The Other Reason For Eliminating The Electoral College

November 8, 2012 § 4 Comments

I know this is very far afield from my usual area of focus, but Donald Trump’s twitter tirade against the Electoral College and exhorting people to start a revolution when he for some reason had it in his largely empty head that Mitt Romney was going to win the popular vote gave me a hankering to write today’s post. There is always a lot of hand-wringing this time of year about the Electoral College, which to many is the most mysterious and baffling aspect of American democracy. The problem that most people have with the Electoral College is that it can lead to a situation like we had in 2000, when a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose the presidency, which seems like a blatantly anti-democratic outcome. This is an enormous concern, but it overlooks the fact that the Electoral College was created because the framers wanted to mitigate some of the problems they saw with direct popular election. The question then to be asked is not necessarily whether the Electoral College was a bad idea, but whether it is now anachronistic; in other words, do the reasons for which it was created still apply today?

The first concern the framers had with direct popular election was that the people would be easily influenced by small groups with ulterior motives. The framers’ concern on this issue turned out to be unwarranted, but perhaps not in the way that they had anticipated. While small groups have not had a large effect on voting trends, extremely large groups have – namely the Republican and Democratic parties. The Federalist Papers’ warning against faction is well known, as is the founders’ early revulsion of political parties, but it is the two major parties that have exerted the greatest influence on voters. So in this sense, the first of the major concerns was not historically borne out, although the decision to create a body that meets only once and then disbands, and whose eligibility requirements work to exclude elected federal officials, was quite prescient. The small groups of influential men that the framers were worried about can easily be construed as today’s various political lobbies, who unquestionably exert a great deal of influence on both the executive and legislative branches, but not on individual voters. While voters being easily swayed might have been a legitimate concern in 1787, it is not one anymore.

If anything, the Electoral College has allowed small groups of voters to wield disproportionate power in influencing the outcome of a state’s electoral votes. The framers were worried not about this, but about people being easily influenced by small groups that had their own best interests at heart. This unintended consequence is in a similar vein, however, since it allows narrowly focused special interests to punch above their weight. This sounds quite similar to what the framers were trying to guard against, yet this type of behavior is facilitated by the Electoral College and would be negated by popular election.

The second large apprehension about popular election, which was that the country was too large for the people to be sufficiently informed about the presidential candidates, is most definitely no longer in force. Despite the expansion of the country from the Eastern seaboard west to the Pacific Ocean, and despite the enormous population growth that has taken place since the country’s founding, there has never been greater availability of information about those running for office than exists today. We live in the Information Age, and with the advent of the Internet, 24 hour news channels, the constant news cycle, and presidential campaigns that begin two years before the actual vote, it is a given that voters are as sufficiently informed as they’d like to be about those who choose to run for president.

There is also evidence that points to the fact that voters are better informed in a presidential election year than they are during midterm elections for their state’s congressmen. In 2000, 82% of respondents surveyed watched at least one television program about the campaign, as compared to 62% in 2002. In 2000, 76% indicated that they care who wins the presidential election, whereas only 61% indicated that they care who wins the Congressional elections. It is a given that most people know more about the presidential candidates (and can actually name them) than they know about those running for the seat in their Congressional district. In 1787, this could not have been anticipated, due to the fact that information about candidates was not nearly as widely disseminated, so there was a better chance that the people would know something about local politicians than ones from out of state. In addition, the framers might not have anticipated the president becoming the public face of the country to the extent that he is today. It is clear, however, that the ill-informed electorate which so concerned the framers no longer exists, removing the second major impediment to popular election.

The third fear of the framers was that the president would always come from a large state and a Northern state if popularly elected. In fact, even with the Electoral College, only two presidents have made their primary residences in small states (Franklin Pierce in New Hampshire, and Bill Clinton in Arkansas). However, the fear that large states would only vote for candidates from their own state or from other large states was unfounded. It is clear that the framers did not anticipate the two party system that emerged, hence the fear was that each state would vote for a favorite son candidate. Under the two party system, it is impossible for states to only vote for local presidential candidates since only two states get this opportunity. Even when the opportunity arises, it is never certain that a candidate will carry his own state, as demonstrated by Al Gore’s inability to carry Tennessee.

