“It’s the economy, stupid,” some dude named Carville once said. He was referring to what was the correct prescription for winning a presidential election — and it’s been gospel ever since.
He’s probably right. Except when it comes to actually being president, it’s something else altogether. “It’s the foreign policy, stupid” — because day one of being POTUS, you, and basically you alone, determine the foreign policy of the United States of America and much of the future and present of humanity.
And that’s not just because you wake up with an intelligence briefing that could make bald men lose their hair or because you are the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful armed forces on Earth with all the life or death decisions that entails or because some unsmiling individual follows you around with the nuclear football, putting Armageddon in your hands.
It’s because — unlike economic policy for which, be it “9-9-9” or the Ryan Plan or anything else, you must get the approval of Congress — in foreign policy the president is king. Technically, the legislature has a lot to do with foreign affairs — they have multiple oversight committees as well as the right to declare war — but by the time they go so far as to meet, the president would have reacted to a dirty nuke in a Minneapolis shopping mall or a terrorist attack on the Port of Los Angeles. Whatever the Congress does in those situations is way behind the curve. The president has already acted. Indeed, he must.
So for that reason I was relieved that foreign affairs finally arrived Saturday night as the subject in the seemingly endless series of Republican debates. I am far more worried about that than I am about the economy. That’s because just about any Republican who gets elected will do some or all of the obvious — cut way back on government spending and regulations and keep taxes to a minimum. He or she will also cancel Obamacare and open the energy spigot. In all probability, the economy will boom.
But no one can predict what will happen in the world at large. That is why I am leery of a president who is a foreign policy novice.
We have seen the results of that with the incumbent. America’s foreign policy has been between non-existent and disastrous during his administration. Our leadership in the world has diminished drastically, probably intentionally, and that is horrendous for the human race.
The examples are myriad (going after Ghaddafi while virtually ignoring the far more dangerous Assad; allowing, even encouraging, the fall of Mubarak leading to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere; playing footsie with increasingly Islamist Turkey; putting undue pressure on Israel and repeatedly disrespecting her prime minister; etc.) but I can’t recall a more despicable behavior by an American president in my lifetime than Barack Obama’s reaction — or should I say non-reaction — to the democracy movement in Iran. Who can forget the brave demonstrators in the streets shouting “Obama, Obama, are you with us or against us?”
Obama didn’t hear them, choosing instead to negotiate with Ahmadinejad. This ideologically ignorant and narcissistic decision, devoid even of basic human compassion, has helped put us in the position we are today with an Islamofascist Iran on the brink of nuclear weapons.
So what does this mean in terms of the Republican candidates? In the debate, for me, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney (and to a lesser extent Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry) stood out as leaders who made me feel relatively confident they could handle the vicissitudes of global confrontation. Jon Huntsman appeared evasive and Ron Paul was worse than Neville Chamberlain. (He was also disingenuous. Paul’s contention that the U.S. was ignoring Bin Laden for ten years is absolute nonsense. We just couldn’t find him.)
Herman Cain also worries me in the area of foreign affairs. Unlike his other superb debate performances, on Saturday evening he seemed as if he wanted to be elsewhere. His answers were vague and insecure, recalling his inability some weeks ago to recognize the Palestinian demand for a “right of return.”
That was no small mistake. The “right of return” has been one of the key bones of contention in the Arab-Israeli crisis for decades. The lack of recognition bespeaks a disinterest in foreign policy. There is nothing amazing in this — a majority of Americans pay little attention to affairs beyond our shores. But if you are running for president, it should be a different matter. We don’t need a president who needs to be educated in this area on the job, even one who, like Cain, has the best of intentions.
We need someone who can handle the economy and foreign policy simultaneously. In fact, in this world, they are in many ways the same thing. You can’t succeed in one without the other.