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Republican Foreign Policy Craziness Inherent in the System

My latest for The Atlantic, “Some Reasons Not to Worry About Republican Foreign Policy Craziness,” has just been posted.

The argument, in a nutshell, is that the fact that “The Republican candidates for president are tripping over themselves to see who can say the most embarrassingly inept thing on foreign affairs” is a reflection of our institutions and political culture–which contains its own solutions.

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.

[...]

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.

[...]

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.

The bottom line is that the system will eliminate the craziest candidates and force the rest to get smarter as they move on.

Related Posts:

About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. MBunge says:

    Uh…Iraq?

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  2. mantis says:

    Shorter James Joyner: Pay no attention to what Republican candidates say about foreign policy. They’re just pandering to the insane Republican Party.

    I didn’t like it when Obama pandered on a couple of foreign policy issues, like renegotiating NAFTA. I could ignore that, knowing it would not happen. But what you’re basically saying is we should basically ignore everything the entire Republican field of candidates says on foreign policy (except for Huntsman). Isn’t that a pretty big sign that you should not just wave their rhetoric away, but rather somehow come to a real assessment on what the Republican Party stands for vis a vis foreign policy? If the party’s candidates can’t be trusted to say anything remotely realistic, and their rhetoric should be ignored, what are voters supposed to think the the candidates actually want to do? Oh wait, I forgot I was talking about Republican voters. Silly me. They don’t care about reality.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1

  3. Moosebreath says:

    “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.”

    If the threshold is winning the Presidency, I’d agree. If it’s winning the nomination, I’d add Kerry. If it’s lower, I’d add Biden and Lugar, at the least.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. Hey Norm says:

    http://www.cfr.org/experts/world/barack-obama/b11603#10

    “…President Obama has expressed interest in cooperation with China, although he sees the country as a major competitor to the United States. At the April 2007 debate among Democratic candidates, Obama said China is “neither our enemy nor our friend. They’re competitors. But we have to make sure that we have enough military-to-military contact and forge enough of a relationship with them that we can stabilize the region.”
    In an April 2007 speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Obama said he will “forge a more effective regional framework in Asia,” building on “our strong bilateral relations and informal arrangements like the Six-Party Talks” on North Korea…”

    To me this seems a lot more measured, a lot more sober, a lot more mature than what we hear from the current crop of GOP’ers. The exception being Huntsman…who of course represented Obama, and the United States, in China.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  5. EddieInCA says:

    When has a crop of possible Democratic Presidential nominees ever spouted as much nonsense as the current GOP group when it comes to Foreign Policy?

    Heck, I’ll even toss in Domestic Policy.

    When?

    Seriously.

    When?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 2

  6. sam says:

    @EddieInCA:

    Ah, well, you see, the Republican lusters after the nomination begin with a deficit: The base, which does the nominating, is batshit crazy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  7. Liberty60 says:

    Man oh man, James- this is supposed to comfort us?

    That a lunatic President will be restrained by the complex thickets of bureaucracy, or the Pentagon brass?

    Never thought I would live to see the day when our best hope for America is a military coup.

    “Dr. Bachmann, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb”

    Yeeeeee haaaaaaw!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  8. EddieInCA says:

    Dr. Joyner -

    As some point, some point soon, even you are going to have to admit that compared to this current group of front-running GOP candidates, there is no real choice other than to vote for Obama.

    If you can seriously tell us that you’d even consider voting for Cain, Perry, Gingrich, or anyone other than Romney, Huntsman or Johnson, you’d lose whatever credibility you think you have with most of your audience/readers.

    Doug I know is a lost cause, as are Dodd and Verdon. You, however, do show signs of intellectual honesty, so I hold out hope you’ll come over from the dark side.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. Dazedandconfused says:

    I agree with you, but my bottom line would be we (and the media) need to pay more attention to who they select as their advisers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. ponce says:

    Reads more like Republican partisan wishful thinking than serious policy analysis

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MBunge:

    First thing to pop into my mind too, Mike.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. ponce says:

    James,

    I seem to remember just earlier today you were badmouthing all of Occupy Wall Street because one loon who claimed to be speaking for them said some crazy shit.

    “Some crazies are threatening to take the movement over in the meantime.” to quote you.

