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Diplomacy in Action

The Role of Foreign Policy in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Elections

James M. Lindsay, Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Washington, DC
December 16, 2011

10:00 A.M., EST


NOTE: The opinions expressed by non-governmental speakers are solely their own and not a reflection of U.S. Government policy.  Their presence at the Foreign Press Center does not constitute an official endorsement of these views.

MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Our presenter today is Dr. James Lindsay. He is senior vice president, director of studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg chair at the Council of Foreign Relations. He is here as an independent expert, and he will be discussing foreign policy and its role in the 2012 presidential elections.

So without further ado, Dr. Lindsay, please.

MR. LINDSAY: Thank you very much. It’s a great pleasure to be here. I look forward to hearing your questions. I believe what we agreed is that I would make a few brief opening remarks, and then we would take questions. So let me begin by following the form of these things. And I will make three points.

Point number one, when we’re looking at the role of foreign policy in the 2012 election, is that foreign policy, foreign policy issues, are not at the forefront of the American voters’ minds. When you look at all the polls that are done by various polling organizations, there’s one very loud message that comes through, which is that foreign policy is a secondary issue, if it’s an issue at all for voters. If you do sort of one of the standard polling questions, you ask people to name the most important issue facing the country, what you find is that what people are telling pollsters is that the economy, jobs, income security, those are the issues that the voters are worried about. Very few voters worry about or mention any kind of foreign policy issue, whether it’s China or Iran or terrorism, al-Qaida, climate change, what have you. Let me just sort of give you – put some – this in some perspective.

If you go back to, let’s say, late 2007 into 2008, more or less the same time during the election campaign that produced the race between now-President Obama and Senator John McCain, one out of three Americans told Gallup that the most important issue facing the United States was Iraq, one out of three. Today, when you look at the same question from Gallup, fewer than one in ten Americans name any foreign policy issue – any foreign policy issue. Now, obviously, the big even that is happening since late 2007, early 2008 is the financial crisis and resulting economic troubles for the United States. So this is largely an election about domestic issues, not about foreign policy.

Having said that, we go to point number two. It doesn’t mean that the candidates aren’t going to talk about foreign policy. They’re going to talk about foreign policy, and they’ll talk about it a lot. And they’ll do it for a couple of reasons. One is that one of the jobs of being president of the United States is that you are commander-in-chief. National security policy is a big part of your portfolio. So you have to be prepared to take questions about Iran or China or Uzbekistan or Indonesia. You have to be prepared. As many of you saw with Herman Cain, who enjoyed a very substantial surge in polling among Republican voters, his candidacy floundered in good part because of his difficulties in answering questions about various foreign policy issues, led by Libya. So part of it is candidates are expected to demonstrate some familiarity with what will be a big part of their job.

The other aspect of it, though, is that foreign policy is a very useful way candidates find of trying to present a broader picture of their leadership abilities or trying to demonstrate that they’re strong, that they’re willing to use America’s military might to accomplish goals overseas and also a way of trying to put the incumbent on the defensive.

Now, there’s a time-honored practice in American presidential politics in which the challenger tries to find some issue that allows him to run to the right of the incumbent. Go all the way back to 1960. Then-Senator John Kennedy was running against Richard Nixon, who was the incumbent vice president. And on the campaign trail, Senator Kennedy talked a great length about the so-called missile gap, that the Soviets were ahead of the United States when it came to missile technology and that this put the United States at great risk. It turned out there was in fact a missile gap, but it was exactly the reverse. The United States led the Soviet Union. But as a political issue to sort of differentiate and to put the incumbent on the defensive, it was useful.

Likewise, you can go and think of in the 1992 election where Bill Clinton ran against George H.W. Bush and talked about how the presidency of George H.W. Bush had in some sense coddled the Chinese and the – sort of the phrase of the time was “the butchers of Beijing,” and Bill Clinton argued he was going to be much tougher on China in the wake of Tiananmen Square than George H.W. Bush was going to. Then candidate Clinton became President Clinton, discovered there were a whole bunch of reasons why the Bush Administration had acted the way it had toward China, and the Clinton Administration changed its policy and approach to China.