In addition, large states do not necessarily have a tendency today to vote for a large state candidate. The most recent example is the presidential election of 1992, when Bill Clinton ran from a small state and George H.W. Bush ran from Texas. Despite his Arkansas roots, Clinton carried large states such as California (54 electoral votes), Illinois (22 electoral votes), Michigan (18 electoral votes), New York (33 electoral votes), Ohio (21 electoral votes), and Pennsylvania (23 electoral votes). In fact, Clinton carried seven out of the ten most populous states in 1992, so the most recent election in which a small state candidate ran against a large state candidate indicates that the fear of large states only voting for large state candidates is no longer warranted, if indeed it ever was.

The North versus South concern was due to the disparity in eligible voters caused by slavery, but since slavery and the 3/5 rule no longer exist, this particular rationale for the Electoral College also no longer exists. Furthermore, the notion that Northerners would not vote for a Southern candidate is also no longer a political reality, to which the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton can attest. In 1976, the original Northern states of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island voted for Carter, and in 1992, Clinton carried the original Northern states of Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. If anything, today’s political reality is that Northern candidates have trouble getting votes in the South, and not the other way around.

In short, the most compelling reason to do away with the Electoral College is that its outcomes and its operation subvert the very rationales for which it was put into place. The great fear of popular election was that it would never produce a national figure, since the residents of each state would only vote for candidates with whom they were familiar. The Electoral College was supposed to encourage candidates who were national figures in that they would appeal to people from all the states, which would let all states have a say in who became president. The current incentive structure has, of course, created the opposite effect, in which the only states that truly matter are the small number of battleground states. Were the Electoral College to be abandoned in favor of popular vote, the focus would shift back to all of the states instead of just some of them, and the framers’ intentions of candidates appealing to everyone rather than to targeted groups would be realized.


Election Day – An Appreciation

November 6, 2012 § 8 Comments

Whenever I teach intro to comparative politics (or Comparative Political Systems as we call it at Georgetown), I always start the class off with the following anecdote. There was a leader of a country who was in power for over a decade and was forced out of office before he was ready to step down. The leader’s bitter rival, who had spent months painstakingly turning elites and the general population against the country’s ruler, took over power and embarked on a crusade to cement his own hold over the country. After nearly a decade marked by scandal and recriminations, the current leader was retiring and the first leader’s son, who had a severe alcohol problem, a string of failed business ventures to his name, and was chased by allegations of drug use, decided that he wanted to run the country. He challenged the current president’s hand-picked successor, accusing him of being involved in scandals and misusing the military and vowing to avenge his father’s loss. A vote was held that was marked by all sorts of irregularities and accusations of fraud, and when the dust cleared it turned out that the current president’s successor had won the most votes.

The challenger was not willing to accept his loss though, and being stymied by the results of the election, he approached the country’s constitutional court, a majority of whose judges were appointed by his father when he had been in power, and convinced the judges declare him the winner through a technicality and order the current president’s government to step down and cede power. Knowing that there was a genuine sense of anger among the former president’s powerful supporters and that he was facing a crisis of legitimacy that would hamper his rule, and perhaps even in an effort to make sure that he had the army on his side, he then appointed popular military officials from his father’s government, including the former commanding general of the country’s army and the former defense minister, to high ministerial posts in his own government. He then proceeded to organize a parade through the streets of the capital that literally brought him to the steps of the presidential palace, where he placed the outgoing president on a military helicopter and sent him away.

I then always ask my students what they think will happen next. Is this country going to be stable, or is it likely to go through years of repression and civil war? They invariably answer that the country is going to experience an outbreak of violence and that authoritarian rule will prevail, and when I tell them that this series of events actually occurred somewhere, they guess Iraq, China, or Saudi Arabia. Only once has a student immediately realized what probably all of you have already, which is that the country I am describing is the United States under Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush. Considered in a vacuum, the fact that the U.S. simply moved on in the aftermath of the 2000 election is mind-boggling, but it is not at all unusual when you stop to consider that this is the effect that democratic politics has on a state and a society. There was simply no question that once the Supreme Court ended the recount, effectively making Bush the president, there would be no violence or rioting, no military coup, no measures to prevent the new president from moving into the White House, and that the Clinton administration would stand aside for the Bush administration.

