an older generation, advocating for American primacy in the world. This mentality also explains their support for the recent Iraq War and constant reference to “rising powers” such as China. This has become a point of contention for the Obamians, as they grew up in an age where nations such as China and India were perceived to have already “risen,” and American primacy has caused more harm than good. Mann posited that the new generation does not understand Vietnam references, and wants to redefine U.S. foreign policy, advocating for a lighter U.S. footprint in the world. In their opinion, the U.S. came out of the Cold War with a strong economy and should only use force for humanitarian causes.
Mann and Hamburger pointed out that the cross currents in U.S. politics are complex on this issue, and it should not be characterized by Obama versus Republicans. Mann said Obama’s speeches on Iraq were tailored to a domestic audience with a message of drawing down, whereas Hillary Clinton’s speeches have all emphasized alliances and the U.S.’s role as a world leader. In this same vein, some complained Obama’s Cairo speech should have addressed the leaders in the region, in traditional fashion. Speechwriter Ben Rhodes however, said the speech was meant to take a new course, speaking to the people, not the leaders. Mann explained the current riff does not mean the new generation necessarily wants American decline, but there is simply an air of unease regarding the U.S. economy and America’s place in the world. Even within the G.O.P., Mann suggested, the party is split between neo-conservatives and isolationists, a current that runs through both parties.
Hamburger said unease over Obama’s leadership and constant references to “America’s place in the world,” have made Romney’s argument comparable to Ronald Reagan in 1980; an argument that “America’s place” is a silly discussion and all America needs is a strong leader. Hamburger and Mann also noted nobody really knows what Romney may do if elected. Though Romney’s plan for increased defense spending suggests he will be hawkish, he could just as well look at the budget and declare the spending rates unsustainable and follow Obama’s course of drawing down. Both speakers finished by offering their opinion on what the hardest questions would be for both presidential candidates. For Obama, they suggested asking him why al-Qaeda networks are still killing Americans, such as in Benghazi, if he is adamant that his policies have decimated the organization. For Romney, they posed the question of why America’s allies should continue to work with us, if his position is that the administration should never apologize and the U.S. can do no wrong.