And even more recently, go back to 2008 when Barack Obama ran, one of his big issues was arguing that the Bush Administration had failed to take Afghanistan seriously enough.

(Phone ringing.) And I guess I’m being accompanied by a cell phone. If I would sing, I’d break out into song for you, but I’m not particularly good at singing.

But in essence, back in 2008, part of Obama’s argument was that we were fighting the wrong war and that more had to be done about Afghanistan. And so in a way, it was sort of signaling that he was prepared to be tough and muscular in dealing with foreign policy.

And also, foreign policy can be very useful to candidates as a way to build up favor with certain constituencies. And that is when you think about trying to attract support, there are all kinds of voters who are into all kinds of issues. And obviously, one of the big constituencies in the State of Iowa are social conservatives, evangelicals, many of whom put a great importance, for example, on U.S. relations with Israel, which explains a good part of the reasons why the GOP candidates, in essence, have been going full board and make the case that they will support Israel, in a way that President Obama hasn’t.

Third point that I will make, and then we can go to Q&A, is that I would take much of what is said on the campaign trail by the GOP candidates with a grain of salt. If you listen to them only occasionally, you might draw different conclusions about their foreign policy than if you listen to them very closely. And here the issue I would flag for you is Iran, where if you watched last night’s debate, it featured quite prominently, and the GOP candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, talked fairly hawkishly about Iran and the unwillingness or the presumed unwillingness of their presidencies, should it come to that, of allowing Iran to go nuclear. You get a number of these candidates to talk outside the debate format, and their language tends to be more nuanced and complicated. For example, recently Mitt Romney gave an interview to the Washington Examiner, in which he talked at length, and in many ways when you sort of read the transcript, Governor Romney comes across as good as any think tank analyst here in D.C., noting that there are reasons to be skeptical that a military strike would work, that you have to weigh the consequences, how the Iranians might react. So it’s a little bit more nuanced than you would get from any of his debate performances.

Likewise, Speaker Gingrich has actually said flatly – and he did this in his conversation, Lincoln-Douglas-style debate with Jon Huntsman earlier this week, that so-called limited military strikes or military strikes aimed specifically at Iran’s nuclear facilities won’t work, that they will – we will not be able to hit all the targets, or that we will not be able to destroy them sufficiently, and that Iran’s nuclear posture could be reconstituted. What he seemed to imply, but didn’t quite say, is that he would go to war with Iran to accomplish that goal, but again implied, didn’t say. And people are left to infer from that whether he actually wanted that implication to take hold, whether it is simply part of a strategic bluff to get the Iranians thinking that he would do that and hopefully color their behavior or persuade America’s allies or other major countries to put more pressure on the Iranians. But again, I would sort of filter a lot of what gets said on the campaign trail through this notion, that partly what candidates are doing right now is trying to attract the votes, and that campaigning is fundamentally different from governing, because governing – campaigning is about promising, governing is about choosing, and they’re two very different things.

We’ll stop here and we can take any questions you want.

MODERATOR: All right. We will take questions from journalists. Please remember to wait for a microphone, and identify your name and media organization before posting your question.

Please. Over here on this side.

QUESTION: Good morning. My name is Dagmar Beneshova. I am from World Business Press Online news agency. Well, my question is – as you mentioned today, the foreign plan – foreign policy doesn’t play as important issue in these elections as it used to play in the past. But still, my question is: According to your opinion, what do you think – how much influence, how much credit will it win for Obama Administration by ending the war in Iraq, and then by success in Libya? Or from different angle, the question is: How much can Obama Administration lose the voters by being --

MR. LINDSAY: I’m sorry, I didn’t catch the last part.