    Foolish consistency and all that?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  13. alanstorm says:

    I’m more concerned with the lunatic foreign policy of the current office holder. You know, the one who proclaimed during his campaign that we should keep our noses out of other countries’ internal affairs…and who, almost as soon as he was ordained sworn in, chose to criticize Israel’s and Honduras’s internal affairs.

    The same one who has, ever since, been alienating our allies and encouraging our adversaries. The same one who might get up the steam to send Iran a strongly-worded letter, maybe, if the sanctions that haven’t worked yet don’t work real soon.

    And you’re concerned about the Republican candidate’s FP expertise? I suggest we have a more immediate problem in that area, and he currently resides at the White House.

    If he’s such a genius, why doesn’t he demonstrate it from time to time? Or is it that he’s a Wile E. Coyote-style super-genius?

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 17

  14. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: I’ve already stated on multiple occasions that I’d likely vote for Obama over any of the field except for Huntsman, my preferred but extremely unlikely nominee, or Romney, my expected nominee. But it’s looking more likely every day that Romney’s the guy.

    @ponce: Not at all. Trump, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain proved themselves not to be presidential material and seem to have all collapsed in the polls. We’re down to Romney and Gingrich–both serious guys–as frontrunners and Newt has so much baggage he can’t possibly win.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. Peterh says:

    I might be more inclined to sum up the Republican Foreign Policy craziness in two words: American Exceptionalism……freedom fries……really!?!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. ponce says:

    Not at all.

    James,

    If I understand your logic today you’re saying:

    1. Even though the leading Republicans are constantly spouting idiotic stuff, it should not reflect badly on the Republican PArty.

    2. One obviously crazy person claiming to speak for OWS discredits the entire Occupy Wall Street movement.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  17. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: I wasn’t badmouthing OWS but rather pointing out that, in the absence of leadership, unrepresentative crazies were filling the vacuum.

    In the GOP case, the opposite is happening. There is by definition no leadership when a party is out of power. So, crazies are getting a lot of attention and disqualifying themselves from leadership, leaving saner voices to rise to the top.

    @ponce: I’m saying that there’s a process in place that’s playing out how it always does. In the longer piece, I acknowledge that the Tea Party is giving impetus to more crazies rising to prominence than in past cycles. But, again, their very craziness is disqualifying them, even in the eyes of a Republican nominating electorate that I identify much less with than just four or five years ago.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. ponce says:

    James,

    I think I need a PhD is political science to grasp what you’re trying to say :)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. mantis says:

    alanstorm up above is the quintessential Republican primary voter. No interest in facts, just a bunch of nutty ideas gleaned from wingnut talk radio and blogs, not the slightest bit reflective of reality. Add that to a complete lack of interest in their party’s candidates’ positions and gravitation to whoever is the biggest asshole on the stage (updated weekly). That’s why batshit crazy stupid is the only recognizable theme to this campaign.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  20. rudderpedals says:

    W and the surrounding of wisemen made it through this filter, i’m not reassured,

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  21. James Joyner says:

    @rudderpedals: The system doesn’t guarantee that all foreign policy decisions will be wise. Bush turned away from the Realist advisors like Condi Rice who crafted his 2000 campaign approach and went over to the dark side of neoconservatism for a few years, before shifting back after 2006. There were certainly red flags raised by the CIA, State, and DOD.

    Iraq was, in hindsight, a bad idea–especially the way it was handled. But it was clearly a defensible policy.The UK went along with it, as did most Democrats in Congress, including most of the 2004 and 2008 presidential contenders.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    In that defense, the word “opposite” seems misplaced. You reinforced the similarity with your own expansion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    Wow, on Iraq your defense is again self-negating. The bad idea was good because so many(*) were swept along?

    * – not me

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. michael reynolds says:

    Sorry, James, I’m with the rest: you’re apologizing for cretins and promising they’ll all conveniently disappear before the serious work starts.

    And what of the GOP, the party that fostered these cretins?

    Ah, there’s the rub. Vote for Romney even and you get his idiot party, too. And they won’t just disappear, they’ll be bendng the new president toward their preferred policies. Especially Romney, who is nothing if not bendable. The veritable Gumby of politics.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  25. EddieInCA says:

    Iraq was, in hindsight, a bad idea–especially the way it was handled. But it was clearly a defensible policy.The UK went along with it, as did most Democrats in Congress, including most of the 2004 and 2008 presidential contenders.

