Sound bites aren’t sound foreign policy

What should be the guiding principles for U.S. foreign policy?

National security? Democracy? Human rights? Economic Interest? Stability? Religion?

These are not easy questions and even if we could agree on which deserves highest priority, legitimate differences would still arise about how best to achieve the goals.

One thing, however, ought to be clear: Our list of guiding principles for foreign policy should not include “political pandering.”

Criticizing an incumbent or a primary opponent on foreign policy grounds can of course be a legitimate part of election discourse, but if it is designed to generate easy sound bites or garner campaign contributions from interest groups, the exercise is not only illegitimate, it is risky for the nation.

As a general rule, we should be suspect of any candidate statement on foreign policy that generates raucous ovations or an inpouring of interest group contributions during campaigns. This applies to Democrats and Republicans alike, and it is true whether the source of the rhetoric is candidates themselves, their surrogates or super PACs.

Truly understanding complex international issues is extraordinarily challenging, even for those who dedicate their lives to it and who understand the cultures, languages, people and histories involved. Nuance, complexity and long-term strategy are not easily distilled or communicated, and some of the most significant foreign policy actions must, of necessity, be conducted out of the glare of the media or publicity.

The hard truth is that statements or positions that may garner easy votes or money through election-year bravado can just as easily cost the nation lives and treasure in future conflicts.

This presidential election year, like many before it, has been rife with examples of domestic politics driving foreign policy hyperbole and, in many cases, hypocrisy. Some candidates have taken strong stands one day, only to reverse themselves just weeks later. Others have disguised blatantly false assertions as facts, while still others have revealed striking ignorance of even basic geography.

At the same time, it seems impossible in campaigns for either side to ever say “I agree with and support” anything the incumbent or an opponent does, even if it has proven successful or, in some instances, even if it was precisely what the critic had called for previously.

Perhaps even harder would be saying something virtually unheard of in political discourse:

“I’m not sure.”

In most instances, and for most candidates, this would be the most honest answer to a great many foreign policy issues.

Why should one not be so sure? First, because it is impossible for any one person, particularly given the background of some candidates, to know all they need to know about the multitude of international issues, people or events they might be asked about. Second, because situations can change rapidly, and in surprising ways.

I remember just a little over a year ago hearing a very senior and much-heralded U.S. diplomat opining authoritatively that he did not believe social media had any real impact on international diplomacy or relations. That statement, which I considered astonishingly out of touch when I heard it, was made just one month before the Arab spring. Anyone who has observed international events in the past year can have little doubt that cyberspace and social media have indeed had profound effects on foreign affairs, yet there was one of our top diplomats not only unaware of what was coming but almost arrogantly confident in his unawareness. He would have been far wiser, and our foreign policy much better, if he had responded to the initial question by admitting, “I’m not sure.” Then taking time to explore the question more thoughtfully,

Why can’t candidates for office say “I’m not sure” when confronted with difficult questions about complex matters? Because we the voters want to live in a world that is simpler than it really is, and we want to vote for leaders who pretend to know more than they really do.

Candidates cannot say they aren’t sure because we mistakenly believe that conducting foreign policy is like taking a class in international studies. Based on that assumption, memorizing facts or names is considered tantamount to foreign policy acumen, and spouting slogans is seen as demonstrative of strong leadership. Neither assumption is correct, but the fault is perpetuated by pundits and applies to both sides of the political spectrum — even though each side would prefer to believe it only applies to their opponents.

Far more dangerous than admitting to not being sure are those who are absolutely sure about something based on biased information or other questionable motivations.

When a candidate for president refers to the leaders of Turkey, a NATO ally, as “Islamic terrorists,” one must wonder if he really knows what he is talking about, or whether he has seriously considered the consequences of his words. This is not mere rhetorical license, it has an impact on how we are viewed in the world and could well cost American lives and strategic interests.

Candidates routinely try to curry favor by falling all over one another to make extreme comments about issues and people in the Middle East. Again, this has been true of Democrats and Republicans alike for years, but now the stakes have been elevated by the Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision and the resulting rise in super PACs.

A prime case in point is Newt Gingrich, who declared in an interview with The Jewish Channel that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Shortly thereafter, a billionaire casino magnate who publishes a widely read right-wing paper in Israel contributed $5 million to a Gingrich-linked super PAC.

Rather ironically, that money was to be spent attacking GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, who himself has harshly, and falsely, criticized President Obama for calling on Israel to suspend settlement expansion without, according to Romney, also criticizing Hamas for launching rockets into Israel.

The fact is, the president has often criticized Hamas in strong terms for attacks on Israel. What is more, calls to stop settlement expansion are not limited to President Obama but have been made by many Republican leaders, including both President Bushes and former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and James Baker III.

Those facts notwithstanding, today’s crop of candidates continue to posture and one-up each other. And the contributions keep flowing.

The point here is not about a particular candidate, nor is it really about one specific issue or set of donors. But it ought to be deeply troubling to the American people that individual contributors with interests in other nations can pour unlimited amounts of money into media campaigns attacking candidates for the U.S. presidency. It should be even more troubling that candidates would pander to such interests.

Viewed through the lens of what is actually happening on the ground in other lands and other conflicts, it is hard not to disdain this circus-like and politically venal spectacle of campaign-driven foreign policy.

I am convinced that the world truly needs our country to be the beacon that most Americans like to believe we are and that in so many instances we have been. Most people in the world, extremists on all sides notwithstanding, will acknowledge that there is much to admire and aspire to in our country. And most will also grant that a world in which the United States did not exist or did not stand for the truly grand ideals of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution would be a much worse place.

Which is precisely why candidates who seek to lead our country, and the voters who would support them, have a responsibility to be much more thoughtful about what is said regarding foreign policy matters — and why it is said. Whether or not we realize it, the rest of the world is listening attentively and watching the flow of money in our system.

When our candidates pander for the sake of contributions, our nation loses the respect it deserves — from friends and adversaries alike.

About the author

Brian Baird, a Democrat, represented Southwest Washington in Congress for six terms. He now lives in Edmonds. Baird’s recently published book, “Character, Politics and Responsibility,” is available at

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