The Republican candidates for president are tripping over themselves to see who can say the most embarrassingly inept thing on foreign affairs. Erstwhile front-runner Herman Cain has singlehandedly kept the late-night comics supplied with material, most recently by giving the impression that he was completely oblivious to the fact that the United States had been militarily involved in Libya under President Obama’s direction.
The Atlantic’s Max Fisher collected some other gems in his piece, “The 9 Craziest Foreign Policy Statements from Saturday’s Republican Debate.” Some, like Michele Bachmann’s assertion that “the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel” and Herman Cain’s declaration that “Our enemies are not the people of Iran, it’s the regime. And a regime change is what they are trying to achieve” are pretty obviously out there. Others, like Rick Perry’s declaration that “The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is gonna start at zero dollars,” sound reasonable but are mind-numbingly stupid once you start sussing out what this would mean in practice.
Understandably, this amateurism has the op-ed writers tut-tutting and the Republican establishment exasperated. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham expressed these frustrations perfectly, declaring: “No one expects a person who hasn’t been commander-in-chief before to know everything about every topic. But Libya? Iran? I think it’s fair to ask our candidates to articulate a position that makes us safe.”
Duke political scientist Peter Feaver, who served on the National Security Council in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, argues that these gaffes could harm the party, long seen by the public as being more trustworthy on matters of national security. “This is the core of the Republican brand. You mess with it at your peril,” he told The New York Times.
While this concern from foreign policy wonks is justified, it must be tempered by considering the reality of our political system. The craziest comments are coming from candidates who are almost certainly not going to be the GOP presidential nominee. Given that any idiot can get into the field, it’s hard to hold their idiocy against the party — especially when they’re being explicitly rejected in polls of even hardcore likely Republican primary voters.
All of this is just a byproduct of our rather unusual method of selecting presidents. In contrast to the parliamentary systems used in most democracies, where the prime minister has typically come up through the ranks of the party and served in key roles in preparation for serving as head of government, Americans elect presidents independently. Since 1960, when television became the key medium for reaching voters and party primaries began supplanting elite selection of presidential nominees, Americans have preferred state governors, who have no foreign policy experience, or senators who have made their bones on domestic politics. Unless there’s a major war on — and sometimes even then — domestic issues, especially the economy, tend to dominate presidential campaigns.
This means that most serious candidates for president enter the race as foreign policy neophytes; in the modern era only Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush had substantial foreign policy credentials. But the bar on national security policy is pretty low: the winners must come across as decisive leaders who can be simultaneously tough and prudent, but even that can be an illusion of campaign optics.
Given that we start with a large field of ambitious foreign policy neophytes, it’s also not surprising that even successful candidates say stupid things on the campaign trail or else lay out policies they’re forced to retract once in office.
George W. Bush managed to get elected president twice despite being caught flat-footed on the names of the leaders of Pakistan, India, and other countries as late as the post-convention debates with Al Gore in 2000. Aside from whatever he gained by osmosis by being around his father, he simply didn’t have any experience with or reason to be particularly interested in foreign affairs up to that point. But he surrounded himself with expert advisors and was able to present himself as a credible leader by the time it mattered.
While I don’t recall gaffes of similar magnitude by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, both early on gave answers on several key areas that perfectly befit their backgrounds as domestic policy wonks. Clinton made woefully naive statements about the George H.W. Bush policies in Bosnia, Haiti, and China before dutifully adopting those very policies upon sitting in the big chair. Obama spent months hanging on to the notion that he would talk to various potentates “without preconditions” before shifting the meaning of that phrase sufficiently that it exempted all the standard preconditions that every president ever has insisted upon before embarking on summit meetings.
The rise of the Tea Party movement has exacerbated the problem for Republicans, increasing the appeal of populist neophytes like Cain and Bachmann — articulate spokespeople who lack the credentials normally associated with serious candidates for the presidency. But the system is working in the manner it always has: while Cain, Bachmann, and Perry all had their 15 minutes as front-runners (and even Donald Trump had 2 or 3) their folksy appeal has not been enough to overcome their obvious deficiencies as potential chief executives and commanders-in-chief.
The first delegate won’t be awarded for another two months, but it’s nonetheless pretty clear that it’s Mitt Romney’s nomination to lose. And, while he’s made his share of dubious statements, by and large he’s articulated a Realist foreign policy that’s a lot like Obama’s — which is to say, very much in line with the consensus that has dominated American international relations, with very brief interruptions, for decades.
Perhaps Romney’s silliest foreign policy moment thus far is his declaration that he would take China to the World Trade Organization as “a currency manipulator.” Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China who’s currently at 2 percent in the polls, says this is “pandering” and that the WTO lacks jurisdiction. While there’s some expert disagreement on that, Huntsman is certainly right that a “trade war” with China would be incredibly foolish.
But here’s the thing: If Romney is elected president, he won’t carry out that policy. Not because of his well-earned reputation for flip-flopping but because being a candidate for president is different from being president.
Despite the mythology of the president as a lone decider, he’s actually simply the chief of the executive branch of our government. Faced with the consensus of the intelligence community, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Council of Economic Advisors, and other institutional founts of experience, presidents are quickly confronted with the realities of the limits of their power. Bush didn’t want to do TARP and Obama didn’t want to let the big banks off the hook. Not only were these policies anathema to their core ideological beliefs but they were poisonous with their constituencies. But it’s almost impossible to overrule experts telling you that ignoring their advice will send the global economy into a tailspin. Many of our recent presidents — including Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama — took a hard line on China in the debates. They softened almost immediately in office.
Romney’s declaration that “We can’t let China walk all over us” is not only a winner with the American public but seems indisputable from a public policy standpoint. But, like his predecessors, a President Romney would be faced with dire warnings from the legions of experts in the executive bureaucracy about the consequences of rash action. And, like his predecessors, he’d back down.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. This essay originally appeared in The Atlantic.