    Iraq Slavery was, in hindsight, a bad idea–especially the way it was handled. But it was clearly a defensible policy.The UK Whigs went along with it, as did most Democrats in Congress. including most of the 2004 and 2008 presidential contenders.

    Iraq Internment of the Japanese during WWII was, in hindsight, a bad idea–especially the way it was handled. But it was clearly a defensible policy. The UK Supreme Court went along with it, as did most Democrats in Congress, including most of the 2004 1944 and 2008 1948 presidential contenders.

    Iraq Apartheid was, in hindsight, a bad idea–especially the way it was handled. But it was clearly a defensible policy.The UK went along with it, as did most Democrats and Republicans in Congress, including most of the 2004 and 2008 presidential contenders world’s leaders.

    Dr. Joyner – Do you realize what a steaming pile of horseshit your argument sounds like when exposed in the real world?

    How can something both be a bad idea, but clearly defensible? Please explain that to me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  26. reid says:

    @john personna: Not the least of which were people without access to the alleged “intelligence” that backed up things like claims of nuclear weapons programs and ties to al queda. It was a masterful job of manipulating the media and demonizing skeptics. And now we get the “yeah but they went along!!” defense. Sad.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  27. reid says:

    If someone is a moron or caters to morons, I’d prefer to just not vote for him rather than hope he wises up in office.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  28. Rick Almeida says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Vote for Romney even and you get his idiot party, too. And they won’t just disappear, they’ll be bendng the new president toward their preferred policies.

    This is key, to me. For all Romney’s supposed maturity and gravitas, I don’t doubt at all that he’ll sign everything a Republican Congress sends him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  29. jan says:

    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.

    Campaigns are a candidate’s attempts to win over as many people as possible. It’s like making a vegetable soup, where you throw in an array of vegetables and seasoning to make the brew flavorable.

    The emoboldened part of the except above is what is important, as isn’t this what Obama has been called on the carpet for, by not only republicans but also people in his own party?

    During the ’08 campaign he promised the closing of Gitmo, reforming the Patriot Act, getting the economy out of the ditch, he even threw the idea of eliminating capital gains for small business. But, one of his biggest promises was to have an open and transparant government, posting bills on the internet some 5 days before he would sign them. He also despaired the role of lobbyists, and promised they would not be a part of his administration ….. ahem Solyndra.

    None of these have come to fruition. If Romney, or any of the other R’s become POTUS, the same will happen to many of their great ideas and promises as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

  30. jan says:

    Despite some of the ‘clown-like’ performances of the republican candidates, Charlie Cook sees the GOP winning big in 2012.

    I guess Cook doesn’t even take into consideration their foreign policy craziness, as it is all about what Clinton said during his successful campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

    , Cook says President Obama faces an uphill battle to be re-elected, and the election will be a referendum on his presidency and the dire economic situation he now “owns.”

    Most tellingly, he adds, Obama has only 39 percent approval among independents—only 32 percent among the “pure independents” who do not lean left or right—and they will be the ones who decide the election.

    I seriously don’t have the confidence Cook has. But, it sure has been interesting to see his growing POV that Obama will lose.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. Liberty60 says:

    @jan:

    If Romney, or any of the other R’s become POTUS, the same will happen to many of their great ideas and promises as well.

    …if there is a God.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. Scott O. says:

    Future column ideas:

    Some Reasons Not to Worry About Republican Tax-Policy Craziness

    Some Reasons Not to Worry About Republican Environmental-Policy Craziness

    Good luck.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  33. jan says:

    @Liberty60:

    …if there is a God.

    LOL…I believe in one. When Democrats win the presidency, republicans lament end-of-life-as we-know-it kind of a future under their policies. The same holds true for democrats, when republicans rotate into that office.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  34. Hey Norm says:

    Yes…when democrats are in the presidency it’s the end of the world. They leave budget surpluses and rescue the economy from the edge of a depression. Thankfully when republicans have the presidency they squander the surpluses and enter into needless wars. Just more false equivalencies. Pathetic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  35. anjin-san says:

    Iraq was, in hindsight, a bad idea

    Ummmm. No. Iraq was obviously, no doubt about it a terrible, awful, train wreck of an idea from the very beginning.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  36. anjin-san says:

    as did most Democrats in Congress, including most of the 2004 and 2008 presidential contenders.

