Why the 2016 Campaigners’ Cliff’s Notes Should Include ISIS, Ukraine, and the Middle East

It might seem like the U.S. public doesn’t care about foreign policy, but it would be a big mistake for presidential hopefuls to ignore foreign policy. Huge.

Hillary Clinton Addresses National Automobile Dealers Association Convention
NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 27: Former U.S. Seceratary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the 10th National Automobile Dealers Association Convention on January 27, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. According to reports, Clinton said during a question and answer session at the convention that he biggest regret was the attack on Americans in Benghazi. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

If we were to consider — even some 20 months out — how important foreign policy will be in the 2016 U.S. elections, a smart take from inside the Beltway might sound something like this: Sure, foreign policy is important, but most of the time just not to most Americans who vote.

Americans continue to be singularly uninterested in matters beyond their borders unless, of course, bad things that are far away come much closer to home. (See large numbers of Americans dying in wars on foreign soil, rising gas prices, and terrorist threats to the homeland.)

But even the latter — and the dire predictions from our leaders of terrorist attacks — often can’t shake Americans’ collective complacency. Despite Americans’ intense horror over the Islamic State’s beheadings and a decrease in their satisfaction over the way the terrorist threat is being handled, a January 2015 Gallup poll found that only 2 percent of those surveyed identified terrorism as the most important problem facing the United States. Clearly a single consequential terrorist attack directed from outside would change that.

Still, aspiring presidential candidates of both parties, beware (particularly governors without much national security know-how): Foreign policy may well loom larger in the 2016 presidential campaign than it has in the past. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re going to be vulnerable. President Gerald Ford never really recovered from his gaffe in his 1976 debate with candidate Jimmy Carter in which he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” even though that’s not what the president intended to say. And if you do know what you’re talking about, well, you just might score a few points with voters because experts or not when it comes to foreign policy, Americans, particularly in our crisis-driven world, want their presidents to be confident and know what they’re talking about — or at least make a great case that they do. So foreign policy will matter. And here’s why.

Handling 24/7 Crises

Today’s world is hardly a more dangerous or explosive place than it was in the 1930s and 1940s, when world war, genocide, depression, and expansionist totalitarian powers threatened global order and stability. But it often feels that way now, a veritable world on fire. Maybe that sensation is a result of a 24/7 media that turns breaking news into an interminable nonstop cycle of breathlessly delivered catastrophes. Combined with our seemingly willful determination to ignore or trivialize the past and handle these crises with almost no sense of historical perspective, we focus more on the headlines than the trend lines. Everything from Putin and Crimea to Ebola to the Islamic State is perceived as part of a new and unprecedented world on fire and is constantly being presented as a veritable game-changer.

These are very real challenges. But our 24/7 relentless media and our tendency to focus on headlines instead of trend lines with no sense of historical perspective turns everything into a collective gestalt that the world is somehow coming apart.

And so Americans are bombarded by a seemingly uninterrupted parade of crises that mostly occur abroad. Russia’s moves to annex Crimea and support separatist forces in Ukraine bring echoes of the Cold War; the Middle East continues to melt down; and this region’s newest horror — the Islamic State — demonstrates its barbarity and savagery on an almost daily basis. Middle Eastern terrorism stalks Europe too. Worse, there are no quick or easy solutions. All of these are long movies that will likely play on as America struggles to come up with effective responses in a world of long shots and insoluble problems.

And that virtually guarantees that presidential candidates — whether in debates or during routine campaigning — will be pressed to make sense of it all. It’s virtually unimaginable that at some point during what is likely to be a year and a half campaign that some crisis, most likely in the Middle East, or even an attack at home, won’t present the candidates with the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call scenario — as in the candidates will have an opportunity to stump on how they would’ve responded in the hot seat. And in our crisis-laden and media-driven world, particularly during election season, there may well be more than one.

Leading From the Front or Behind

Indeed, the 3 a.m. phone call conceit for most Americans is less about the details and complexities of the foreign-policy universe than who has the smarts and experience to lead. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign spot — your children are sleeping; there’s a phone call to the White House about some problem in the world; whom do you want answering that phone? — gets to that issue. Bottom line: Americans want to know that their presidents are up to the job and that they possess the calm, smarts, and toughness to handle the middle-of-the-night crisis

Sure foreign-policy facts are important here — really important, if you fumble them. But in the end, what makes or breaks a candidate’s chances in this scenario — the real measuring stick in this hypothetical — is really about character. Voters are going to want to know: Which among these presidential candidates is going to be wise enough — and have the stature to stand up for American interests abroad with the appropriate sense of caution and prudence to keep the United States out of reckless military ventures abroad? And when the occasion does require action, will this person be able to command the force necessary to protect U.S. interests?

