No More Foreign Policy Debates

There will be debates about foreign policy, of course, but the sad spectacle of the last presidential debate of 2012 suggests that the idea of a presidential debate dedicated to foreign policy has officially reached the point of diminishing returns.

By my rough estimate, the two candidates used more than one quarter of debate time to talk about domestic economic policy.  At least half of the remaining time was spent agreeing on broad foreign policy points — Drones are good! Israel is our friend! Let’s withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014! — and the remaining half was used to debate Governor Romney’s assertion that his foreign policy would be the same as Obama’s, only better.  (And both of them would have basically the same foreign policy as George W. Bush.)

The particulars of this debate were not the problem.  No, the problem lies in the substance.  The candidates continually veered back to domestic policy because, as the bank robber Willy Sutton allegedly said, that’s where the money is.  Voters care about foreign policy when we are attacked, e.g. September 11th, and they care when war weariness is an issue, e.g. the final years of the war in Iraq.  But even in these cases they can only care so much.

Obama’s victory in the debate was preordained after a fashion.  An incumbent president enters into every foreign policy debate with a distinct advantage, since it is unlikely that his or her opponent has actually crafted foreign policy, and if they have, it is also unlikely that they did so recently.  (An exception to this rule would’ve been a debate between President Obama and Ambassador Huntsman, but the stars were not in the ambassador’s favor.)  Few expected Governor Romney to win.  That said, it is not because of fairness to a challenger that the foreign policy debate should be scrapped.

The numbers and press reports tell us a clear story, which is that voters don’t make up their minds based on foreign policy.  And the candidates oblige us.  When, for instance, was the last time Vice President Biden was as substantive on foreign policy as Senator Biden had consistently been?  (Let us set aside, for the moment, that Senator Biden was considerably to the left of Vice President Biden on foreign policy.)  And it was not a mark of weakness nor an admission of defeat for Governor Romney to conclude the “foreign policy” debate with remarks that were 80% domestic policy and 20% fluff about peace.  Those remarks were planned, not spontaneous.  It was Romney’s silent admission that the the foreign policy debate is useless.

Unfortunately, the first camp to declare the foreign policy debate obsolete and call for changes will be attacked for not caring about foreign policy.  The current debate system locks both parties into a kind of mutually assured destruction, which means only an outside group, such as the Commission on Presidential Debates or another independent voice, could get momentum moving on changing the structure of US presidential debates.

If the foreign policy debate really does get scrapped for the 2016 election, what should take its place?  One of my personal thought experiments wound up getting independently mirrored as a Tweet today:

 
A four-person debate, with a moderator, would give the vice presidents another chance to shine or falter.   It would illustrate the teamwork and complementary styles of the ticket.  Most importantly, it would allow the candidates to double clothesline the competition.  I kid.  Somewhat.  But we shouldn’t stop there.

We should also consider a final, unmoderated debate, a freewheeling discussion on the issues.  (A timekeeper could help manage the candidates but not offer any questions.)  Without a lifeline or inane questions from a moderator, the candidates would be free to inspire — or disgust — the American people.  It would remove one of the most enervating aspects of the modern presidential debate, the stultifying web of rules and pre-debate agreements which ensure that the two candidates only debate around the margins and suck all of the spontaneity out of the room.  Lastly, it would turn the presidential debate into what it deserves to be — a battle of the wits, not just a battle of the debate coaches.

Our proposed debate schedule looks like this:

  1. Presidential debate on the economy
  2. Vice-presidential debate
  3. Presidential town hall debate
  4. “Tag team” debate
  5. Unmoderated presidential debate

Of course, five debates might seem like a lot to an American public who couldn’t really be bothered to tune into the final debate, but after the primary season and its seemingly endless debates, would it be so bad to have one more debate if it could be a debate that truly mattered?

