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The foreign-policy shift that wasn’t

In response to William Kristol’s lament that John McCain’s advocacy of the surge in Iraq lost him the election while winning the war, Fareed Zakaria writes: Let us imagine that the surge had not worked. Imagine that over the past year and a half, American deaths in Iraq had soared, the gruesome civil war between ...

In response to William Kristol’s lament that John McCain’s advocacy of the surge in Iraq lost him the election while winning the war, Fareed Zakaria writes:

Let us imagine that the surge had not worked. Imagine that over the past year and a half, American deaths in Iraq had soared, the gruesome civil war between Shiites and Sunnis had deepened, the
flow of refugees out of Iraq had increased and the government in Baghdad had lost control of the country to gangs and militias. Would Americans then have turned to the most passionate advocate of the surge and given him the presidency?

Zakaria means this to be a rhetorical question, but I think it’s actually worth pondering. If the top story in every nightly news broadcast throughout October had been about terrorists killing U.S. soldiers instead of corporate meltdowns, would Americans really have voted for a candidate who (perhaps unfairly) was best known for his pledge to negotiate with extremists?

When terrorism is at the forefront of voters’ minds, they tend to favor more hawkish candidates and Barack Obama actually fared worse than John Kerry with voters whose top concerns were terrorism or Iraq. Luckily for him, there were far fewer of these voters in this election.

Zakaria continues:

The electorate has seemed to sense that there is a new world out there and that the nostrums presented by McCain in his campaign are irrelevant to it. […] The vigorous unilateralism openly advocated by the administration is recognized by most Americans to have weakened the country’s influence abroad."

Wishful thinking. If anything, voters saw Obama’s foreign-policy vision as not objectionable enough to outweigh his perceived superiority on economic issues.

It’s true that Obama probably has a better chance of enacting change in foreign policy than on the economic conditions that won him the election. U.S. presidents are generally elected for their stances on domestic issues and remembered for their actions on international ones. But interpreting this election as a major shift in how the United States views its place in the world is probably premature.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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