War policy offers edge for Obama

May 30, 2012, 2:15 a.m.

Foreign policy will likely be a “net plus” for President Barack Obama in the upcoming 2012 election, Professor Emeritus of History David Kennedy asserted Tuesday evening to a packed Bechtel Conference Room.

“There’s some reason to think that foreign policy will be a plus for Obama in the 2012 campaign,” Kennedy said. “He’s delivered on his promise to wind down the Iraq War and has largely wound down the Afghan War.”

Kennedy was one of three panelists at the event, titled “The 2012 U.S. Presidential Election and U.S. Foreign Policy.” David Brady, professor of political science and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Michael Armacost, a former U.S. ambassador and fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), joined Kennedy in a discussion moderated by Coit Blacker, FSI Director.

War policy offers edge for Obama
Coit Blacker, Professor David Kennedy, Professor David Brady, and former Ambassador Michael Armacost analyzed the role of foreign policy in the upcoming U.S. presidential Campaign on Tuesday afternoon. (NICK SALAZAR/The Stanford Daily)

Kennedy opened the event by arguing that a constitutional separation of foreign policy responsibilities — between the ability of Congress to declare war and the president’s role as commander in chief and treaty negotiator — has led to natural discord between the branches of government.

“That division of power constitutes…an invitation to conflict,” Kennedy said.

He acknowledged that foreign policy successes and setbacks have historically tended to accrue to the president rather than the legislative branch.

In attempting to establish a correlation between notable foreign policy incidents and electoral outcomes, Kennedy said he was only able to establish positive correlation between winding down a predecessor’s conflict and an electoral benefit.

Brady followed Kennedy and attributed less significance to foreign policy in an electoral context. He said instead that the health of the economy — or voters’ perception thereof — is the critical factor in determining the incumbent’s chance of re-election.

He acknowledged, however, that as demonstrated by electoral setbacks sustained by Democrats in 1952 and 1968 during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, foreign policy has historically been the variable most likely to distort the impact of a healthy economy.

“In both cases, opposition to [ongoing wars] was sufficient to give victory to the Republicans,” Brady noted, despite the relative economic prosperity at the time.

According to Brady, the upcoming election may mark a reversal in the two political parties’ mastery of the foreign policy issue, with Obama currently enjoying a polling advantage over presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney on a subject Republicans have traditionally dominated.

“Going into this election, foreign policy is an Obama strength,” Brady said. “Most Americans favor [the Democrats’] policies, so in the absence of some dramatic event, as of today, the Democrats have an advantage on foreign policy worth two to three points in the election.”

Armacost cited his own experiences as a diplomat in detailing the impact of the election process on the conduct of foreign policy.

“Domestic considerations always intrude on making foreign policy,” Armacost said. “Elections have an increasingly powerful effect because they start earlier and last longer.”

While acknowledging that the time and political requirements of campaigning have often necessitated a relatively diminished focus on foreign policy by presidents seeking re-election, Armacost said that the incumbent has a unique ability to implement narrative-changing foreign policy course corrections, citing as an example Obama’s recent “pivot” toward Asia.

“Those are policies that have rather widespread support, and they represent good positioning for the election,” Armacost said.

Armacost, however, said there is currently little chance of a dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward contentious issues such as Iran or North Korea, citing the possibility of uncontrolled escalation.

“Crises can be beneficial because people rally around the flag,” Armacost said. “It will only be beneficial [ultimately] if he manages it well.”

Quizzed by Blacker about the potential impact of Iran’s nuclear policy program on the upcoming election, all three panelists downplayed any advantage to be gained by either candidate in escalating the issue but noted that an eventual conflict may become unavoidable.

“If the Israelis make the decision to go after what they see as an existential threat, the president would have to support them,” Armacost said.

Questioning from the audience focused largely on contemporary issues facing the presidential candidates in the run-up to the election.

Responding to a question posed by Political Science Professor Mike Tomz on the impact of proposed defense cuts on the 2012 election, Armacost noted that the issue may be politically sensitive for both parties and will likely occupy only a secondary role in the campaign.

“They’re going to talk about the economy, and they’re going to talk about jobs,” Brady added. “It’s going to be a nasty campaign.”

When asked by Matthew Colford ’14 about potential criticisms of Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring and the subsequent geopolitical scene in the Middle East, Brady argued that despite some Republican criticism of Obama’s alleged timidity on the movement, the issue will gain little traction with the electorate.

“The American people are happy we’re getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Brady said. “Romney can push that viewpoint, but it’s not where the American people are.”

Marshall Watkins is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily, having previously worked as the paper's executive editor and as the managing editor of news. Marshall is a junior from London majoring in Economics, and can be reached at mtwatkins "at" stanford "dot" edu.

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