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Drone Warfare and Its Limitations

There’s a nice TNR piece by James Joyner on Obama’s drone warfare doctrine and its role in the action-repression-recruitment cycle.  I see drones as the natural evolution of Clinton-era “fire and forget” foreign policy, which relied on smart weapon strikes to achieve policy outcomes rather than commit to politically costly force deployments.

Although drones have figured large in engagements with Al Qaeda, the massive manpower involved in Bush’s two wars helped mask the extent to which future warfare will be fought by robotic weapons fired from robotic delivery platforms operated at a safe distance.  The most bizarre development (for me at least) is that nobody in Congress in either party has seemed to question why the “drone air force” is largely in the hands of the CIA’s murky-by-design Special Activities Division rather than the Joint Chiefs and their multiple layers of oversight.

(Like extraordinary rendition, giving the CIA its own military force is something Democrats criticize when Republicans do it and suddenly shut up about when one of their own are in office.  But that’s a different debate — I just want to remind my liberal friends that this is not a “Bush era problem,” it’s a Washington one.  Note that left-liberals like Glenn Greenwald have been consistent in their critiques.)

Of course, drones have their place, and cost-benefits wise, they’re cheaper, stealthier, and more efficient than manned aircraft, which, more often than not, have become military industrial complex pork.  (Witness the challenges faced by pre-crazy Dick Cheney and Bob Gates during their tenures as SecDef when they attempted to slash the procurement budget.)  Drones don’t risk the life of a pilot, and because the operators can be “switched in flight,” human endurance is not a factor in drone warfare.  Yet we have to ask whether drones, like smart weapons before them, have created the illusion of no-cost military action.

From a humanitarian perspective, robotic weapons, rather than loosening the rules of engagement, require them to be tightened, since it is too easy for policymakers (and the American public) to accept collateral damage when looking at the battlefield through digital rather than human eyes.  Please read Joyner’s piece for some of the stats involved, but do note that even the drone-friendly figures posit a higher rate of collateral damage than we would accept from soldier-on-soldier engagements.

At the same time, our leaders overestimate the ability of drones to produce results.  Dispatching high value targets, as Joyner says, is a no-brainer, but having drones always on standby to suppress enemy forces is no substitute for, say, having an effective local police force, strong national government, or even American boots on the ground.  Moreover, by transitioning from being the global policeman to the global Robocop, we are not improving on the flawed premise that American foreign policy must be interventionist.  Indeed, we are only amplifying the problem by giving policymakers another tool with which they may go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

Jeremiah Wright, House Divider

A short video of a rant by Barack Obama’s pastor Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright has been making the rounds in the right-wing blogosphere.* While Wright has been on the radar screen of many an Obama critic for months now, it’s rare that we get to hear him in his own words. And what ugly words they are.

It’s troubling at first considering that Wright trots out the kind of religious identity politics that racist cult leader Louis Farrakhan and the black religious left made famous, but it moves from disturbing to ludicrous when Wright compares Sen. Obama to other blacks to illustrate how “privileged” Hillary Clinton is. Despite Wright’s laundry list to the contrary, Obama is half-white, the family wasn’t poor — and for that matter the senator himself isn’t poor — and while Obama was raised in a single-parent household, his was a uniquely international, multiracial childhood — one in which, again, contra Wright, acceptance came more naturally. To hear Wright speak, however, it sounds like Obama grew up the son of a welfare mother in the projects.

While sadly amusing, this may also be the more racist, more divisive aspect of Wright’s rhetoric, since instead of embracing and endorsing Sen. Obama as a welcome bridge between races and generations, Wright employs his own one drop rule and vulgarizes Obama into a common black man victimized by rich white men. No respect is paid to the reality of Obama’s white mother and the white grandparents who raised him, nor does Wright seem cognizant of the modern American cultural milieu, which has progressed to the point where a “black president” is not only possible but, if the predictions hold, likely.