QUESTION: Okay. Or from different angle, the question is how much he can – Obama Administration can lose the voters by being criticized by GOP for not being tough enough on Iran, or it would be more lost than winning the voters by Iraq? Thank you very much.

MR. LINDSAY: Wow, there’s a lot in that – those questions, and I probably won’t do them all justice. So if you want to follow up, people want to follow up, we can do that.

Let me suggest several things. One, on the question of how much reward will President Obama get from his foreign policy actions, my guess is that at this point, probably little. Okay, the President can point to some successes, most notably the killing of Usama bin Ladin, which was a considerable success on the part of the Administration, especially when you consider that the United States has been trying to hunt him down, actually for more than a decade, even from before 9/11.

But there’s – the flip side of the public not being focused or motivated by foreign policy issues means that while they appreciate that Mr. bin Ladin is now at the bottom of the Arabian Sea, what they’re really interested in, is what are you doing on the things I care about, which would be the economy. So in a sense, what some of the President’s success overseas has done for him, it’s made him less vulnerable to being attacked on foreign policy, of being accused of being soft. It doesn’t necessarily give him a big benefit. It sort of solved the vulnerability, but hasn’t given a big benefit.

And you’ll note that the Republican candidates have not been shy about still going ahead and criticizing the President on foreign policy despite, most notably, the bin Ladin success. In some cases, some of the GOP candidates have been reluctant even to give the Administration credit for the successes we point to. Governor Perry of Texas, most notably, a couple months ago at one of his presentations, pointedly didn’t congratulated President Obama or give him credit for the killing of Usama bin Ladin, but instead said this really was the success of the Navy SEALs and that’s where it should reside.

I do think what the candidates will do, and clearly have done, is to try to chip away at the President and argue that he’s soft, trying to take advantage of sort of a longstanding assumption in the American public that Democrats are softer or weaker on national security issues than Republicans are. That’s one of the reasons to go after the President on Iran. But what is sort of striking is that much of what the candidates say about Iran isn’t really that much different from official government policy. So there’s a lot of pounding the table and identifying the threat. There’s very little discussion about what exactly will be done.

And indeed, if you go back and look at the discussion last night at the debate, it was really of the sort about how it’s unacceptable for Iran to get a nuclear weapons, not – and then sort of the side discussion, really sort of distraction, this debate between Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul about whether the Iranians are really getting – or really have a nuclear program, because we never get to the question of, if you accept the claim from all of the non-Paul candidates, that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and that it is unacceptable, the question really then is: What do you do about it, and are you prepared to live with the consequences of those actions? And we never really had that discussion.

And again, as I suggested a moment ago, the two frontrunners, Speaker Gingrich and Governor Romney, have both said publicly, though not necessarily in the debates, that they’re leery about the ability of the so-called military strike to take out or to end the Iranian nuclear program. So the question then becomes: Are you saying we need to go to war, and if so, is that wise? And that’s not a discussion that’s happening.

MODERATOR: We have a question in the back. Please.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Fengfeng Wang with Xinhua News Agency of China. Sir, this election is mainly about economy and jobs. And during this kind of debate, China can be portrayed as a big villain. And how much do you think the Obama Administration will be pressured to take a tougher stance or some countermeasures with China, such as on the Renminbi issue or with recently added a surtax on the SUVs, this kind of thing, as the debate intensifies, especially next year? Thank you.

MR. LINDSAY: Well, I would sort of step back a little bit and make two broad points. One, it has been common, probably since the 1992 election, for the challenging candidate to argue about the need to get tougher with China. Again, that is what Bill Clinton did in 1992. You may remember that George W. Bush, when he was a candidate in 2000, was ridiculing the Clinton Administration’s talk about China as a strategic partner. I think in 2008, the Obama Administration – candidate Obama talked a bit about being tougher on trade issues and economic issues with not just China but other countries. And I think the Administration, when it came into office, the Obama Administration initially had a very sort of conciliatory policy toward China, believing that if it extended the open hand, that Beijing would return it in kind. And I think the read of the Administration after about a year was that its open hand was not being returned, and its policies toward China have been a bit tougher, but always constrained by the fact that U.S. relations with China are not a one-way street. China has leverage over the United States as well. It’s one of the things that comes from being a major trading partner and from being in a situation in which you are a major creditor country. As you know, China helps finance the very large U.S. federal budget deficit.

