It is my view that while foreign policy discussion can't stray entirely away from the realities on the ground, and specific details that are mentioned fluctuate with respect to evolving foreign developments, the overwhelming determiner of foreign policy discussion is actually domestic interests not foreign. Politicians talk about foreign policy because they hope to gain popular support for themselves and their views, to set the agenda, to dismiss criticism, and the like. The things they say are principally tailored based on how they think their own domestic population will react. The best measure of how important the domestic side of things is to see the disconnect between how the domestic political discussion unfolds compared to the substantive changes in developments on the ground. As we will see as we consider various countries, the pattern of this primacy of domestic interests driving foreign policy discussion repeats itself.
Why we talk about Iran:
Consider, for example, the situation with Iran which dominates much of the political foreign policy rhetoric. Despite the risks of regional conflict and loss of life being vastly greater in Syria, despite an escalating amount of interventionalism in Somalia, despite an ongoing massive war in Afghanistan, Iran still gets the most attention and is portrayed (just as Iraq was before it) as the epitome of evil posing a grave and dangerous threat. The reality, of course, is that Iran's military capacities are very limited and even in the case that it acquires a nuclear bomb this is understood by all players to be a tactical deterrent that would never get used offensively. It is for this reason why Arabs - the neighbors of Iran despite being overwhelmingly of a different religion - in general support the idea of a nuclear Iran. Yet this realpolitik, which anyone actually involved in the foreign policy relations would acknowledge, is entirely lost on the political discussion in the US.
The potential political gains for candidates in the GOP Presidential nomination contest are significant. Obama's strongest aspect, from a public opinion perspective, has been his putative foreign policy successes (Osama Bin Laden, withdrawing from Iraq, Libya, etc - these can be contested but are generally well received). The Republicans, in contrast, have typically tried to be the standard bearers for having the right foreign policy view. For the Republicans, Iran represents an opportunity to attack Obama on foreign policy. They can present that image of a tough, proud, strong policy of American exceptionalism. They can play the fear tactics card that have been so politically successful in the past.
Conversely, Obama needs to set a beachhead against these attacks. He can also use the acting tough rhetoric to achieve political support just as the Republicans do; they do not have a monopoly on this. What is interesting is that aside from rhetorical differences there is not really substantive policy differences between Obama and candidates like Mitt Romney. Both keep the option of military strikes; both promote the toughest of diplomatic responses; and while the GOP candidates tried to outdo each other on using covert attacks to incite regime change and assassinate scientists, some combination of the US and Israel is engaged in exactly these activities on the ground. That said, since the hawkish calls for war are so strong on the Republican side, they will have the perception of a stronger mandate for war and so the threshold of situations in which the US goes to war with Iran are moderately lower for the Republicans than for Obama.
The point in all of this is that domestic discussion of Iran has little to do with an objective measure of the threat that Iran does or does not pose. Substantive changes in the foreign policy relationship do not have much of an effect on the changing realities on the ground. For example, one of the largest foreign policy failures of the Obama administration on the Iran file was to flatly reject the nuclear deal sponsored by Turkey and Brazil that broadly covered the ostensible goals of the time regarding dealing with nuclear fuel. This was done simply because it was brokered by rising middle powers and not by the US itself. Since then the diplomatic situation with Iran has weakened - not as far as the rhetoric would suggest, but weakened nonetheless. The Republicans could rightly attack Obama for this foreign policy mistake, yet they don't because they prefer the tough hawkish perception opposed to the soft tactics of multilateral diplomacy.
Why Iran talks about us:
Just as US politicians have their own domestic reasons for saying the different things that they do, so is the case for Iranian leaders. With parliamentary elections approaching next month, the division in Iran is very strong. The tension between President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are openly spewed across the Iranian stage. When leaders of Iran say things like "death to Israel" or any of the other ridiculous nonsense they say, it is again to appeal to domestic considerations. They want to be presented as strong and powerful in the face of the infidel imperial powers. Nuclear weapons are seen as a symbol of Iranian power and prestige and it really appeals to people to have that power just as the world's strongest powers do. Anti-Israeli sentiment is strong - although not as strong as the leaders present - but nonetheless they can appeal to that for domestic support. That much of any of this translates into realistic chances of attack is not at all clear. For the most part, they do what they do for domestic political reasons just as our politicians do with little consideration for any diplomatic changes.