As Americans we take this for granted, because this is the way our country works and has always worked (save for that pesky Civil War), but in the grand sweep of history it is nothing short of remarkable. Not only do we get the opportunity every fourth year to decide who will be president, but when the incumbent is voted out or must step down after two terms, the most powerful person in the world and commander-in-chief of the most awesome fighting force in the history of mankind unfailingly vacates his post peacefully and makes no move to hang on to the trappings of absolute power. Just take a minute to reflect on how improbable this would be were it to happen once, let alone routinely as a matter of course for over two centuries. Take a minute to reflect on what an incredible country this is and how lucky we are to be living in it.

Something else to keep in mind on this Election Day is that as American citizens we get to select our leaders, but we are also voting in an election that for many countries is more consequential than their own election. The decisions taken by the president and the Congress directly impact the lives of billions of people across the globe and determine whether they will live in peace and security or whether they will live in an environment that is considerably worse. It is a solemn and awesome burden, and even if you are not thrilled with the choices that you are presented with on your ballot this year, please think about how those billions of people worldwide would jump at the chance that you have today, and make sure to vote. We talk about exercising our right to vote, and it is aptly described as a right, but it is also a privilege and a responsibility. The simple act of voting to elect our president and representatives reverberates around the entire world and such a thing should not be taken lightly or treated callously, and it is a right that under no circumstance should go discarded or unexercised. Go out and vote, reflect on how lucky we are to live in such an amazing place and time, and have a very happy Election Day.

A short Election Day programming note: I will be spending the evening at National Public Radio headquarters in DC, watching the returns and tweeting out my thoughts as we (hopefully) find out who our next president will be. I am really excited about it, so if you don’t already follow me on Twitter, my handle is @mkoplow and I’ll be tweeting all night.

U.S. Intervention In Syria Isn’t Coming, So What’s Next?

October 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the things that clearly emerged from the debate on Monday is that, despite some predictions to the contrary, there is not going to be any serious U.S. assistance to Turkey on the Syria front after the election. As regular readers know, I have argued that no U.S. or NATO military action is forthcoming but I have still seen and heard speculation that neither candidate can make promises to intervene during campaign season but that it will happen following the election. On Monday night though, both President Obama and Mitt Romney insisted in no uncertain terms that the U.S. military is not going to get involved. Romney displayed a willingness to supply the Syrian rebels with heavier arms but not to send U.S. troops to intervene in the conflict, and Obama reiterated previous warnings about the dangers of blowback once you arm rebels with anything more than light weapons. Neither of the two men left much wiggle room at all in their answers, and it did not seem to me as if these were positions being staked out for campaign purposes that will be quickly rolled back once the election is in the rearview mirror. It goes without saying that if the U.S. is reluctant to intervene in Syria, NATO is even more so, and I can’t imagine a scenario in which there is a NATO presence in Syria or along the Syrian border without American involvement.

So what does Turkey do now? Prime Minister Erdoğan has been agitating for months to get the U.S. to intervene, ideally by setting up a no fly zone, and has denounced the U.S. for dragging its heels. That strategy has not paid off, and more tough rhetoric from Ankara is not going to change that since both Obama and Romney have calculated that it is simply not in American interests to intervene. It seems to me that Turkey has a menu of very bad options from which to choose. One is to try and go into Syria alone, which as I have detailed and as Dov Friedman and Aaron Stein have documented even more thoroughly, is a bad idea that is unlikely to happen. Another is to sit tight, try to keep the status quo, and respond to each instance Syrian shelling across the border with a more forceful round of Turkish shelling, which is what Turkey has been doing for the past month. I think that this second option is what is going to keep on taking place, but it should be perfectly clear by now that this doesn’t exactly solve the problem. If Turkey expected this strategy to be a placeholder until it got outside help for intervening, now is the time to rethink things in a serious way. Ankara has to come up with a new strategy that assumes no eventual U.S. or NATO involvement, since it has appeared up until now that Erdoğan has been waiting for exactly that. It goes without saying, of course, that Turkey can use all the help that it can get, and to that end the continuing refusal to back down from demanding that Israel end its Gaza blockade is not doing Turkey any favors. The Israeli government certainly seems open at this point to apologizing and paying compensation, and the faster that Turkey drops the Gaza demand, the faster Israel and Turkey can reconcile and perhaps some coordination will allow Ankara to start developing a more realistic long-term strategy to deal with its truculent neighbor next door.