I think going forward, clearly the Administration has to signal, and has been signaling, that it intends to get tough with countries broadly on economic and trade issues. But the Administration also realizes that it has to live with the consequences of its actions. When you’re a candidate, you don’t. Again, this is the difference between promising and choosing. When you’re in office, your words have an extra level of meaning. And so the Administration doesn’t want to – because it has many things it wants Chinese cooperation on, going out and being too aggressive with China on any particular trade issue creates problems. But I do think you will probably see an Administration that is certainly no more conciliatory towards China than is right now, and perhaps less so.

But – and I do expect what you will see continuing on the Republican side is this very interesting debate between Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. And Mitt Romney has argued that it’s time to get tough with China and to push the Chinese, and he’s talked about a number of steps he will take very early on to signal that there’s a new sheriff in town, that the Chinese are going to have to deal with him. And Ambassador/Governor Huntsman signaling that he thinks those measures would be counterproductive and, indeed, antagonize Beijing and potentially trigger a trade war.

What’s sort of interesting, but I think that Ambassador Huntsman is quite right that the Chinese have ways to poke back when the United States pokes. What he hasn’t really offered is if Governor Romney’s strategy doesn’t work, how is it that you’re going to get the Chinese to comply with a variety of the economic behaviors that you hope to get them to do. Because as – I think as Governor Romney has pointed out, that if you’re in a negotiation with somebody and you’re not willing to make some demands, you’re likely to get rolled. And so this will be an interesting debate to follow forward.

But I would not expect, if any – if the Republicans win in 2012, that you’re going to see, sort of, a one for one translation of what is said in the campaign trail about China into actual government policy. People will discover a lot of reasons why some of the more appealing suggestions for dealing with China are unworkable, impractical, or counterproductive in practice.

MODERATOR: We have a question up here, please.

QUESTION: Ching-Yi Chang Phoenix TV. Thank you for your answer, but we noticed that the President Obama actually trying to take a tougher stand against China during his trip to Hawaii for the APEC Summit. He asked China to act like a grown-up, even he said he’s impatient, and enough is enough. I – we – many believe it’s for – it’s kind of his campaign strategy to gain the vote, especially when Romney taking tougher stand against China. So what’s – so (inaudible) present – what’s the – will he take the same stance in --

MR. LINDSAY: I would suggest that the way you’ve told the story gives way too much emphasis to the campaign or the election factor in the Administration’s calculation. Again, I’d step back – it’s – my take on the Administration is that it had initially a view of how it could elicit Chinese cooperation. And that had a lot to do with sort of being forward leaning and conciliatory. And then from the vantage point of the White House, they didn’t get the reciprocal response from the Chinese – rather, I think the sense was that the Chinese pocketed the American concessions and then demanded more. And indeed, Chinese behavior in the region became, in some sense, more aggressive, which – or it’s certainly perceived that way by leaders of various countries throughout East Asia. And so the change in tone and approach of the Administration began long before people began worrying about who was going to be the GOP candidate, and what precisely would they say on China.

So I would not point to the campaign factor. More I would suggest that, for example, the President’s trip to Asia generally, but the announcements of putting 2,500 Marines in Darwin, for example, are not the sort of issues that most Americans would follow or that would persuade or move many people. Yes, I can – I know there’s sort of a small niche of people who stay up late at night surfing the Internet for the latest on defense policy changes and what happens, but I would suggest to you those are a minority of a minority of a minority of voters in the United States.

