international analysis and commentary

Why foreign policy won’t matter (much) in 2012

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While it is unlikely that foreign policy will be the most important issue in the 2012 election (barring a major terrorist attack on American soil), it could still be of some significance.

Upon the conclusion of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, 89% of Americans approved of the job George H.W. Bush was doing as president. Bush senior’s popularity was so great that otherwise competitive Democrats declined to seek their party’s nomination for the 1992 presidential election. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton won the Democratic Party’s nomination despite having no foreign policy experience. Yet, against the odds, Clinton went on to win the presidential contest. Why? Voters were more interested in the state of the American economy than they were in foreign policy – thus the Clinton campaign phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” – and they were convinced that Clinton would do a better job than Bush in getting the economy going.

If present trends continue, the 2012 presidential election will be like the 1992 contest – foreign policy will not be the most significant issue for voters. In fact, since the end of the Cold War foreign policy has only rarely been among the most important issues in presidential elections.

In the aforementioned 1992 election, only 2% of voters said foreign policy was the most important problem facing the country. In the 1996 and 2000 elections, voters continued to emphasize domestic issues over international ones. In Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection bid against Senator Bob Dole, only 5% said foreign policy was the nation’s most important problem. In the 2000 contest between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush, voters were concerned with education and the economy – not foreign policy. George W. Bush prevailed despite having no foreign policy experience because voters were domestically focused.

The 2004 election between G.W. Bush and Senator John Kerry was the exception that proves the rule. Foreign policy mattered more because it was the first presidential election after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Even on that occasion, foreign policy was not the only issue of significance in the race. While 45% of voters said that either the Iraq War or terrorism was the most important issue for them, another 40% chose “moral values” as the most important issue.

The 2008 showdown between John McCain and Barack Obama saw foreign policy fall from the voters’ list of concerns. Sixty-three percent of voters in 2008 said the economy was the most important problem facing the country, whereas only 18% chose Iraq or terrorism as the most important problem.

Given the state of the American economy today, it is highly likely that voters will make their 2012 presidential vote choice based on domestic issues. According to a March 3-6, 2011 Gallup poll 72% of Americans cited an economic problem – unemployment, gas prices, the federal deficit or debt – as the most important problem facing the country. Only 5% referred to “wars” as the most important problem facing the country.

Yet, foreign policy could still be significant. Because US presidential elections are often determined by small margins, even a small percentage of voters who make their decisions on the basis of foreign policy could impact the outcome. In order for this to occur, however, most foreign policy voters would have to choose one candidate. At this point, it appears that neither Mr. Obama nor anyone in the field of likely Republican contenders have a clear advantage on foreign policy.

On the one hand, Mr. Obama has some strengths in the eyes of foreign-policy oriented voters. The President’s greatest strength is that none of the Republican challengers (as of today) has any foreign policy experience. The leading contenders are former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and reality-TV persona and business tycoon Donald Trump. These individuals would lack credibility with foreign policy voters because they lack foreign policy experience. The only Republican contender with any foreign policy experience is former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich who is currently polling in fifth or sixth place.

Republicans will also struggle to differentiate themselves from the President on foreign policy. Mr. Obama’s December 2009 decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and his very limited commitment to Libya’s air campaign provide a defense against critics who might suggest he is a quixotic idealist. While the Republican nominee will criticize aspects of the President’s foreign policy, it seems unlikely that she/he will develop a credible and coherent alternative foreign policy, especially given that the Bush era so thoroughly discredited neo-conservativism in voters’ eyes.

Another of the President’s strengths is the fragile trend toward improvement in Afghanistan since his surge began. For example, the Afghan National Army grew by 50% in 2010 and at 150,000 troops, it is significantly larger than the 26,000 troops of 2005. Moreover, Afghan poppy cultivation in 2010 was below half what it had been in 2007 and roughly the same level it had been in 2002.

On the other hand, Mr. Obama has some significant weaknesses as well. The headway the administration’s surge has made in Afghanistan is fragile at best. Transparency International’s 2010 Annual Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Afghanistan 176th out of 178 countries. It is widely recognized that security and stability will remain elusive if the Afghan government cannot govern well. Similarly, while Mr. Obama was politically savvy in limiting the American role in the Libyan air campaign, doing so has increased the probability of a prolonged and bloody civil war and of an outcome where Muammar Gheddafi remains in power.

Moreover, Mr. Obama’s policies in Afghanistan and Libya are far from popular. As of April 2011, 45% of Americans disapproved of Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan policy. In a poll released on April 5th, 50% of Americans felt that participation in the Libyan campaign was the right decision. Moreover, the President’s policies in Afghanistan and Libya have been especially unpopular with many in his Democratic Party.

In the end, given the state of the economy the average voter will ignore foreign policy, choosing a candidate on pocketbook issues. The few voters who are focused on foreign policy will probably be divided between those who are unhappy with Mr. Obama’s foreign policy record and those who are concerned with the Republican fields’ lack of experience.