The impact that presidential elections have on US foreign policy tends to be overestimated. It seldom happens that a newly elected president can voluntarily change the course of that mammoth oil tanker whose course is being plotted by a complex web of tradition, congressional wrangling and special interests. Usually, the most a rooky White House resident can strive for is to give the whole affair a personal touch, and lay the foundations for slow readjustments.
Signaling the continued decay of the Founding Fathers’ intended framework, the US election season is becoming longer every time a new president has to be chosen. On January the 3rd there will be the Iowa Caucus, and five days later the New Hampshire Primary: the main candidates have been campaigning for over a year. Congressmen are already virtually incapable of exercising their legislative duties to their constituents because of the permanent two-year election cycle they face; they are forced to start raising cash for the next round the moment they step into their new offices. Now it seems that everyone else in Washington has followed suit: the election cycle has become truly continuous. Times of reflection, traditional politics and serious policy-making are long-forgotten, and everything seems to be about the next date at the polling booths.
Whereas the Founding Fathers viewed the President as an administrator who implements the policies established by the American people through their representatives in Congress, the times they are a-changin’. The White House in the 21st Century has unprecedented powers, not in small part thanks to the unrelenting efforts by Dick Cheney who has been on the case since the 1970’s. Cheney has always viewed presidential discretion and secrecy as a fundamental aspect of successful US leadership, and seems to have made his life’s work to enhance the powers of the Executive Branch. Successfully, judging from the apparent freedom and lack of oversight that the Bush administration has enjoyed. This is even more so in the area of foreign policy, where the President has always had greater leeway than with respect to domestic affairs. James Madison et al believed that US external relations should be kept to a bare minimum, and that the country should not entangle itself in foreign alliances. The White House would therefore only be an ambassador extraordinaire in times of peace, and a military administrator in times of war. Times they are a-changin’ indeed.
Whatever the constitutional intention of those 18th Century idealists, the person who will move into the Oval Office in 2009 will have considerable discretion when it comes to US behavior worldwide. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the eventual winner will be a significant change in substance, if not discourse, from the current administration of King George II. The American two-party system makes successful candidates tend to a certain middle ground where consensus on foreign policy is carried over from one administration to the next. Only an event as dramatic as 9/11 seems capable of breaking the usual monotony.
This is exactly why the world should be paying to the primaries rather than the actual presidential election season. The eventual two candidates going at it after being chosen by their parties will have to behave within the usual straightjacket of Washington dogma, but for now many of the presidential hopefuls are still freely speaking their mind. Especially the slightly-less-hopefuls, in fact.
Their proposals when it comes to US relations with the rest of the world are more than mere exercises in futility: they actually matter. Many of the things said represent ideas that are still being refined by policy think-tanks and other influential organizations, but that could soon mean a new-paradigm shift in D.C. circles. This is exactly what the neoconservatives did for years: moving debate in a certain direction without having direct access to the White House, and thereby laying the foundations for a significant policy-shift when the time was right.
At the different ends of the spectrum are Democrat Dennis Kucinich – calling for strict multilateralism and support of the United Nations – and Republican Ron Paul, who advocates a return to the Gold Standard and virtual isolationism. Both congressmen have a small but loyal following, and certainly seem to do well in getting their message across: Paul raised over four million in a one-day cash-drive on the internet. However extremists they may sound at the moment, it needs to be remembered that the neocons used to be on the fringes of political debate as well. Today’s Ron Paul could become tomorrow’s Paul Wolfowitz, so to speak.
Among the other candidates there is Tom Tancredo, who shot to infamy by saying that the US might be forced to “bomb Mecca”, Joe Biden is continuously proposing plans for a federal Iraq, and John McCain is desperately trying to look as maverick as he did in the 2000 elections. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, seems convinced that as president he could bomb Iran without approval from Congress. Oh, those poor, naïve Founding Fathers…
Even the mainstream and more probable pretenders to the presidency (Romney is doing well in the polls, but is right-wing America really ready to vote for a Mormon?) seem to have some true policy differences when it comes to the rest of the world. Hillary Clinton (is America ready to vote for a woman?), Barack Obama (is America ready to vote for a black man?) and Rudy Giuliani (is America ready to vote for a cross-dresser?) all have genuine policy differences. Obama seems most willing to open-up to dialogue and multilateralism, focusing on the need to reengage rather than confront adversaries. Clinton seems to be much more of a hawk, especially when it comes to Israel. Giuliani’s discourse resembles a broken LP album that is stuck on 9/11, and he certainly seems set on hunting down terrorists wherever he can, with or without the help of foreign governments. In short, the world should pay some attention to the primary season: it’s a lot more interesting than the scripted waffling that will come from its subsequent winners.
Once the primary season is over, I will analyze the positions of the two elected candidates in greater detail. Not that it will matter much then: Hillary and Rudy will be sucked into their respective parties’ exercises in mediocrity without any hope of escape until a second term in office. By then, with any luck, Kucinich followers will have infiltrated the White House in the same way the neoconservatives did under Bush, and painted all its walls UN-blue…with white doves, rather than eagles, holding an olive branch.