Overall, Wright’s speech is divisive and nasty, and if I were Barack Obama, “preaching” like the above, taken with the fact that Wright said of Louis Farrakhan,

His depth on analysis when it comes to the racial ills of this nation is astounding and eye opening. He brings a perspective that is helpful and honest.

and the fact that he further presented a “lifetime achievement” award to Farrakhan in late 2007

would be enough to drive me from Rev. Wright’s congregation. Not so with Sen. Obama, and his unwillingness to rebuke Wright — he merely says he doesn’t agree with all of Wright’s opinions — makes me think that the dream many have for a post-racial politics to emerge from the Obama candidacy is a false hope.

It further begs the question, who is the real Barack Obama?

Update:  Can you guess the uplifting phrase in Wright’s post-9/11 sermon?  How about “God damn America”?  Obama says this was just Wright trying to be provocative.  Pat Robertson’s PR guy better write this phrase down to use next time ol’ Pat opines on supposed Godly displeasure with His creations that leads to natural disasters.

* Liberals aren’t linking to it yet because they’re too busy complaining about McCain’s endorsement by Christian fundamentalist loon John Hagee. But John Hagee isn’t McCain’s pastor, and no amount of blogging by the left will prove that he holds sway over McCain the way Wright has influenced Obama.

On the Proper Use of Kryptonite

Frank Rich winds down an editorial damning GOP nominee John McCain with faint praise by noting (of Democratic contender Barack Obama),

What repeatedly goes unrecognized by all of Mr. Obama’s opponents is that his political Kryptonite is the patriotism he offers in lieu of theirs. His upbeat notion of a yes-we-can national mobilization for the common good, however saccharine, speaks to the pride and idealism of Americans who are bone-weary of a patriotism defined exclusively by flag lapel pins, the fear of terrorism and the prospect of perpetual war.

I first clicked through to the article after seeing this bit quoted approvingly to try and figure out what Rich was trying to say.

The problem with this turn of phrase “his political Kryptonite is the patriotism he offers in lieu of theirs” is that when we say X is somebody’s Kryptonite, we mean that X is his/her weakness. This is the standard usage since the phrase came into fashion during the 1990s, and thousands of examples can be found from Googling the phrase. As one can glean from the excerpt I quoted, though, Rich’s usage of the phrase goes against the actual meaning. He ought to have written, “Obama’s concept of patriotism is his opponents’ Kryptonite” or something along these lines. I am inclined to disagree with that assertion, of course, but at least that formulation would be correct.

Thus concludes my editorializing on the dangers of op-ed writers trying to sound hip.

Update:  Daniel Larison already noted Rich’s Kryptonite flub and has substantive analysis of the column as well.

The General Election Unfolds

Reading through a post-Potomac primary write-up in the International Herald-Tribune, a short quote from Sen. Barack Obama leapt out at me:

“We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control,” Obama said. “The fallout from the housing crisis that’s cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle, it was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington.”

Presumably, when Barack Obama condemns Washington, he means the Bush administration. Such criticism may be deserved, but it begs the question, is a United States Senator not a part of Washington? During the three years he represented Illinois in the senate, why wasn’t Sen. Obama’s “imagination” great enough that he could offer legislation to avert the crisis? Why wasn’t his “leadership” sufficient to pass bills to soften the blows? In fact, Obama’s reaction to the subprime crisis is characteristic of his career as a national politician. On this and a myriad of other issues, the senator’s legislative history falls short of his rhetoric.

Now, it might be that Obama, like a great many of his generation, believes in an imperial presidency. (Certainly President Bush, to the nation’s detriment, has assumed himself to be this kind of president in foreign affairs and law and order.) What good, they might ask, could a single senator do? Yet that hasn’t stopped other young senators from amassing impressive legislative records, precisely because they recognize their constitutional duty: to make the laws that govern the country. And on that score — the very reason he should be a senator — Barack Obama fails to impress.

