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The Great Midterm Foreign Policy Comeback

WASHINGTON — Scott Brown did an unusual thing for a midterm congressional candidate in his quest to unseat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), something more characteristic of senators feeling out support for a presidential run: On Sept. 24, before the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester, Brown delivered a major foreign policy address.

It wouldn’t be the only time that the former Massachusetts senator spotlighted foreign policy during this aggressive campaign, including a townhall on the topic with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“A record of near-complete conformity with the president covers just about every issue of national security and defense. So if we’ve seen some bad calls at the White House, it’s a very safe bet that our senior senator has been right in line with that failed program,” Brown said.

“It’s been nearly six years of confusion, uncertainty, and withdrawal in American foreign policy. For Senator Shaheen, it’s been nearly six years of just going along, with no questions for the president about his decisions – at least none that anybody remembers … no expressions of disagreement … not a single sign of independent thinking.”

Brown has had plenty of current events fodder to satisfy his strategy of making this state race national, including ISIS, Ebola, Ukraine, the Middle East and terrorism in North Africa.

“[Shaheen] has insisted that the group, Boko Haram, operating in and around Nigeria, is not really an Islamic terrorist group. But let’s not be confused on this: These are the jihadist killers who kidnapped over 200 girls last spring,” Brown said. “They’ve been at it a while, and back in 2012 I introduced a bill instructing then Secretary of State Clinton to designate Boko Haram as the terrorist organization that it is. The bill went to Senator Shaheen’s committee, the Foreign Relations Committee – where, once again, they did exactly nothing.”

A Gallup poll at the end of September found 57 percent of Tea Party Republicans surveyed calling the “situation with Islamic militants” in Iraq and Syria “extremely important,” with 51 percent of other Republicans feeling the same and 34 percent of non-Republicans ranking the issue at the top.

For all three groups, that exceeded numbers for the federal budget deficit, Obamacare, immigration, abortion and climate change. Foreign affairs in general scored an impressive 40 percent among Tea Partiers, 34 percent among the rest of the GOP and 25 percent with non-Republicans.

Exit polls released after the 2012 presidential election found around 4-5 percent of voters citing foreign policy as their top issue at the ballot box.

To compare apples to apples, on Oct. 24, 2010, while the online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill, I wrote about how international affairs were very much an afterthought in the Tea Party-driven midterm.

Back then? “Just 3 percent rated the war to be a crucial issue facing the country. Sixty percent, meanwhile, picked the economy and jobs as the most pressing issues. A Pew survey earlier this month had 43 percent of respondents following stories about the economy closely, while just 18 percent closely followed the al-Qaeda terror threat in Europe, and 11 percent followed the Mideast peace talks.”

One of the “unifying themes of Tea Party candidates,” I wrote back then, “has been a desire to pull back from the United Nations even if members of the movement disagree widely on U.S. interventionism policies around the world.”

That Congress would have a lot on its plate. “What would be the next step against Iran and its nuclear program, for instance, after sanctions and last-ditch administration diplomatic efforts fail and tensions with Tehran keep increasing? What will come in terms of North Korea’s nuclear drive as young Kim Jong-un, infamous dictator Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, who was reportedly picked to succeed his ailing dad because he’s ‘exactly like his father,’ takes the reins? With Obama’s first push at peace between Israel and the Palestinians teetering on the edge of collapse, how will the new Congress advocate for a brokered solution? Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pressed Obama to be fair toward Israel in negotiations, and more Republicans in Congress will only increase that pressure on the president.”

Those were questions I asked four years ago, and since then some answers have been revealed. Solutions, though, have been elusive as each of those issues has only gotten stickier.

President Obama is reportedly planning to dance around Congress, with a big bipartisan majority skeptical of the P5+1 negotiations, to ink a final nuclear deal with Iran. The deadline is just three weeks away.

Kim Jong-un took power and is just as crazy as we feared, with the commander of U.S. forces in Korea warning on Oct. 24 that not only is the North developing a better cyber-warfare program but is suspected to be at the point of being able to build and deliver a warhead.

And though the administration hammers away at its desire to nail down a Mideast peace agreement — a legacy issue both Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry want — it’s perpetually in a state of mid-teeter or full collapse. The past four years of AIPAC conferences in Washington have also seen a decided change in tone to deeper frustration with a White House trying to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into “peace” at any cost.

Brown hasn’t been the only candidate to focus on the issue this year, though he’s certainly given it higher priority than most. Questions on ISIS or Ebola were at least omnipresent in Senate-level debates.

In an Oct. 15 debate, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and independent challenger Greg Orman were quizzed on their approaches to the latest terror threat.

“I do think we need to be aggressive in terms of routing out ISIS. I do believe we need to follow the air campaign that we’re doing,” said Orman, who is tied with Roberts and has suggested he’d caucus with the majority party. “We need to protect our diplomatic assets on the ground and we need to train the Iraqis to be able to solve that problem in their country with our support.”

Roberts said it went to the deeper problem of Obama’s “lead by following” strategy.

“When there is a vacuum, bad people fill it,” the senator said. “And if you don’t deal with the bad people, then it gets worse, much worse. And that’s where we are today. We have a situation in Iraq where just today the president said we’re winning with regard to ISIS. We’re not. The ISIS savage terrorist group is within about 20 miles of the Baghdad Airport.”

Orman rebutted by attempting to refight whether the U.S. should have gone into Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. “I believe that ISIS and the war against ISIS have got to change and no longer be considered a U.S. war against Muslims,” he said. “It’s got to be considered a Middle Eastern war to route out extremism.”

“We’re losing with regard to Iraq and ISIS,” Roberts said. “Intelligence report shows that that is a very dangerous situation for our national security.”

Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who has steadily surpassed Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) in the polls and early voting, jumped on Obama after his September address to the nation to rip the president’s “mishandling of our nation’s foreign policy and his failure to formulate a clear strategic vision to confront these threats,” which “has led us to the tragic series of events unfolding across the Middle East and the world.” Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), hoping to unseat Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), touted his endorsement from former UN Ambassador John Bolton.

Foreign policy has made a comeback in 2014. But can it be sustained?

While Americans are consistent about keeping the economy and jobs at the forefront, voters famously run hot and cold on other issues. Case in point: In 2006 immigration was the huge issue, with massive protests, Minutemen at the border and passion on both sides we haven’t seen since.

Unfortunately, it could be the sheer threat to America and her allies — through a revitalized al-Qaeda network, ISIS, and alliances between ill-intentioned actors such as Iran and Russia — that reminds voters that foreign policy can’t retreat to oblivion in 2016 or beyond.