I Say Israel,You Say Israel

October 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

So, how about that foreign policy debate last night? Among some of the international affairs topics discussed by our two august candidates for president was the auto industry bailout, economic opportunities for the middle class, how to balance the budget, bayonet manufacturing and horse husbandry…well, you get the point. I made a joke on Twitter before the debate started alluding to the fact that, unlike during the first two debates, nobody was going to be complaining about the lack of foreign policy in this debate, but turns out the joke was on me. Mitt Romney was all too happy to shift the debate away from foreign policy to the economy and President Obama for some reason followed. I’m still waiting for the promised foreign policy debate.

One topic that did come up early and often, however, was Israel. Obama was the first to break the seal, and both candidates spent a lot of time playing up their pro-Israel credentials. Curiously, Romney initially seemed to back off his early and often claim that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus” and when he resurrected his usual line of attack later on, Obama hit back at him hard by comparing Romney’s fundraising trip to Israel to Obama’s own trip to Israel during the previous campaign when Obama visited Yad Vashem and the rocket-scarred border town of Sderot. So aside from the fact that the debate was held in Boca Raton and that Florida has a large Jewish population, why so much focus on Israel? As much as some people like to shout about the Israel lobby, Israel happens to be very popular with U.S. voters generally, and some important swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have a high percentage of Jewish voters. The race by each candidate to establish pro-Israel bonafides is caused by the electoral college, and not the Israel lobby. Were there a national popular vote rather than a state-by-state one, Israel would come up a lot less.

More interesting is not that Israel was mentioned so often (22 times vs. not one mention of Europe, which is a staggering fact to digest about a supposed foreign policy debate given everything going on in the Eurozone at the moment), but that Obama was the first one to do it. Israel is generally viewed as a weak spot for Obama given the uneasy relationship he has with Bibi Netanyahu and the constant GOP attacks on Obama’s record toward Israel, and I would have bet that Romney would bring up Israel and try to hammer Obama over the head with it and force him to play defense. That Obama preempted Romney and repeated again and again that Israel is America’s greatest ally in the Middle East, that Egypt breaking its peace treaty with Israel is a red line for the U.S., and that the U.S. will back Israel if it is attacked says to me that the Obama campaign has some internal polling that is scaring it to death. Obama had clearly also prepared a strong and challenging answer for Romney’s contention that Obama was not sufficiently pro-Israel and he hit him hard with it when the opportunity arose. Obama knows that beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt and continuing through his own victory in 2008, only once has a Democrat been elected president without winning at least 75 percent of the Jewish vote (Jimmy Carter received 64 percent in 1976), and I think based on last night that he is legitimately worried about what will happen should he miss that threshold.

A few other quick and not so quick thoughts on non-Israel related topics:

There was much speculation a few months ago about which camp was winning the fight for Romney’s foreign policy soul, the neoconservative wing or the GOP establishment realist wing. It seems pretty clear after last night that John Bolton and Romney’s other neocon advisors appear to have lost the battle. Romney disavowed intervention in Syria and was not pushing too hard for a war with Iran, and in many ways agreed with much of what Obama has been trying to do.

For me, the most disheartening part of of the debate last night was the brief section on drones. The reason it was brief is because Obama and Romney apparently have the exact same position on the subject, which is that drones are a great tool that the U.S. employs and are entirely unproblematic. I know most people don’t think much about the drone war taking place in Pakistan and that the public is generally supportive of it, but this is something that desperately needs to be debated. As Justin Green succinctly put it, “This is the time partisanship should cause these questions to arise, but instead we have a consensus on the issue. Shameful.” Leaving aside the fact that the drone war may be radicalizing an entire new generation of people, or that it leaves large numbers of civilian casualties in its wake, or that the Obama administration has taken the unprecedented – and to my mind blatantly unconstitutional – step of claiming the right to kill American citizens extrajudicially via drones without any type of meaningful due process, there is another serious issue the drone war raises, which is that we are opening a dangerous Pandora’s box. At some point other states are going to ramp up their use of drones as well, and I don’t quite know what our response will be given our current behavior when China or Russia or Iran starts flying drones over U.S. territory. I desperately wish that if this issue were to unite both parties it would be in the other direction, but at the very least we need to have some debate on this, rather than Obama talking about how great the policy is and Romney nodding his head as vigorously as he can.

Finally, Romney’s call for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be indicted for advocating genocide was a bit curious given what I am sure is his position on international tribunals and universal jurisdiction. If Ahmadinejad were to be indicted, the indictment would be issued by the International Criminal Court, a body which nearly all Republicans are opposed to and to which the U.S. has not joined as a member (and with good reason, in my view). I am certain that Romney does not support the idea of international judicial organizations having the power to bring criminal cases across all national boundaries, and yet he forcefully advocated such a move for Ahmadinejad. Talk about head-spinning!

