US Affairs: A domestic debate

Troubles at home keep American politicians from looking abroad; the overwhelming reason for that is the economy.

Obama move America forward 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Obama move America forward 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON – Messy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The looming threat of a nuclear Iran. Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that have finally been launched after more than a year of intense efforts. And that’s just the Middle East, to say nothing of China, Russia, North Korea and Turkey.
Yet saying nothing is exactly what most candidates whose fates will be decided on November 2 have been doing when it comes to a wide range of pressing foreign policy problems.
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The overwhelming reason for that is the economy, whose dire situation has overshadowed all other issues in the campaign.
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, noted that to the extent foreign policy issues have surfaced, they have almost exclusively done so because of their domestic economic implications.
“The economy is so bad, people are so concerned – this is the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s – it would be surprising if it didn’t dominate the debate,” he noted.
He pointed to China and immigration as two international issues that have come up in the campaign because many Americans are worried both are costing them jobs and otherwise adversely affecting their financial situation.
But the lack of focus on foreign policy and even national security has also been due in part to the limbo many issues are in right now, for both political and policy reasons.
For instance, the contentious issue of Afghanistan, a war with rising American casualties and few signs of nearing victory, might have become a bigger flashpoint if the political alignment was different.
“Something could have happened with Afghanistan if the economy had not been such an overriding concern – and there was a willingness of one of the parties to really embrace the opposition,” according to Mann.
But he pointed out that on Afghanistan, Republicans largely support President Barack Obama’s policy of a continued strong troop presence – for now – and Democrats, who are more critical, haven’t wanted to go against their own party’s president.
On Iran, Mann said that recent sanctions legislation combined with an American public disinclined to get into another Middle East war have convinced the public to give the current policy some more time to work.
“There has been enough action on Iran with the sanctions that only a handful of candidates are calling for tougher actions,” he said.
When it comes to China, one place where both parties have been strident, they’ve essentially said the same thing: Beijing is to blame for manipulating its currency and other sins.
As heated as the issue is, a lack of clashing party viewpoints makes it a less attractive vehicle for attempts to scoring political points in campaigns.
And on the peace process, where the Obama administration’s policies made at least some waves in the Jewish community, the soothing of tensions with Israel and the launch of the talks – and their current inconclusiveness – have also calmed the political waters.
One Washington insider said the current stalemate in the peace process – where the Palestinians continue to demand an extension of the settlement freeze for talks to proceed, while Israel refuses one – is likely to drag out until November. The US has put several incentives on the table in exchange for a 60-day freeze extension, but so far Jerusalem hasn’t accepted the offer.
“We just [might be] in a holding pattern until after the midterm elections,” he said, echoing rampant speculation that the US push for a two-month extension is calculated to keep the issue on the back burner until after November 2.
But at least some observers attribute the lack of attention to foreign affairs to Obama’s approach itself.
“Obama’s foreign policy record hardly figures in this fall’s midterm election. That’s at least in part because of its inconclusiveness: It has neither failed nor produced tangible outcomes,” wrote Jackson Diehl this week in The Washington Post.
He pointed to Obama’s propensity for setting deadlines for the various foreign policy challenges confronting him, particularly in the Middle East. In Iraq, US troops are due to completely withdraw by the end of 2011. In Afghanistan, the US is set to begin to wind down its mission over the summer. And when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, negotiations are supposed to be concluded by next fall.
“A year from now, thanks to the timetables, the record should be in,” he wrote, “just in time for the 2012 presidential campaign.”