An uncharitable assessment — and as a Republican I feel it a duty to offer him one — might be that Sen. Obama has maintained a low legislative profile for the sake of running for president, which he has arguably been doing since the day he was sworn-in to replace Sen. Paul Simon and started writing The Audacity of Hope. By not taking any great stands for or against legislation, by working as a junior co-sponsor for noncontroversial legislation, and by not spending any political capital, he reduced the ammunition that opponents could use against him in the campaign. Thus, by being no walk, Barack Obama could make the focus of his campaign all talk.

Obama’s national legislative record, even on presumably friendly sources like Wikipedia, is remarkably thin. Even his great “accomplishment” of opposing the war in Iraq isn’t truly part of his record since Obama wasn’t even a senator during the votes on the war, so his criticism has the wonderful benefit of hindsight. Ross Douthat rightly calls this “Obama’s glass jaw,” but Sen. Hillary Clinton, for all her effort, has failed to land a blow there. The closest she came was during the New Hampshire debate outburst when she rightly condemned invoking change-as-rhetoric instead of change-as-action, but in that case she attacked John Edwards instead of Obama.

One would expect Sen. McCain, the likely Republican nominee, to zero in on Obama’s weakness. Instead, McCain has trotted out right-wing memes to attack Obama. From the same IHT article:

“I respect him and the campaign that he has run,” McCain said of Obama, after a question about his decision to focus on Obama and his message of hope in his victory speech on Tuesday night. “But there is going to come a time when we have to get into specifics, and I’ve not observed every speech that he’s given, obviously, but they are singularly lacking in specifics.”

“It’s not an accident that he has, I think, according to National Journal, the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate,” he said. “I have one of the most conservative.”

This sort of attack is likely to fail for several reasons.

Firstly, thanks to the dominance of conservative themes during the past 30 years, most voters under 50 have little concept of “liberal” as a “tax-and-spend” “big government” philosophy, to use a pair of Reagan-era talking points. Think about it: they didn’t suffer through the Johnson-Nixon-Carter years of liberal intervention policies, so for them, “liberal” doesn’t resonate as a negative label.

Secondly, for many people, “liberal” has actually become a positive label, not because they support high taxes and the welfare state, but because progressive politicos, especially on the Internet, have framed the term to mean being anti-Bush and anti-Iraq War. Many of my moderate friends started calling themselves “liberals” for this reason, even though actual progressive policies would leave a sour taste in their mouths. The Obama campaign is seemingly aware of this, and that’s why his speeches are stripped bare of “specifics” that could scare away the I-hate-the-GOP-now-but-I’m-not-really-a-leftist-types. (See Sullivan, Andrew.)

Finally, about those specifics: it may upset Sen. McCain that Obama talks in vagaries, but he needs to realize that he’s not running against a politician so much as a brand name. As Patrick Ruffini observed in an excellent post:

Most campaigns never get beyond talking issues. The sophisticated ones run on attributes in the foreground (cares about people like me) tied to issues in the background (a health care plan). The Obama effort seems to be something wholly different. The campaign and its marketing seems designed to evoke aspirational feelings that have virtually no political meaning whatsoever. This is what great brands do. They evoke feelings that have virtually zero connection to product attributes and specifications. … [italics in original]

Accordingly, the relative inertness of the Obama campaign is key to its marketing strength. Barack Obama equals good politics the way Nike equals good shoes, and McCain’s success will depend on getting some people to believe that McCain is Adidas to Obama’s Nike — that is to say, to prove himself an acceptable alternative to the “buyer.” However, thus far, the McCain campaign has failed to demonstrate it can properly brand the senator as a national candidate. After all, unlike the primaries, you cannot win the general election just because you’re the last man standing. You need a bigger appeal.

In conclusion, if Sen. McCain runs against Obama in the fall, he must frame the discussion as a contest between a man who brought change to American politics and a man who has merely talked about it; between a man who offers results and a man who offers hope of results; and between a man who came to Washington to work and a man who came to Washington to run for president. If, on the other hand, McCain resorts to sticking Obama repeatedly with the “liberal” label or attacking positions that have broad popular support, he will lose.

And massively so.