Daniel Pipes Jumps The Shark, And Other Oddities

October 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

In keeping with this week’s O&Z theme of highlighting poor commentary and analysis, the thread running throughout today’s gallimaufry is going to be more of the same. I’m not sure why I’ve been pulling an Andy Rooney routine lately, but there seems to be an unusually large amount of nonsensical drivel floating out there, so let’s plunge right into the dung heap.

Starting us off with first prize for the week, the month, and possibly the year is Daniel Pipes’ error-riddled and borderline hallucinatory head-scratcherat the National Review on Turkey and Syria. He opens it with this:

Why is the Turkish government acting so aggressively against the Assad regime in Syria?

Perhaps Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes that lobbing artillery shells into Syria will help bring a satellite government to power in Damascus. Maybe he expects that sending a Turkish war plane into Syrian air space or forcing down a Syrian civilian plane en route from Russia will win him favor in the West and bring in NATO to intervene. Conceivably, it’s all a grand diversion from an imminent economic crisis due to borrowing too much.

Hmmm, let’s see…why is Turkey acting so aggressively? Don’t have the answer yet? Perhaps it’s because Turkey isn’t acting aggressively at all, but is responding to Syrian shells landing on Turkish territory and killing Turkish civilians. One would never know from reading Pipes that Syria shot down a Turkish plane, is hosting Kurdish terrorists who are launching attacks on Turkey, and ends up shelling Turkish border towns on an almost daily basis these past few weeks. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a more Orwellian assault on basic facts than what is contained in this first paragraph. If you decide that you want to keep on reading – although I caution that if you do you are putting yourself at risk of an aneurysm – you will learn some other wonderful things about Turkey that you might not have been aware of, such as the fact that Erdoğan’s goal is to bring sharia to Turkey or that Turkey has abandoned the U.S. security umbrella (which must make it pretty awkward that we are still basing nuclear missiles on Turkish territory). You’ll also get to see some truly great logical consistency at work, such as when you compare, “Erdogan’s actions fit into a context going back a half-century” with the opening sentence of the very next paragraph, which is, “A new era began in November 2002 when Erdogan’s AKP, a clever Islamist party that avoids terrorism and global-caliphate rants, replaced the center-right and -left parties that long had dominated Ankara.” I could go on all day, but Brent Sasley beat me to it, so just read his takedown of Pipes instead.

Then you have David Brooks, who I always read and often find thoughtful but who wrote an entire column this week based on a ridiculous premise. Brooks listed a set of criteria for selecting a president who will make Washington less dysfunctional after opening with the following.

Voters have been astonishingly clear. In 2000, they elected George W. Bush after he promised to change the tone in Washington. In 2008, they elected Barack Obama after he promised to move the country beyond stale partisan debates. In this year’s first presidential debate, surveys show that viewers loved Mitt Romney’s talk of professionalism and bipartisanship.

In other words, primary campaigns are won by the candidate who can most convincingly champion the party’s agenda, but general election campaigns are won by the candidate who can most plausibly fix the political system.

With all due respect to Mr. Brooks, this is ridiculous. He plucked out something that he happens to care about, and without any evidence or data at all asserted that this is what decides elections. It’s no different than claiming that voters elected President Obama in 2008 because he is left-handed and then writing 800 words on why left-handed people make better leaders, or that President Bush won in 2000 because general election campaigns are won by the candidate who has more experience clearing brush. Bush and Obama both promised lots of things, so where is the evidence that it is a promise to change the tone in Washington that is decisive? As anyone familiar with basic political science knows, the economy is actually the best determinant of who will win the election, and the previous election fit into that pattern perfectly. So while voters might like to hear candidates who talk about bipartisanship, making a definitive statement that “general election campaigns are won by the candidate who can most plausibly fix the political system” based on nothing but conjecture is unlikely to convince anyone who cares about things like evidence, causation, or facts.