    I think most of them saw just how bad of an idea it was, but made the craven calculation that in a post 9.11 world, taking a stance that could easily be charachterized as weak on national defense could well be a career ender. I don’t think they were fooled, they were just cowards.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  37. A voice from another precinct says:

    @James Joyner: ” But it’s looking more likely every day that Romney’s the guy.”

    Provided that

    “The bottom line is that the system will eliminate the craziest candidates and force the rest to get smarter as they move on.”

    In my case, I’m not sure that premise two is a sure thing right now. I hope you’re correct, but…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  38. jukeboxgrad says:

    james:

    as did most Democrats in Congress

    Incorrect. Most Ds in the House voted against the war.

    ==============
    anjin-san:

    I don’t think they were fooled, they were just cowards.

    There’s plenty of evidence that they were fooled. See here (scroll down to the part about the NIE and the White Paper).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  39. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I’m not apologizing for cretins but saying that the process is working as intended to weed them out. Palin didn’t even make it into the race and Bachmann and Cain and Trump are toast. Perry is perhaps salvageable but I don’t think so.

    It’s a fair point that these yahoos drew interest from the base–although never more than 18 to 20 percent and then not for long. But even the most rabid of the Tea Party types are rejecting them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  40. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    No, the nuts aren’t drawing 18 to 20 percent, they’re drawing 75% — all the anti-Romney vote. And that 75% is persistent and ineducable. They aren’t a wing, they’re the body of the GOP.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  41. sam says:

    Republican base = Cretins Я Us

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  42. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: We’ll see, I guess. My very strong sense is that Romney is the nominee and that he’ll pick a sane type (Spence? Pawlenty?) as his running mate and that, if elected, we’d see a foreign policy akin to George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush post-2006.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  43. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    For me the amazing thing is the range of decisions made by past Republican Presidents which are simply denied now, as not really right or Republican. It’s true from Iraq to Medicare Part D to stimulus to bailout.

    How on earth can “see, it works out in the end” match those facts?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  44. reid says:

    I don’t even see Pawlenty as particularly sane anymore. He may be quiet and kind of meek, but he’s said plenty of nutty things. Not quite Bachmann level nuttiness, but enough to make me not trust him.

    Given the disaster that the Bush admin proved to be despite promises of being the “adults in the room”, along with the fact that the GOP in general is plagued with cretins, I’m not in any mood to trust them anymore. Combine that with a cretin-filled media environment and a (false in my opinion) empowering perception that the country has moved to the right, and I really don’t believe even a “moderate” like Romney would be all that moderate. Obama is about as far to the right as I think this country needs now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  45. Jeremy says:

    I think there’s two or three big camps within the GOP right now. You have the social conservatives who are hawkish on foreign policy and just knee-jerk oppose anything the Dems produce; I like to think of them as “Palinistas.” Then you have the fiscal/economic conservatives who also tend to be dovish in foreign policy and tend towards libertarianism on civil rights, and don’t care particularly about social issues; I’d like to call them “Ronulans.” Then you have the “Establishment,” those that just go against anything the Dems produce because they want the power for themselves, and say things about cutting spending but then expand government. I think they draw a bit from the Palinistas (but not at all from Ronulans) and I’ve also heard them described as “Movement Conservatives” or “Professional Conservatives,” but who don’t really believe in anything anymore. The talking heads come to mind (Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity, etc.)

    I’m beginning to wonder if there’s going to be a split in the GOP soon between the Palinistas and the Ronulans, and who will leave. It’s possible that if the GOP screws up and loses, the social/religious conservatives will get booted as everyone else will be sick of losing, but it’s equally possible that it happens the other way. I’m not sure what percentage each group makes up of the party, so I can’t tell which would be more disastrous (well, from an Establishment perspective, anyways), but part of me feels the GOP is heading for self-destruction if this keeps up. The crazies can have their heyday, but they can’t run the party for long, as evidenced by this nomination process.

    One thing seems clear to me, though, the Establishment is losing control. That Cain got as far as he did, and then held on for as long as he did after the allegations came out, is really quite remarkable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  46. c.red says:

    Why does Romney get a pass as not nutty?

    Considering the crap he regularly spouts and the fact that he takes every side of every issue, no one has any clue what he would be a s president. The best that can be said is he is a ten year old in a pack of toddlers. Huntsman is the only decent one of the bunch and only the weirdest chain of events will get him the nomination.

    Romney is no more qualified to be president than the rest of the GOP yahoos.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0