And again, just to step back and make a broader observation. Right now, most Americans are not engaged in the political process, they’re not thinking about who they’re going to vote for. Most Americans are not like think tank analysts like myself who spend – who go – watch every debate and parse what is said, and compare what the candidates said in South Carolina versus what they’re saying Sioux City, Iowa. Most Americans are saying, I’ll check in sometime late next summer when you can tell me who the candidates are, because at the end of the day the voting choice really is one of comparison shopping. Tell me what I have to choose between. “Who’s A? Who’s B? And then I’ll make up my mind.” So I think right now it’s sort of – it’s really, really early, and again, my guess is if you go out and ask most Americans next October, “What did the President do when he went to East Asia last year?” the response you would get would be like, “He went to East Asia last year?” (Laughter.)

Okay. So I don’t want to exaggerate how closely voters are following and parsing. I think doing that exaggerates, sort of, the campaign aspect in these things. One final thing, because of course, no matter what an Administration does to say they’re doing that because they’re trying to win voters. That is what we call in social science non-falsifiable. Because there’s always some voting group out there who’ll like what you do.

MODERATOR: We have a question on the right here in front.

QUESTION: Hi. Alex Ribeiro from the Brazilian newspaper Valor Economico. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about international economics. We have this European crisis, and I wonder much would it be the role of the United States in this crisis. I mean, there is all talk about putting money on the IMF to help the European countries, some role for the Federal Reserve putting money in there. So I wonder if you – we have still room for that in just divided process in next year. And also, the President Obama has more a multilateral approach. He has given a broader role for IMF in all these discussions about shifting power for these new emerging markets, like the (inaudible). Can we expect a continuation of this process from now on?

MR. LINDSAY: Great questions, so let me take question one. First, the issue of what to do about the Eurozone crisis has been one that so far really hasn’t engaged the political process or been captured in campaign discussion. Indeed, I’ve watched, I think, now all 13 GOP debates, and I can think of only one time where the question was asked. And it was the CNBC debate, not surprisingly since it’s a business channel, where the issue came up.

It’s not an issue that the candidates are hearing a lot on the campaign trail, in part because it’s not an issue that most Americans understand. We know that Europeans are having trouble, but it’s not clear what that means for us. Obviously, depending on where you go, if you go to Wall Street and talk to people from the financial world, they’ll be happy to tell you how if the Eurozone crisis escalates it could have huge ripples effects – not just for the United States, but for countries like China – and that could be sort of the wild card that really stirs up international politics over the next year or so.

So it really hasn’t caught on in terms of what the United States should do. It hasn’t become part of the political hurly-burly, tussle, and what have you. The interesting question – and I don't have the answer to this – would be what happens if it does? If, for example, it becomes clear that the recent efforts by Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy to sort of stop the crisis or put the Eurozone back onto solid footing – what if that collapses and it’s clear that we’re looking at the meltdown of the Eurozone? Well, then all of the sudden, it’s very clear that the IMF and others have to step up. Will that get caught up in the hurly-burly of American politics and how will that constrain things? I don't know the answer to it.

What I can say to you is that my guess would be that Republican candidates would, given their past pronouncements, probably argue that the Europeans are wealthy enough to fix their own problems. That’s what Governor Romney said when the issue of what to do about the Eurozone crisis came up. Now, there’s also a lot of wiggle room that was in Governor Romney’s answer, which is – because he’s argued that, of course, the IMF can do things and should do things. But the question will be, does he need to replenish the IMF, new facilities and what have you; would it require any sort of congressional action?

So again, it’s always hard to answer hypotheticals because it all depends upon what the details are of the hypotheticals. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you could have sort of strong pushback on the Republican side, arguing that we’re against bailouts, and we’re against bailing out American banks, and so why the heck are we going to go and bail out Europe.

