My last two posts discussed my preference for President Obama’s on social matters and Governor Romney’s on economic. I expressed some doubt in both categories, primarily related to my skepticism about the President’s real role in those two roles. Today, I’ll talk about the one area where I think the President makes the most difference – foreign policy.
In domestic policy, the President is hamstrung and checked and balanced at every turn – Congress makes the laws, the Supreme Court exercises scrutiny on their interpretation and the States have overlapping authority in nearly any given area of economic and social policy. As a man, the President is certainly more powerful in these realms than any other given individual, but the power of the Presidency is not even close to the cumulative power of everyone that ISN’T the President.
In foreign policy, that’s not really the case. The President can act all but unilaterally – the courts have been entirely unwilling to check the “political branches” on matters of national security and foreign policy and Congress for the last 20 years or so has essentially given the President and the DOD a blank check in anything overseas. About the only place that Congress plays a substantial role is on DOD budgetary matters, which affects foreign policy in the long run, but only in the VERY long run.
The President is pretty much driving the foreign policy bus, so to me, it’s by far the most important issue to get right in Presidential politics. Whether for good or ill, I think it’s impossible to say that we would have invaded Iraq if Al Gore had been President – that decision was 100% the product of who was in the Oval Office.
That same example, though, shows the pitfalls of relying on foreign policy in deciding who to vote for – there was nothing in the 2000 election campaign to suggest that the vote was going to decide whether or not we would invade Iraq or not. Neither Bush nor Gore was particularly hawkish in the campaign.
As the debate showed, the two candidates are, and almost always will be, close together on foreign policy – the President matters a great deal in foreign policy, but it’s questionable whether or not a DIFFERENT President would make a big difference. The analogy I’ve heard before is that the President is sitting down in the middle of a chess game that’s already in progress – he is fairly constrained in what he can really do. If Romney gets elected, he will very quickly get inundated with advice from a huge bureaucracy of Generals, intelligence analysts, Ambassadors, etc. – a President CAN turn the ship of state, but for the most part they don’t and won’t – they’ll listen to the same advisers, get the same advice and make the same decisions.
Except. Except. Except. There are two places where a President will matter.
The first can be loosely termed as “leadership” or “tone”. We got into Iraq because Bush ran the White House in a certain way – one that made it clear what result he wanted, and discouraged dissenting voices. I’m sure that if you just looked at the advice and intelligence that came into the White House in 2003, you would have thought there were WMDs too – because of the way the decision was made, dissent was never heard. It’s difficult to measure, but to be an effective President means encouraging dissent, encouraging an effective decision making process and select diverse, intelligent advisors.
The second is of course the “gut” calls – when the advisers are split down the middle and the buck stops at the Resolute desk. From all accounts, the bin Laden raid fits firmly in this category – there was NOT a solid consensus whether or not it was really bin Laden, much less whether or not a SEAL raid was the way to go. The President was the final arbiter of a) whether or not the intelligence was enough to act and b) which of a menu of options to use (Tomahawk, drone strike, commando raid, etc.)
On this front, I have to favor Obama, if for no other reason than on a “devil you know” basis. I have overall been very pleased with the President’s performance in foreign affairs. He has struck an effective balance between restraint and backbone – one one hand, we don’t want to end up in a quagmire, but we also can’t be afraid of using ANY force. The invasion of Libya in 2010 seemed to me to be pretty much exactly the right balance of strength and restraint.*
Romney, of course, might be equally effective – but I have no way of knowing. For most of the campaign he’s been way too hawkish for my taste – he’s moderated somewhat, but he’s given me reason to doubt.
From the perspective of an active duty military member, the question I ask is: Who is more likely to deploy me and my million-plus colleagues in uniform effectively? Who is more likely to get us involved in a conflict that results in men and women dying for no good reason?
On that one, I have to trust Obama marginally more – not because I have particular reason to believe Romney CAN’T make the wrong decision, but he hasn’t proven to me yet that he WILL.