As the presidential primary season heats up in the United States, with Republican hopefuls criticizing Obama’s foreign policy and staking out their own positions on issues ranging from China to Iran to climate change, it is worth considering how the campaign pledges of would-be presidents might affect their foreign policy actions once in office. In short, does campaign rhetoric constrain leaders’ subsequent behavior in any meaningful way, or is it quickly forgotten once a new president is inaugurated?
There is evidence that foreign policy statements made during a campaign are often discarded once candidates take on the responsibilities of power and realize that the issues are more complex than they had previously acknowledged. Governor Bill Clinton in 1992 promised that there would be no more “business as usual” with China if he became president, but once in the White House he quickly discovered that America had strong economic interests in continuing business as usual and he proceeded to strengthen ties with China while downplaying its human rights record. And Barack Obama, after heavily criticizing President Bush’s national security policies while a candidate, embraced many of these same policies as president, dismaying his supporters by refusing to end the rendition program, failing to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, increasing drone strikes in the Middle East, and choosing to “surge” troops in Afghanistan rather than beginning an immediate withdrawal.
However, campaign rhetoric–particularly if it takes the form of rigid pledges such as a refusal to raise taxes under any circumstances or a promise to never allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons–can impose audience costs among domestic constituencies and make it very hard to back down from these pledges.
In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, Michael Cohen makes precisely this point:
“As Republicans rattle their sabers this winter, they risk locking themselves into a dangerous position on Iran, should one actually win in November…With Romney et al. declaring that Iran will not get a nuke while they are president and with pledges of support for unilateral action on the part of Israel — including the use of military force — to stop Tehran from getting a bomb, Republicans may find themselves stuck with a dangerous policy on Iran that smacks of brinksmanship.”
Cohen even argues that this campaign rhetoric may constrain President Obama’s options: “Moreover, all the tough talk on Iran will also limit Obama’s ability to open negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program if the opportunity presents itself. Considering the increasingly desperate economic and political situation there, this might not necessarily be so far-fetched.”
What do you think? Can the Republican candidates’ statements really constrain President Obama’s actions during the campaign period? Could these challengers’ campaign pledges seriously constrain their own actions if they won the presidency? What does all of this say about the interplay between domestic politics and foreign policy?