In terms of relying on multilateral organizations, my sense is that the President approached these things in a fairly pragmatic way. He relies on these multilateral organizations because they’re going to allow him to get done what he needs to get done. And where bilateral, multilateral options aren’t going to help him, he’s more than willing to act unilaterally. And you certainly – if you doubt that, can ask the Government of Pakistan.

MODERATOR: We have a question here on the left.

QUESTION: Ai Awaji from Jiji Press, Japanese newswire. Thank you so much for doing this. I have a question about the Administration’s Middle East policy, Arab Spring. As you said, the President has been criticized by some GOP candidates that he’s been weak about the response toward Iran and Syria maybe. So what do you think? Do you think – how much impact do you think this kind of internal pressure would have on the decision making of this Administration? And also if there is a situation like Libya, imminent humanitarian crisis, will it be harder for the Administration to take military action or bold action because of the election?

MR. LINDSAY: Okay. We do – we have a compound question with a bunch of parts. Let me try to do justice to the various parts of it.

I would say that, number one, the Administration’s policy, what it’s doing on the Middle East, is not driven by campaign politics. Certainly, some the President’s speech, particularly about Israel, I think are done with an eye toward the campaign, because that’s what presidents [do]. I mean, you – part of the job of President is to take sure you maintain public support for the policies, and part of that is making the case to the public that what you’re doing is both good and makes sense.

Number two, it’s not surprising that GOP candidates are attacking the President on the Middle East, or any other foreign policy issue, because they’re trying to win an election. And the way you win the election is by persuading people that the guy they currently have isn’t up to the job, that you can do better. If you go around saying, “Well, they did a good job on that and a good job on this and a good job on that other thing,” you hardly need that challenger.

I think that, quite honestly, much of the debate on the Republican side about the Middle East has been – hasn’t grappled with the complexities of the issue. And I think this is sort of true of much of the debate on the Republican side has sort of talked about the world as we think it used to be rather than the world as it currently is. There’s a major geopolitical change underway, and that is the dispersion of power away from the West in general and the United States in particular. That’s the result of globalization, and it’s actually the result of conscious American policy.

Going all the way back to the end of World War II, what was the American ideal? The American ideal was that if you had an open, fair, free trading system you encouraged market democracies, you’d get economic growth, you’d get freedom and liberty, and you would get security. This is actually an idea that goes all the way back to the American Revolution and the writings of people like Tom Paine. So we created an international structure that encouraged openness in economics. We pushed hard for openness in politics. And the argument that American policy makers have made in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s actually produced something.

I mean, most obvious of that came with the embrace by China of market economics and the rapid, incredible rise, growth of the Chinese economy. But one of the consequences of that is that economic power moves away. Look at the rise of Brazil, the emergence of Turkey. You all the sudden have more countries at the table making demands, having different interests, wanting to be consulted. So that's really sort of complicated it.

And indeed, now, when you sort of look now at this specific issue with the Middle East, my boss, Richard Haass at the Council on Foreign Relations wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs – maybe it was two years ago now – talking really, about sort of the end of the American era in the Middle East, and the notion of sort of the time when we could sort of really drive events has really sort of moved on. And so – and one of the things, if you listen very carefully to the GOP debate, while they’re long on criticism of the President – and the criticisms depending upon who you’re talking about. Michele Bachman is upset that the United States helped topple Qadhafi, not because she liked Mr. Qadhafi, but because she’s worried of what comes after him, whereas you have Rick Perry arguing that the United States isn’t doing enough in Syria because it’s important for Mr. Assad to move out. But in all of this, really what you don’t hear them talking about is what specifically can the United States do.

We talk about the Arab Spring or the Middle East uprisings. What is it that the United States should be prepared to do? What are these candidates prepared to do? And again, on that score, there’s been a lot less. So I would say in much of the debate – and this is typical of any campaign debate – the candidates are very quick to tell you what the other guy has done wrong, but they generally are very slow to tell you exactly what it is that they would do differently and why you would expect that to work and produce a better outcome.

