One more reason why debating foreign policy is tough in presidential campaign season

One more reason why debating foreign policy is tough in presidential campaign season

The commentariat is having a field day zinging Governor Perry for his response to the 3 am phone call question in the most recent Republican primary debate. Perry’s response was indeed rambling, though perhaps not wandering so far afield as some commentators have claimed. Even though he seemed to misstate who rejected whom on the India-F-16 deal, Perry was right that U.S.-India relations are intimately affected by, and themselves affect, U.S.-Pakistan relations.  The effects are often pernicious, and improving relations with India does not always  improve relations with Pakistan,  but it would be folly to pretend that one can deal with Pakistan without factoring in how India affects Islamabad’s strategic calculus.

What interests me about this exchange, however, is the difficulty of debating foreign policy in a sound-bite campaign. Of course, domestic policy is also complex and so the sound-bite constraint surely dumbs down debate in that arena as well. But at least in domestic policy, most Americans have first-hand experience with the issues in some format. Familiarity offers the hope that sound-bites are heuristics that link to a more complete visceral understanding of an issue. With foreign policy, even that hope goes beyond naive into the realm of far-farfetched.

This constraint also appears to operate with the reporters who are doing the questioning. Their command of domestic policy may be weak, but their command of foreign policy is noticeably weaker. Even when they have substantial experience and so should know better, they can mess it up — consider the way one veteran reporter, Glenn Kessler, fumbled a fact-checking exercise on one of Perry’s foreign policy stances.

It is not simply a matter of media bias. Even a media figure obviously sympathetic to one party can inadvertently confound a candidate from that side who is trying to advance a sophisticated foreign policy argument. Consider how Bill O’Reilly handled Mitt Romney in this exchange.

The interesting part of the exchange is not the bit about bin Laden. Rather, it’s how O’Reilly expressed impatience with Romney’s discussion of the Iran-Russia link.

Romney was advancing one of the most sophisticated foreign policy critiques I have heard in the current campaign: that Obama had simultaneously mishandled both the Russia and the Iranian files by making concessions to Russia on missile defense without getting in exchange comparable concessions on Iranian sanctions. Russia finally did make some token concessions, but this was after months of blocking efforts to put pressure on Iran. Romney’s comments showed that he had a remarkably nuanced understanding of Obama’s Iran policy and that he also understood the ways it intersected other policy lines. If he had had more time, perhaps Romney could have developed the critique further, pointing out how the missed opportunity was especially consequential because it intersected other missed opportunities on Iran.

But we won’t know whether Romney could have developed the critique even further because his response was already too nuanced and long-winded for the television medium. I understand that television is an entertainment medium and that good entertainment requires snappy soundbites. But good foreign policymaking requires leaders to have a command of the issues — yes even the boring parts of the issues. Before he got interrupted, Romney was showing that he had that command, at least on the Iran question. Yet it didn’t seem to help him and may even have started to count against him.

I hope as the campaign unfolds there will be opportunities for the deeper exchanges of the sort Romney was trying to have and I hope the Republican nominee will be up to that task.