Beautiful Nothings About Iraq

My timezone — and a sick pet — kept me from watching the Super Bowl, but I did catch the advertisement the Obama campaign ran in 24 local Super Tuesday markets during the game. This is pretty slick:


Obama-as-rock star is one of the themes of his campaign, and I’d say the ad reflects that concept almost perfectly by packaging him as the candidate of the MTV (and post-MTV) generation. One look at the front-loaded “I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message” (with concert-level cheers in the background) and you know you’re watching at a unique candidate. The main nonpartisan criticism I foresee is that such ads will have difficulty playing outside their target market. For instance, I can’t imagine Obama winning the respect of retirees or working moms with fast-moving graphics and messages set to a rock soundtrack. Of course, the Obama campaign is smart enough not to put all of its eggs into the youth basket, right?

And now the partisan critique: as much as Obama’s ad appeals to my audiovisual pleasure center, like most things “Obama,” it leaves my rational core wanting for more substance. “Change we can believe in,” Obama’s slogan, is sweet-sounding but ultimately a beautiful nothing — it’s something an incumbent like Reagan ’84 could get away with,* but unsatisfying coming from a comparatively green politician like Obama. Along these lines, Obama’s treatment of the Iraq War has all the hallmarks of magical fairy wand politics. “We can end a war” is empowering, inspiring, and, based on Obama’s policy preferences, almost certainly wrong.

A stronger supporter of withdrawal than his main rival Ms. Clinton, Obama has advanced the progressive meme that bringing the troops home is a cure-all for the conflict. While there’s little question that Iraq, like all of America’s foreign policy, desperately needs a new direction, American withdrawals have historically been followed by increased conflict and/or instability. Some examples:

  • Vietnam, where the pullout (and subsequent cutoff of aid to the South) ensured North Vietnam’s victory;
  • Lebanon, where removal of the American “buffer” allowed for full escalation of the war;
  • Somalia, where American withdrawal not only made the life of common Somalis worse but also encouraged Osama bin Laden to step up his terrorism;
  • and Kosovo, where the lack of an American presence in the region after Milosevic was defeated allowed Kosovar Albanians to do unto the Serbs as the Serbs had done unto them.

Most signs point to a post-withdrawal Iraq being a country where Sunni and Shia continue to battle over the core of the country while Kurds “bunker up” in the increasingly autonomous north. Although I’m not predisposed to predict a “bloodbath” after the US pulls out, I think Somalia-esque failed statehood with constant low-level conflict and little working governmental infrastructure (outside of Kurdistan) might be in Iraq’s future.

After all, even if we engage Syria and Iran the way Obama desires and consequently stop the cross-border flow of small arms, Iraq has more than enough weapons in-country to keep life there nasty, brutish, and short. (Note that one of the failures of the occupation — and there were many — was the failure to seize and control enough stockpiles of Iraqi weapons.) The outcome of the ground game in Iraq probably won’t matter, however, since stopping American casualties and reigning in the Pentagon operations budget are the main concerns of the average voter.

However popular the position, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that bringing our troops home “ends the war.” For Iraqis, the war is going to continue until their spirit for war is broken or until, by virtue of agreement or ethnic cleansing, the historical conceit of Iraq unravels and the Middle East is left with three new countries. This is not to say that I endorse keeping American troops in Iraq until doomsday. I’m merely pointing out that the war is likely to continue even though American troops are no longer being killed or wounded.

The bottom line: a President Obama might be able to truly end the war in Iraq, but not with the plan put forward by candidate Obama.

* As a Reagan-loving Republican I admit that “It’s morning in America” was as equally substance-free as “Change we can believe in.”

The Transliteration Election

Americans may not know it, but the presidential election does get covered in the Chinese press. It makes sense when you think about it, since the American president holds considerable influence over China and the rest of the world, so the Chinese media (which is, in many cases, an extension of the government), actively scrutinizes the main candidates.

