x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

US presidents soon forget the bluster of the campaign trail

Republican candidates sound alarmingly strange about foreign policy, but primary promises in this field only rarely mean very much.

Citizens of the wider world watching the US presidential campaign could be forgiven for feeling a little alarmed by the bomb-throwing foreign policy debate. In the Republican presidential primary, the surging Newt Gingrich, for example, dismisses the Palestinians as "an invented people", and warns that as president he would immediately direct the relevant US forces to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba. Changing regimes (and political geography) would in fact be a hallmark of Mr Gingrich's promised foreign policy, with Iran top of the list.

Running in Mr Gingrich's shadow, Rick Santorum vows to bomb Iran, which he likens to an oil-rich Al Qaeda. And talking of Al Qaeda, Mr Santorum warns that Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua have made common cause with "jihadists", bringing them steadily closer to American shores, while President Barack Obama ignores the danger. Rick Perry, before he bowed out, added that Turkey is, in fact, governed by "Islamic terrorists". He also vowed to reinvade Iraq.

Mr Obama, in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, made clear he intends to fight the election solely on the issue of the economy, devoting less than a minute of his speech to reissuing some boilerplate foreign policy statements. But with his opponents painting him as weak on Iran, he vowed to keep "all options on the table" should it fail to capitulate on its nuclear programme, but stressed that he preferred a diplomatic solution. He may have little political space now to make public conciliatory gestures, but the short shrift he gave to the issue suggested he's not exactly preparing Americans for war.

The video-game radicalism of Mr Gingrich and Mr Santorum may be less important because the party's establishment - and the bulk of its campaign money - is solidly behind Mitt Romney, deemed more "electable" than his more conservative rivals. But even Mr Romney promises a radical shake-up of US foreign policy.

Negotiations with the Taliban? No way. Mr Romney has pilloried Mr Obama for planning to withdraw by 2014. He has also accused Mr Obama of "throwing Israel under a bus" - an accusation that will come as news to all of its neighbours. Mr Romney also promises to get tough with China, declaring it a currency manipulator and promising appropriate action. And he makes the somewhat bizarre promise: "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon … If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon."

But while GOP hopefuls vow to set the East ablaze if they manage to unseat Mr Obama, it's worth remembering that the track record demonstrates that campaign promises of dramatic changes in foreign policy are almost invariably forgotten by the winning candidate once in office.

Just ask the anti-war Democrats who propelled Mr Obama to his party's nomination what happened to his promises to close the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, for example, or to engage with Iran or to press for Middle East peace. President George W Bush, as a candidate, had promised a realist policy recognising the limits on America's ability to remake the world.

American voters aren't much interested in foreign policy, particularly when the economy is in such poor state. So when it's discussed at all on the campaign trail, the candidates default to crowd-pleasing posturing, always casting themselves as tougher and more principled than the incumbent - which, of course, they are, until they find themselves shackled to the realities of power.

Attacking a Democratic president as weak on national security is de rigueur for Republicans, just as trash-talking China and promising to love Israel more and better than the incumbent has become a campaign standard for candidates of both parties.

In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton courted the pro-Israel vote by promising to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City. Candidate George W Bush promised the same, if elected. And candidate Obama in 2008 vowed that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel", but the US hasn't formally recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and its embassy remains in Tel Aviv.

Now, Mr Gingrich and Mr Santorum are echoing Bill Clinton's embassy promise. Mr Romney has said simply that he'll consult with Israel on the matter. But the next US president is no more likely to move the embassy than previous ones were.

It's easy for Mr Romney to promise to beat the Taliban rather than talk to them. Just as easy as it is for Mr Gingrich to deny Palestinian existence. Or Mr Santorum to posit a jihadist invasion of the US via Cuba. There's no requirement that statements made on the campaign trail be moored to reality, much less be eventually implemented.

Reading through Mr Romney's more detailed foreign policy document, what's most striking is that much of it could describe the current administration's policies, which in turn have displayed more continuity with Bush administration policies than any of Mr Obama's campaign rhetoric would have suggested. The Cold War-era adage that "politics stops at the water's edge" remains very much in effect. Sure, the Bush era demonstrated that presidents can make radical changes in foreign policy. The point, however, is that you would never have guessed those changes were coming from what was said on the campaign trail. Candidate George W Bush, remember, eschewed "nation-building" and promised "a humble foreign policy".


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TonyKaron