In Praise of Flip-Floppers

When it comes to presidents and foreign policy, changing your mind is as American as apple pie.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Perhaps no cardinal sin is quite as grave in contemporary American politics as "flip-flopping." A windsurfing for-it-before-I-was-against-it John Kerry can certainly attest to that, and in the current election cycle, the charge has used to great effect against Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who has battled accusations of flip-flopping from the early primaries through the final stretch of the general election, where President Barack Obama has taken to diagnosing the former Massachusetts governor with "Romnesia."

This charge is not without merit. Even in the realm of foreign policy, where he has arguably been more consistent than on domestic issues, Romney has vacillated between divergent positions on a number of key issues, including the wisdom of: military raids against senior al Qaeda operatives on Pakistani territory, U.S. forces withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, breaking with former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, seeking a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and allowing Iran to retain some nuclear enrichment capability as part of a deal to rein in Tehran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions. Romney has also appeared internally conflicted over whether al Qaeda, Iran, or Russia constitutes America’s greatest national security threat.

Flip-flopping is not entirely a trivial matter either. After all, in a representative democracy like America’s, voters have to have faith that their elected officials will dutifully carry out their interests. If they can’t be sure of a candidate’s positions beforehand, they can hardly be certain that the candidate will ably carry out their wishes if elected to office, right?

Nonetheless, at least in foreign policy, America has historically been far better served by flip-floppers than by uncompromising leaders wedded to predetermined policies and ideology. The fast-changing nature of the world today magnifies the importance of electing a president who isn’t afraid to change his mind when the facts dictate it.

You might even say flip-flopping is as American as apple pie — and the practice actually predates the Republic itself. After throwing off the yoke of the British monarchy, the American colonists established a weak confederacy out of their fear of creating another political leviathan. Faced with a perilous external environment — surrounded, as they were by all of the era’s great powers — and soon beset by internal unrest, the founding fathers quickly reversed this decision, wrote a new constitution, and created a capable federal government.

And the flip-flopping didn’t stop there. George Washington, for instance, abdicated from America’s treaty responsibilities to France once Paris became embroiled in a war with its European neighbors. Thomas Jefferson derided the Federalists for expanding the country territorially and enlarging the powers of the federal government before becoming president, only to vastly expand the country by purchasing Louisiana from Napoleon and deploy U.S. marines halfway around the world to combat the Barbary pirates. Jefferson’s successor and closest political confidant, James Madison, belied his agrarian and small government leanings by taking the young Republic to war against England, ostensibly to protect America’s merchant shipping, and by attempting to seize Canada no less than three times during the course of that conflict.

More recently, both Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt adamantly pledged to keep the American people out of the world wars in Europe while seeking re-election, only to take the country down that very road after securing another term (though in FDR’s case, it took Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor before the president could convince the American people of the wisdom of this policy). Richard Nixon rose to prominence on the basis of his anti-communist credentials, only to court Maoist China in perhaps the single-largest diplomatic coup of the Cold War. And while George H.W. Bush’s "realist" administration was initially skeptical of Mikhael Gorbachev’s grandiose rhetoric about ending that decades-long showdown, it quickly became the strongest advocate of providing Moscow with a soft landing.

In contrast, some of America’s biggest foreign policy blunders have resulted from uncompromising leaders refusing to revise their policies in the face of changing circumstances. Wilson, for instance, saw his "League of Nations" through to completion despite the mounting opposition he encountered at the Paris Peace Conference and in Congress, which made the institution all but unworkable.

John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to a "flexible response" doctrine convinced them to gradually increase support to South Vietnam despite clear evidence that the conflict was unwinnable. The George W. Bush administration’s conviction that its troops would be "greeted as liberators" and that the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs had made invading Iraq a cost-free undertaking proved unshaken when the country’s top military leaders dissented from the administration’s rosy assessment about the cost of an invasion. Later, the administration refused to acknowledge an insurgency had taken hold in Iraq long after evidence ruled out any other conclusion.

The current administration has also been well-served by flip-flopping, the president’s "Romnesia" charge notwithstanding. Despite pledging to rein in the excesses of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies as a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama has strengthened, expanded, and begun institutionalizing many of these extra-legal powers. At this point, the administration’s counterterrorism policies against al Qaeda have proven remarkably successful, as Vice President Joe Biden is fond of reminding voters.

At other times, the administration’s refusal to flip-flop has been detrimental to U.S. interests. For example, while running for president in 2008, Obama advocated adopting a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy toward what he called a "war of necessity" in Afghanistan, mostly to preempt charges that he was weak on national security because he opposed the Iraq war. Although he temporarily wavered from this position once the true costs of executing a COIN strategy in Afghanistan were made apparent to him, ultimately he kept this campaign pledge. Few people, least of all the American electorate, view this decision positively.

Should Romney become president, his mastery of the art of flip-flopping may be his greatest asset in handling America’s foreign affairs. Indeed, in the fast-changing world the U.S. currently finds itself in, the ability to quickly abandon policies that have been overtaken by events should be a prerequisite for any person seeking higher office.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola