Dan Drezner stuck a fascinating hypothesis about presidential politics down at the end of a post about foreign policy, and I want to highlight it because as far as I know no one has ever addressed this question.
This brings me to the final reason that I’m a bit more sanguine than Beinart about recent foreign policy rhetoric: it doesn’t matter all that much. Statements about how one would do things better on the foreign policy front are among the best examples of cheap talk you’ll find in Washington. Why? Because the world will look different in January 2017 than it does today. So of course these proto-candidates can say they’d do things differently. No one will hold them to these claims if they’re elected, because the problems will have evolved.
We know that politicians tend to keep their promises, or at least try to. Is foreign policy different than other issues? I don’t know.
One problem with Drezner’s hypothesis is that it’s possible that specific promises don’t matter much, but general approach does. Politicians do more than make promises about specific issues (“I will go to Korea” or “I will end the war in Iraq”). They also make implicit or explicit promises about all sorts of future behavior; John McCain may not quite have promised to be a foreign policy hawk or specifically committed himself to any particular intervention in 2008, but anyone watching him believed that they knew his general foreign-policy orientation.
Of course, politicians don’t always keep their general promises (remember George W. Bush’s interest in foreign-policy modesty?). But they usually try to, unless there's an awfully strong reason that they shouldn't. Perhaps, however, the connection between general approach and specific actions leaves enough wiggle room that it doesn’t really constrain presidents. A President McCain may have promised to be a hawk, but he still might have chosen not to intervene in Syria or Ukraine or any other specific crisis without breaking his overall promise.
Even so, out-of-date specific promises can also constrain presidents when they are close enough analogues for new situations. Campaign comments about a conflict between Russia and Georgia might be irrelevant by 2009, but dragged out during a new conflict in Ukraine. No two situations are identical, but they're often close enough (that's true for domestic policy too).
Presidents are also constrained by party ties. That’s actually a two-fold bind: Candidates are forced to make promises along party lines, and then modern, party-centered presidents staff their administrations with partisan governing professionals (secretaries of defense for Democratic presidents notwithstanding). So at the elite level, the dominance of party almost certainly reduces the president’s choices. Partisanship, however, cuts both ways: A president can generally count on strong partisans to stick with him even if he embraces an unfamiliar position. Thus, in some cases Democrats approved of Barack Obama’s foreign-policy choices, even though they had hated similar policies from George W. Bush.1
My guess is that the real reason foreign-policy talk is cheap is that it’s even more likely than other campaign rhetoric to be cliche-ridden mush. Politicians want to be tough with whichever enemy is in the news this week. They all want peace in the Middle East (but fully support Israel). They all want to everything resolved peacefully without surrendering anything to anyone.
Sure, an actual foreign policy conflict can break out on the campaign trail, but it just isn’t all that common. So my guess is that the true reason that we can ignore a lot of foreign-policy rhetoric from campaigns is that there's not enough real content about which to worry.
1 It’s possible to overstate the size of those effects in polling, but some of it definitely happens. Nor is it entirely irrational. Rank-and-file voters have little way of knowing, for example, how serious a foreign-policy threat is to national security; if they trust the president on other issues, it’s not unreasonable for them to trust him on these issues as well.
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