Foreign Policy Debate a Battle of Rhetoric Vs. Reality

Candidates' foreign policy positions don't always win points in the presidency.

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Violent revolutions in the Arab world. The European debt crisis. The opportunity to kill Osama bin Laden. All had yet to appear on the radar screen during the 2008 presidential primary, but all have required consequential policy decisions from President Obama, the elected commander-in-chief. Then there was Afghanistan, which the campaigning Senator Obama called a "war of necessity," with which Obama put pressure on himself to act and then had to answer politically for both a surge and his tentative exit strategy.

[Read: GOP Candidates Say Europe Should Solve Its Own Debt Crises.]

As Republican presidential contenders gear up for a debate on foreign policy Saturday night, experts say it's important for voters, and the candidates themselves, to remember examples like these as a lesson that campaign rhetoric can be much easier to produce than presidential action on the world stage.

In an election focused on the economy, foreign policy has so far taken a back seat. But, for a president—and most especially for a U.S. president—foreign policy is a major part of the job description, argues Reginald Dale, a senior fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies's Europe Program. According to Dale, the world is looking for someone who can stand his ground with world leaders like Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, appear at G20 summits, and react to "the famous 3 a.m. red telephone ringing in the White House." But, he says, so far, the Republican contest has disappointed.

"You're running to be leader of the free world, or leader of the Western world, and the whole issue is whether your tax plan is better than somebody else's tax plan for U.S. taxes," Dale says. "The West and the world needs a strong leader who can help with these problems, and it's as if the Republicans are running for chief accountant for the U.S. economy."

The GOP field's hero, President Ronald Reagan, was an example of how a candidate devoted to domestic issues can evolve into a mostly outward-looking president, says Bob Inman, national policy chair at University of Texas' Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. "His first year, 90 percent of his time was spent on domestic issues, and 10 percent on foreign policy. By the end of his time, it was almost exactly the opposite. That's just the necessity of what happens in the office."

[See our gallery of political cartoons on the Arab Spring.]

However, given the nature of foreign policy issues, there may be a reason why many candidates choose to be vague on the campaign trail. "They can be very explicit on what they want to do domestically," Inman says. "On the international side, they need to be much more circumspect of not creating problems for themselves if they are elected."

President Obama's positions on Afghanistan as senator pushed him into a corner politically when he got to office, Inman argues. And already, he says, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumed GOP front-runner, may already be doing the same thing, especially when it comes to China and Iran.

Romney has come down strong on China in his campaign, blaming the nation's leaders for American job losses and vowing to declare China a currency manipulator if he's president. On Iran, also, he recently promised "a very real and very credible military option" to deal with the country's growing nuclear program. While these strong positions can win him points with voters now, Dale says, if he takes office, he'll be expected to follow through, even if that means an irreversible trade war with China, or major fallout in the Middle East.

It's also one thing for a candidate like Romney to argue for tough military options, and another thing to say if and how he would use them, Dale says. "It's all very well to say. This administration would [even] have to say that the military option is not completely off the table," he says. "But what is there between the military option and current policies of trying to tighten the squeeze through sanctions and diplomatic pressure, given that the current policy doesn't work?" 

[Read: Ken Walsh: Hope Is Dead in 2012.]

For voters watching the foreign policy debate tomorrow, Inman says, the best thing they can do is look for the person they think can make a smart decision when the time comes. For the candidates themselves, he just offers the advice, "Say less, and try as best you can to just do good old common sense."

  • Read: GOP Candidates Say Europe Should Solve Its Own Debt Crises
  • Read: Ken Walsh: Hope Is Dead in 2012
  • See our gallery of political cartoons on the Arab Spring