I was sitting in the car mechanic’s waiting room getting an oil change. There was complimentary coffee, gritty and stale, and a muted TV in the corner. A morning news show was rolling footage of ISIS. The images of that ominous black flag and trucks of young men brandishing a hodgepodge of automatic weapons then transitioned to a story about new developments with Greece’s massive fiscal problems and tenuous relationship with the EU. After this, images of a village somewhere in Southeast Asia, roofs being the only thing visible above flooding, prompting the caption, “Is Climate Change Real?”
There were four others waiting, eyes also fixed on the screen. The next segment brought about a preview for the first Republican debate of primary season that night. Despite it being 7:30 AM, a conversation about the debate got rolling, spurred on by the previous images of a globe in turmoil.
I didn’t contribute but opted to listen to these four residents of Frankfort, Kentucky attempt to solve the world’s problems—literally. Each of them thought they knew exactly what needed to be done to solve the problem. This or that candidate would be tough, never standing for this type of chaos. Just more troops here, and another bomb there. A harsher word to Russia and a couple of more threats to Assad in Syria. More money to this place and less to another.
If only things were so simple. If only we could have the silver bullet for safety and prosperity in the world. But this just isn’t reality. When it comes to foreign policy and the presidential election, I am only sure of one thing: no one sitting in a mechanic’s waiting room in Kentucky has much of a clue.
To see the evidence of this, we should look no further than Barack Obama’s presidency. He came into office on the heels of George W. Bush trumpeting a dramatic shift away from the foreign policy of the previous administration that saw the US get involved in two costly interventions in the Middle East. Withdrawing US troops from Iraq and repairing relationships in the Middle East with the hope of then pivoting focus towards Asia highlighted Obama’s hopes. However, the Arab Spring and subsequent rise of ISIS has prevented him from fully shifting the focus of US foreign policy. And so it goes in an endlessly unpredictable and complex world.
In a fascinating piece by Jeffrey Goldberg over at The Atlantic, we see this unpredictability and complexity laid bare. The reader is given a window into the world of doing foreign policy on a practical, not rhetorical, level. It is one thing to make promises and champion broad, righteous ideals in an election, but an entirely different beast when it comes to executing these things in real time and space.
“I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”
Even an idealistic, optimistic, Nobel Peace Prize recipient must come to recognize the limits and complications of foreign policy.
It is because of this that I am wary of foreign policy conversations during presidential elections, especially the primaries. The easiest time to talk about foreign policy is during an election. Ideas don’t have to be executed, everything is hypothetical, rhetorical ferocity that panders to a specific voting base is a plus, and you have a relatively defenseless sitting executive available for critique.
Where does this leave us, the voter without the Ph.D. in international relations? Given that foreign policy is a massive part of the job of the president, though, we have to make judgments somehow.
A good first winnowing metric would be a demonstrated knowledge of global politics. Candidates like Donald Trump are immediately disqualified by this metric, not being able to answer simple questions about international affairs. Not every candidate needs to be a scholar on every minute detail; this would be impossible, of course. However, a working knowledge of major regions and major players in those regions is not too much to ask. To make good foreign policy decisions, one must start with a solid understanding of simple facts.
Acknowledging that not every candidate is going to be an expert on everything, it’s vital that they surround themselves with advisors who do have the experience and expertise. With the quantity and magnitude of decisions that the president must make, the few people who will have their ear must also be reliable, operating out of reality not ideology. Here we knock out Ted Cruz who chooses to have top advisors who accuse President Obama of being a Muslim and in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood.
While I don’t want to take a cheap shot at these two specific candidates, I think that it is important to point out where clear judgments on foreign policy can be made. There can be genuine disagreements on policy and positions, but where we can draw lines as voters, I think we should. Starting with a reasonable base of knowledge and operating in the realm of reality are two places that I will draw a line.
From here, I want to look for a candidate who doesn’t oversimplify, who communicates with nuance, who doesn’t make sweeping pronouncements, and who acknowledges the best in an opposing position – a tough find these days. Foreign Policy is unpredictable and difficult. I want a candidate with enough courage to just say so.