No, foreign policy matters in elections — even in years when people think it doesn’t

No, foreign policy matters in elections — even in years when people think it doesn’t

By Richard Fontaine

Best Defense department of politico-policy affairs

As your post and nearly every article on the subject notes, "everyone knows" that 2012 will not be a foreign policy election. As the polls demonstrate, four-fifths of Americans want the president to focus on domestic issues, not international ones, and less than five percent of voters list foreign policy as the most important issue in the election. No surprises here; the U.S. is in difficult economic straits, and as the United States winds down in Afghanistan after ending the war in Iraq, pocketbook issues will dominate the campaign.  

This does not mean, however, that voters will not consider foreign policy as they enter the voting booth. Both eventual candidates, the incumbent president included, will have to demonstrate to the electorate that they pass the commander-in-chief credibility threshold.  They must demonstrate that they have the knowledge, the temperament, the skills and the wisdom to lead a superpower in times of both peril and plenty. If they can cross this threshold, they will still have to make a winning case on domestic issues. If they cannot, no amount of focus on the American pocketbook will salvage their chances. Foreign policy will matter in 2012.  

This is one reason why some of the Republican candidates were felled by foreign policy gaffes, even in a year when those gaffes might be seen as unimportant. It’s also why the candidates will work so hard to tout their own foreign policy credentials — and undermine their opponents’ — during this long campaign. Expect to see months of talk about the economy, jobs, and the proper size of government. These are important debates, and the candidate who can put together the most compelling platform will be the likely victor. 

But expect also to see healthy doses of foreign policy here and there between now and November. The commander-in-chief hopeful who ignores it completely does so at his peril. 

Richard Fontaine is a senior advisor at the Center for a New American Security and teaches the politics of national security in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He previously served at the State Department, on the National Security Council staff, and as foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain, including during the 2008 presidential election.