MODERATOR: We have a question on the right, in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Andrew Surzhanskiy. I am with ITAR-TASS news agency of Russia. Thank you, sir, for doing this. My question is this: Responding to the U.S. criticism after election in the State Duma, the Russian officials accused the United States of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. Given that, do you think that U.S.-Russian relations will become an issue during this election season, and under which circumstances might it happen? Yeah. Thank you.

MR. LINDSAY: In looking at U.S.-Russia relations, it’s certainly possible that it could be caught up in campaign 2012. The circumstances under which that would happen would probably be much more significant developments in Russia. Barring that, just given the fact that the American public isn’t focused on foreign affairs, given that there are other foreign affairs issues that are sort of closer to the front burner of the foreign policy stove, so to speak, I wouldn’t see Russia coming – being a major issue.

But there are obviously -- as you know, there are lots of smaller issues in U.S.-Russian relations that matter a lot to some groups. And obviously crackdown on protestors, civil society organizations in Russia would lead to a lot more complaints from civil society, human rights, rule of law groups here in the United States.

A broader issue to keep in mind going in 2012, is that 2012 is a global leadership transition year. Russia’s going to have a new president, the United States may have a new president, but certainly one defending his presidency, China is going to have a new leader, Mexico is going to pick a new president. If you go around the globe, there are a lot of actual, real, or possible leadership transitions. And that’s significant because in a time of transition – especially in democratic countries but not only in democratic countries – leaders have to really worry about maintaining domestic support about telling the public wants the hear. Generally speaking, leaders are a little reluctant to take big risks, be too conciliatory to others during those times, especially when the economy isn’t going very well.

So I think there’s always some potential for 2012 to be contentious, because you have a lot of leaders who have to worry about reassuring their bases of support, that they’re out there fighting for the country’s interest.

MODERATOR: We have time for a few more questions. We’ll go to the back and the left side.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Nikki Kazimova. I am from a newspaper in Azerbaijan called Echo. And I wanted to ask a question on your assessment of issues when foreign policy issues interwine – intertwine, rather – with domestic politics. And as you can imagine, I’m talking about the Armenian lobby and how it affects U.S. policies in Azerbaijan.

And we also see how different parties court the candidates. For example, Obama made some promises to the Armenian lobby that did not exactly come true. And in that regard, my question is about your assessment of what Azerbaijan can expect from different candidates, both in terms how willing they would be to listen to the Armenian concerns and in terms of the U.S. position on the Armenian-Turkish relations and also in terms of – Azerbaijans are all in U.S. foreign policy, decisions in Afghanistan, in Iran, and where it is also involved. Thank you.

MR. LINDSAY: I have to be blunt and honest. I’m not an Azerbaijan expert, so I don't want to exaggerate either my knowledge base or how much confidence you should put in what I say. If I – so let me sort of do something that maybe kind of a dodge and sort of step back a bit and just talk about the broader issue that you raise.

There is a long history in the United States of talking about how politics should stop at the water’s edge, the idea that Americans should be united when they look at issues overseas. That has largely not been an accurate characterization of American foreign policy. Indeed, if you go all the way back to the first American president, George Washington, and the creation of sort of the first two political parties in the United States, the Federalists and the Democrat Republicans, Washington and Alexander Hamilton became the leaders of the Federalist party and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sort of the leaders of the Democrat Republican party. That happened over the issue over how to deal with France and England. It was fundamentally about foreign policy.

And I’m always taken by the notion talking about politics stop at the water’s edge, so much so that my blog at is called The Water’s Edge, where I write about a lot of these issues. And the fact is, Americans have long disagreed – argued sometimes quite bitterly – over what America’s role in the world should be.