Here the Republicans have a ready-made and well-rehearsed narrative to roll out, particularly during the general election. Whatever the merits of the argument, the Republicans will continue to hammer home the “leading from behind” narrative in order to cast doubt on anyone associated with Barack Obama and to show that his policies are responsible for much of the current mess. And they will try to use the crisis-ridden Middle East to make it stick. The notion that an inexperienced Democratic president has abdicated America’s responsibilities abroad and is perceived as feckless by America’s allies and adversaries alike is already a dominant Republican campaign staple.

Whether it’s Jeb Bush or Scott Walker who ends up as the Republican front-runner and eventual party candidate, this theme will keep turning up. You might think that the former would be careful about becoming too closely identified with his brother’s unpopular Iraq War and the advisors who supported it. By the looks of the foreign-policy team advising the former Florida governor — 19 of the 21 names have previously served in either his brother’s or his father’s administration — this doesn’t seem to be the case. If the candidate is Walker, the Wisconsin governor will have to bone up on his foreign-policy expertise and not suggest so casually that taking on 100,000 protesters gives him the wherewithal to handle the world’s problems. And it’s clear he’s trying to take crash courses in how to do so.

Obama isn’t running again. But Republicans will run against the policies he has presided over, particularly on terrorism, in an effort to tar his successor and create a frame for a more muscular foreign policy. They will charge that too early an exit from Iraq and not enough muscle in Syria have enabled the Islamic State to expand and have threatened U.S. interests. Should another terrorist attack directed from abroad occur on U.S. soil, this argument may well sway voters, however unconcerned Americans say they are about terrorism as a major problem for the United States. And with the U.S. economy improving, Republicans may see greater value in shifting the focus to foreign policy. According to a CNN/ORC poll, 57 percent of the public is already unhappy with the way the president is handling the Islamic State and thinks the approach is failing.

The Clinton Card

Whether the “leading from behind” trope will stick to Hillary Clinton is another matter. On the one hand, she was Obama’s secretary of state and supported and acquiesced in the president’s foreign policies. On certain issues, particularly Syria and dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, she wanted to be tougher. But on diplomacy with Iran and getting tough with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she sided with the president. How she is going to walk that fine line? Conveying a tougher posture than her president while not walking away from him and the policies she supported will be no easy task.

It will be doubly difficult for her precisely because she touts her foreign-policy experience. So the bull’s-eye on her campaign back will be bigger. Then there are those pesky other State Department distractions — email-gate, Benghazi, and trying to square her staunch defense of women’s rights with the Clinton Foundation’s taking money from some pretty anti-feminist Saudis and Gulfies.

One way is to change the channel and try to focus on her foreign-policy expertise. She is hands down the most experienced of the field on foreign policy. For one thing, Clinton could be the first secretary of state since James Buchanan to ascend to the presidency. And private email account or not, and Benghazi too, she will argue that the cruel and dangerous world beyond America’s shores mandates that a president know that world. Of course, Clinton’s Republican opponents will almost certainly want to focus on foreign policy in an effort to show that Clinton doesn’t know the world. Her rivals (and eventually ultimate rival) will likely try to use issues such as the attack on the Benghazi diplomatic compound and her support for Obama’s Iran policy and criticism of Netanyahu to prove that she is weak and that she doesn’t understand how to deal with America’s enemies or allies.

In many elections, foreign policy doesn’t count all that much. But in this one it just might. With the economy improving and with the cruel and unpredictable world beyond America’s shores, in 2016 foreign policy is going to assume a much bigger role in who Americans look to lead them. From possible terrorist attacks at home, to what to do about an AUMF and the use of force, to dealing with Putin’s next move on the Euro-chessboard, there’s no running away from the world in this election, probably right up to Election Day.

So candidates, dust off that atlas; start boning up now on which states border Ukraine, the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, and what distinguishes the Islamic State from al-Nusra Front. A few months from now you just might be called on to come up with the answers.

Photo credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

About the Author

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. @aarondmiller2

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. @aarondmiller2
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