Finally, there is the story of Felix Baumgartner. For anyone who spent this week marooned on a desert island or happens to be Amish, Baumgartner took a ballon 24 miles up into space and then jumped down back to Earth, breaking the sound barrier in the process. It was an incredible feat which millions of people, myself included, watched live on Youtube, and it was a stunt that is actually going to lead to some important scientific and technological breakthroughs. There were many declarations last Sunday that Baumgartner’s skydive is going to inspire a new generation of astronauts and revitalize the desire for space exploration, and if that happens it will be a wonderful outcome. If you enter “Felix Baumgartner” into Google News you get 8.46 million hits, so his jump got plenty of warranted attention. It may come as a surprise to you though that Baumgartner’s jump was only the second most consequential development this month in the realm of space exploration, because the event that dwarfed Baumgartner by a magnitude of thousands didn’t get nearly enough attention. It turns out that NASA’s Voyager 1 probe, which was launched in 1977, just became the first man-made object to leave the solar system (!!!). Do you have any idea how astonishing that is? We have exited the freaking solar system and are now in uncharted territory, and somehow nobody seems to know or care. Comparing Baumgartner to Voyager 1 is like comparing the discovery of gravity to me finding a $5 bill in my coat pocket from last winter, and yet it is Baumgartner’s jump that is inspiring people rather than the fact that we have just exited our own star system. If you put “NASA Voyager” into Google News, you get 3,640 results. I weep for our future.

Our Miserable Debate About Foreign Policy

October 17, 2012 § 2 Comments

Neither Turkey nor Israel came up in last night’s presidential debate, which was not entirely surprising given the format. The town hall set-up lends itself to a limited number of question, and since only 6% of voters list foreign policy and the Middle East as their single most important issue, the questions from the audience were reflective of that. Foreign policy did come up, however, in a question about the administration’s handling of the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, and it encapsulated everything that I find so frustrating about the state of the foreign policy debate as it plays out in the media and between the campaigns. I am sure I plenty of people have already noted the quick points I am about to make, but I think they need to be hammered home repeatedly to emphasize just how disappointing last night was.

The question on Libya was as follows: “We were sitting around, talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?” This is a foreign policy question, but only in the loosest sense. It isn’t about what President Obama or Mitt Romney see as their foreign policy priorities, what they view as the greatest foreign policy challenges over the next four years, how they assess changes in the world that have taken place during the last decade, or even a question challenging Obama on his overarching foreign policy decisions during his first term. Instead, it is a question about one small specific event that is actually a budgetary question disguised as a foreign policy question. This question would have been better even had it been framed around whether Obama views Libya as a priority, or to what extent he thinks we can shape events in Libya, or whether the U.S. should even have a real presence in Libya given the current security situation there. But no, instead we got a question about how State Department budgetary issues are decided as the sole foreign policy entry last night. Did Candy Crowley actually think that this was the best question of the lot to select? Even if she wanted to make sure there was a question about Libya since it has been such a hot campaign topic lately, was this actually the best one? It either reflects very poorly on the pool of undecided Long Island voters in the debate hall last night, or it reflects very poorly on Crowley’s ability to select questions that will get to the real heart of issues.

Furthermore, the question itself is a nonsensical one to ask any president. In what universe does the president, his senior staff, or any of his cabinet members make specific security decisions about protection for consulates? Leaving aside the fact that host countries are responsible for security outside of embassies and other diplomatic missions – which I don’t expect your random voter to know – how could anyone with capacity to think logically believe that this is something that falls under the president’s purview? And again, if Crowley wanted to hold Obama’s feet to the fire on Libya, wasn’t there a better question out there to select that would actually challenge Obama on something he could control or something that emanated directly from a decision that he made?

Finally, the resulting back and forth about whether Obama called what occured a terrorist attack or a demonstration is perhaps the best example of why our foreign policy discourse is so terrible. Our consulate was attacked and our ambassador was murdered, and the campaigns are not arguing over the underlying causes behind this tragedy or how to prevent a similar one from occurring, but over how it was described! Seriously, is this what voters actually care about? I assume they must, since if the Romney campaign did not have data showing that this line of attack was gaining Romney some traction, they wouldn’t be wasting their time. I just don’t get how this, of all issues, is deemed to be so vital to informing voters that it was the one foreign policy moment of the night. The rhetoric issue is so minute and makes so little difference to anything, and yet it keeps on getting brought up and argued over despite the fact that it won’t have any lasting effect and nobody will even remember it a few months from now.

Foreign policy takes up the majority of a president’s time, and this goes double given the instability in so many parts of the world right now. The debate next week is going to be devoted to foreign policy, and let’s all cross our fingers and hope that the questions deal with some actual foreign policy rather than silly and inconsequential blather.