Making that broad observation, it’s also important to acknowledge that there are a lot of foreign policy issues that may matter a lot to a segment of the American population that don’t interest most Americans. And you talk about, obviously, the Armenian lobby here in the United States, which has very strong preferences on Armenia and its relationship with its neighbors, and most Americans who aren’t Armenian aren’t terribly interested one way or the other. One of the rules of democratic politics is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease; that is, highly organized, highly vocal groups with intense preferences can have disproportionate influence on American public policy, provided – and here’s the catch – that there aren’t equally well organized, equally intense, equally impassioned groups on the other side opposing them. And obviously in the case of the Armenian lobby, it has been very well organized, and there hasn’t generally been a countervailing force. We don’t have an equal Azerbaijan community here in the United States which is sort of organized to fight and counter the Armenian lobby.

But what has happened historically then is that candidates, because they hear a lot from Armenian Americans, talk – very sympathetic to their point of view, and they may make promises on the campaign trail, as you note. Then they come to office, and a variety of other pressures come to bear and constrict them, most notably the issues of America’s relations with other countries in that region and things we want to do, and all of the sudden those campaign promises give way to the realities of governing. So I would not expect a major change in U.S. policy based on anything that’s been said in the campaign trail.

MODERATOR: All right. We had a question on the right, over here in the front.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Betty Lin of the World Journal. It’s kind of a follow-up. Can you just elaborate on how influential or how has foreign lobby been trying to influence the, well, U.S. campaign and foreign policy and how successful have they been? And can you talk about also the Afghanistan and APEC?

MR. LINDSAY: Okay. I need to make sure I understand the question you asked. Because are you asking how important are ethnic lobbies in the United States in --

QUESTION: How influential they are, how successful they are.

MR. LINDSAY: Well, that’s one of sort of the great questions that bedevils political scientists who try to measure these things that’s incredibly hard to measure. I’d make sort of the following observation and sort of repeat a point that I just made. Any lobby in the United States, whether it’s organized around people’s nationality or their economic interest, an ideological point of view is more effective the fewer the number of adversaries they confront and the greater the number of allies they have.

Take it out of the issue of foreign affairs and just think of it more generally. Think of pro-life groups versus pro-choice groups on the issue of abortion. They’re both very well organized, very powerful. They have large constituencies, and they, to a great extent, negate the efforts of each other. Whereas if you compare that to, let’s say, veterans affairs, where groups who lobby for America’s military veterans tend to be very influential because, as a former Secretary of Veterans Affairs once put it, “This is an army that marches unopposed.” Okay? So in American politics, if there’s no one out there saying, “What you’re doing is wrong and dangerous,” you’re much more likely to get your way. And the same thing happens, I think, in – when you talk about ethnic groups.

MODERATOR: All right. I think we might have time for one last question. Over here on the left, in the front, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. It’s Diana Ray with Voice of Russia Radio. I just wanted to ask what – you’re talking about this lack of interest in foreign policy among voters. Is it just the focus on domestic issues, the economy, jobs, or are there other factors at play? And then I also wanted to ask you just your – what you thought in terms of missile defense between Russia and the U.S. Is that – those negotiations, things going on, does that register at all with American voters?

MR. LINDSAY: The lack of interest in foreign affairs is partly because it’s hard for most people to see how events very far away directly affect them. It’s largely a function of the fact that the economy is not doing terribly well, that real income in the United States is more or less stagnated. Whether or not you believe the report that came out yesterday saying one in two Americans live in poverty or not, the fact is that Americans clearly are not optimistic about the economy and haven’t been for quite some time.

Gallup asked this question – been doing it for several decade now, which I’m probably not getting it exactly right, but it essentially says, “Do you think the country is going in the right direction or not?” And more people have said no than said yes since January of 2004. That is long before the housing crisis and Lehman Brothers and the Fannie Mae problems. There’s sort of a sense of pessimism, of unhappiness, unrest, that something not quite right is going on, and that drives a lot of what is happening.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you all very much for coming today. Thank you, Dr. Lindsay for providing a perspective outside of the U.S. Government, and thank you all once again.

MR. LINDSAY: Good. Thank you.

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