Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is the author of the new ebook, The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.
By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN
As President Obama prepares to give his State of the Union message and the GOP field continues an intense battle for the Republican nomination to challenge him this fall, many pundits and political strategists are opining that this year the presidential race “will not be a foreign policy election.” While they are surely right that the American economy, and its woes, loom largest in the fight for the White House, I believe that foreign policy will matter a lot too.
It always does.
Here’s why. First, the intangibles. Presidents have unusual power in our political system to make and lead foreign policy. This is partly because they run our diplomacy, partly because they are commanders in chief of the military and partly because Congress’s war powers are feeble. Mr. Obama cannot, and has not, dominated the domestic or budgetary agenda since taking over the White House. But not surprisingly, he has dominated American foreign policy.
This fact means his legacy is largely, to date, about his foreign policy. It also means that voters, recognizing the importance of the chief executive in national security matters, will weight this general subject more than polls may suggest.
Sometimes this dynamic is indirect or hard to discern, but it is always there. For example, consider how American voters reach their verdict about whether or not a presidential candidate is a good leader. This matter is important even when, technically speaking, polls suggest that individual national security issues may not matter too much to voters in a given year. Because the president is in charge on foreign policy, more or less, voters have a direct window into his leadership skills by watching him handle this set of subjects—more than they do, say, in watching how Washington creates a new tax code or even a new health care bill. So to a large extent, how voters assess leadership skills is based on how they believe a president or wanna-be president would protect the nation and advance its global interests.
Presidents are important across all areas of policy, to be sure. But they can screw up national security a lot more easily than they can mess up the economy. They have their finger on the nuclear trigger, after all, and they can send the finest military ever fielded in the history of the planet into numerous types of engagements with only a very modest role at first for the Congress in many situations. Voters know this, too.
And consider the specific substantive issues before us in 2012. Obama may have to watch Iran reach a point of no return in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, or alternatively choose to attack it to prevent such an outcome. He could have a major crisis with North Korea under that nation’s new and untried leadership.
The Syrian unrest could morph into full-scale civil war. Or violence there could increase further, exceeding the scale of killings that led NATO and the Arab League to intervene last year in Libya. That could force a very tough decision about whether to let the situation spiral out of control or send U.S. ground forces back into the very Middle East region Obama has been trying so hard to extract them from.
And I haven’t even yet mentioned Afghanistan or Pakistan, in this litany, or the possibility of another al Qaeda attack reaching American shores from such places. While Americans may not care much about most possible developments in these distant lands, they would certainly take note if terrorism again affected homeland security directly, or put the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal at risk.
Then there’s also the fact that economic policy is no longer domestic policy. Trade, currency issues, the future of the Euro, and energy issues all affect it directly. Foreign policy plays a big role on all of these.
So yes, I too acknowledge that the economy is issue #1. But don’t put foreign policy and national security too far behind. They never are, and they certainly shouldn’t be now.