Netanyahu’s Outburst Is Not About The Presidential Campaign

September 13, 2012 § 8 Comments

We Americans have a tendency to look at situations and think that they revolve around us. The best recent example of this has been the debate over America’s role in the Arab Spring (or Arab Awakening, Islamist Winter, or whatever other term people are using these days) and the view that the U.S. was somehow the decisive actor in determining whether or not regimes fell. We can debate all day whether President Obama was right to withdraw support for Hosni Mubarak – and I for one firmly think that he was – but there is simply no question that Mubarak would have fallen anyway even if the U.S. had backed him to the hilt. The revolution in Egypt was not about us, nor did we have the ability or wherewithal to control it. Yet this idea persists that “we needed to back our allies” and that Mubarak would still be the modern day pharaoh of Cairo had we wanted him to stay put, all stemming from this mistaken paradigm that insists on seeing all world events as revolving around the U.S. In many, if not most, instances, political events overseas have little to do with the U.S. in more than a tangential manner, and even when they do involve the U.S., it is in an indirect way.

This brings me to the latest dustup between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, which began when Netanyahu responded to Hillary Clinton’s statement that the U.S. did not see a need to issue any red lines over Iran by saying, “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” This was of course a direct reference to the U.S. and set off all sorts of reverberations, beginning with Israel letting it be known that the White House had rejected a request for a meeting between the two leaders, Obama and Netanyahu speaking on the phone for an hour late Tuesday night, and Senator Barbara Boxer releasing an astonishing letter that she sent to Netanyahu in which she wrote, “Your remarks are utterly contrary to the extraordinary United States-Israel alliance, evidenced by President Obama’s record and the record of Congress,” and “I am stunned by the remarks that you made this week regarding U.S. support for Israel. Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel?”

The fireworks between the two countries were immediately interpreted as Netanyahu’s attempt to leverage the U.S. presidential campaign season against Obama. The very first sentence of the New York Times story on the affair is “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel inserted himself into the most contentious foreign policy issue of the American presidential campaign on Tuesday, criticizing the Obama administration for refusing to set clear ‘red lines’ on Iran’s nuclear progress that would prompt the United States to undertake a military strike.” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote, “Now Netanyahu seems determined, more than ever, to alienate the President of the United States and, as an ally of Mitt Romney’s campaign, to make himself a factor in the 2012 election—one no less pivotal than the most super Super PAC.” The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu’s statement lashing out at the administration over the lack of red lines on Iran is an attempt to force Obama’s hand before the election or to create enough problems for Obama with pro-Israel voters and groups that it will swing the election to Romney. In short, Andrew Sullivan’s most dire prediction come to life.

The focus on the presidential campaign is a misreading of what is actually going on here that stems from the American pathology I laid out at the top of this post. Netanyahu’s harsh words are not aimed at the presidential race but are a result of what I imagine to be his deep and maddening frustration that he cannot force an Israeli strike on Iran. The point of Netanyahu’s verbal barrage is not to sabotage Obama or influence the 2012 vote for president, and in fact is only directed at the U.S. because he has already emptied his chamber on Israeli leaders opposed to a strike and cannot publicly criticize the person – Ehud Barak – with whom he is actually frustrated. Barak has reportedly changed his mind about the wisdom of an Israeli strike because he has come to realize what it will mean for U.S.-Israel relations, and without Barak on board any hopes Netanyahu has of taking out Iranian nuclear facilities are completely dashed. Netanyahu cannot go after Barak, however, since he cannot afford to alienate him or to let everyone know that the two men are no longer of one mind on this issue, and so he is reduced to directing his intemperate words at the U.S. and the Obama administration as the indirect causes of his current anger. Netanyahu’s outburst is not about the presidential campaign or presidential politics, but about what he views as an Israeli national security imperative that is being stymied by an array of forces. The fact that this is campaign season in the U.S. is only incidental, since Netanyahu would have issued a similar statement at the beginning or middle of a presidential term. His prism is an Israeli one, not an American one, and his focus is on Iran rather than on U.S. politics. Believe it or not, Israel has other concerns aside from the Obama-Romney contest. Yes, what is going on in the U.S. obviously impacts this entire issue, but the notion that what Bibi said yesterday is about the presidential campaign here is just the latest data point for the case that knowledge of Israeli politics on this side of the ocean remains poor.

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