But whenever the Chinese media covers American politics, there’s an important decision to make, and it’s how to transliterate the names of various political figures. President Bush, for instance, sees his name transliterated as 布什 (Bushi) or semi-derisively as 小布什 (Xiao Bushi, “Little Bush”), since his father is Lao Bushi (老布什, “Old Bush”). This transliteration is limited somewhat by the rigid structure of Chinese. While an American who knows no Chinese can be taught to understand the name “Hu Jintao,” it’s difficult for non-English speaking Chinese to understand foreign names unless they are rendered using Chinese initial and final sounds.

During this election cycle, the main candidates* have had their transliterated names mentioned repeatedly on the air and in print. Hillary was already famous in China because her husband was loved by the Chinese, but the others have new names and new transliterations. Let’s take a look at how the names of the frontrunners are commonly rendered in Chinese:

  • Hillary Clinton: 希拉里 (Xilali — sounds like She·la·lee)
  • Barack Obama: 奥巴马 (Aobama — sounds like Au·bah·muh)
  • John McCain: 麦肯 (Maiken — sounds like My·kin)
  • Mitt Romney: 罗姆尼 (Luomuni — sounds like Low·moo·nee)

Let’s also throw in the also-rans:

  • Rudy Giuliani: 朱利安尼 (Zhulianni — sounds like Jew·lee·ahn·nee)
  • John Edwards: 爱德华兹 (Edwards — sounds like Ay·duh·wah·zuh)

Now, let’s review these transliterations, one by one. Just like in America, Hillary is usually referred to her by first name instead of her last name. First, we should note that “Hi–” is a sound Chinese doesn’t do well. For instance, Hillary’s name begins with the same sound as the transliteration for Hitler (希特勒, Xitele), and a few of my students have mashed her name and his together — something which would no doubt amuse the “Hitlery”-bashers on the right.

Obama, in contrast, has a name that sounds unusual even in Chinese, since the character used in his name transliteration aren’t often used together. Unlike his name in English, Chinese speakers often draw out the vowel sounds in his Chinese name, making it more distinct. The closest sounds to Obama’s name may be the Chinese transliterations of Osama bin Laden and BMW — Aosama (奥萨马) and Baoma (宝马), respectively. It’s not bad to be compared to a BMW, and as for sounding like Bin Laden, I’m ready to cut Chinese some slack for any mistakes they might make.

McCain, the Republican front-runner, has a Chinese name that sounds similar enough to his real name, but this transliteration could still give him problems, since, to Chinese ears, Maiken sounds like the names for McDonald’s (麦当劳, Maidanglao) and KFC (肯得其, Kendeqi) put together. In China, the beginnings of words may be combined as shorthand; hence 美国 (Meiguo, America) and 欧洲 (Ouzhou, Europe) are often combined as 欧美 (Oumei) to mean “the West.” While McCain’s transliteration might be a fitting representation of America’s contribution to global culture, being called President McKFC doesn’t seem all that … presidential.

Romney’s name transliteration sounds a bit like someone saying Romney with a bad cold. When drunk. I have nothing more to add.

As for the two former candidates, though he’s already dropped out of the race, Giuliani had about the most direct transliteration, with both the sounds and the syllables well-represented. Edwards’ Chinese name, on the other hand, is a mess — it has an extra syllable and the wrong sounds, thanks to Chinese problems with r and blends like dw and rd. Finally, both names are a mouthful to say, and Chinese newsreaders may feel like they’ve dodged a bullet since Giuliani and Edwards left the race.

The overall winner of the transliteration election is Barack Obama. Why? The transliteration is good and has few negative connotations besides the obvious one pointed out above. While the rhythm of his name changes a bit in Chinese, it remains euphonious. The best reason for the win is that Obama’s name is just fun to say in Chinese. It’s not enough to make me vote for him,** but it’s enough to make me smile.

* Sorry, Ron Paul gets no love in the Chinese press.

** The Obama campaign can breathe easy because I’ve decided not to vote for his opponents, either.