Israel forms the third vertex of the Israel-US-Iran triangle of relations that each has found one of the other to be the chief country to demonize at every opportunity. For the US, there is a strong sentiment that has been inculcated (quite artificially, as the history of this relationship shows) that being Israel's best friend as a foreign policy imperative and that anything that could be even the slightest bit perceived to be against Israel is a domestic relations nightmare. The right has a strong Christian Zionist movement and GOP candidates hope to appeal to both this as well as some Jews (although most voted for Obama in 2008). Since the Israel-Iran relationship is so poor and both demonize the other, if one can show that Obama is in some way 'bad' on Iran, it can be cast as being against Israel.
In Israel, however, they face their own domestic concerns. Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party is in power formed as a coalition between extremely right wing members and relatively more moderate ones. He faces significant challenges for the next election in 2 years and faces a near constant threat of revolt from the right wing of his coalition which is the political reason he more or less has to keep up with the settlement activity in the West Bank. Strong anti-Iranian rhetoric, and anti-Iranian policies such as launching the Stuxnet cyber attack and assassinating Iranian scientists, provide easy fodder for him to acquire political support. Indeed, the clash of religions narrative is very strong in Israel and being able to appeal to it by having both countries consistently demonizing the other is a very powerful political narrative.
Foreign policy as it actually operates:
One can continue telling story after story like the ones above moving from country to country around the world and it repeats itself over and over again: discussion of foreign policy in a country are predominantly for politicians' own domestic interests. These discussions often have little bearing on substantive changes in the underlying foreign events. However, it is worth stepping back and considering the kinds of interactions that actually make up foreign policy to see how it contrast with the rhetoric.
Foreign policy consists of a long series of different soft and hard interactions that range from diplomacy, incentives, and sanctions, all the way to covert and overt military actions. That is, it is the actual interactions between representatives of the various countries that comprise foreign policy. On the soft (as in non-military) side of things, one of the chief goals is the issue of signalling by which one country makes apparent to the other country its desires and what carrots and sticks accompany these desires to try and coax the other country to behave accordingly. There are numerous such signalling mechanisms that range from low level discussions by diplomatic representatives to UN resolutions.
What is more or less absent from such signalling, is considerations for what leaders of one country say to their own people. Mainly, this is because it is a simple terrible signally mechanism since everyone involves knows that the chief reason the leaders say what they do is for their own domestic interests. So when Barack Obama includes a tough-on-Iran component to his State of the Union address, he is not attempting to convey a message to Iran about the American stance on issues - they know what it is from the other signaling channels - he is instead conveying a message to the American people. Conversely, the same is true for statements that Ahmadinejad makes. The result is that a country's foreign policy - as measured by what its diplomats say and do - can and often is substantially different than its domestic public discussion.
In many ways, foreign policy is one of the more technocratic disciplines. As in, it is a subject where the substantial changes occur outside of the public eye and are done by specialists in these respective issues. Contrast this with an issue like taxation which is at the forefront of American politics and faces enormous amounts of public scrutiny. I have developed a very large appreciation for the difficulty and complexity of diplomacy and think it is far from the trivial caricatures presented by both the right and the left.
Consider the most drastic and consequential example of foreign policy: wars. Elections are not won or lost based on the decision to start a war. Very often they will be won or lost on the details of continuing a war (Bush 2004) or ending one (Obama 2008), but not on starting one. Whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Balkans, Gulf War, and so on, these are all actions taken by sitting governments without an electoral mandate. The decision to engage in war is, for the most part, done outside of the public consciousness. The war is then presented to the public, as it was in Iraq, and defended by those who decided to engage in it. It is selling a decision, not making one.
My broad point may seem intuitively obvious, perhaps even pedantic. We may be quite familiar with the idea that our own countries discussion of foreign policy is for the most part political pandering. However, I think it is less well appreciated (even though we should naively expect it to be the same) that other countries political discussion is also done for the sake of their own domestic pandering. And I think it is worthwhile to notice the considerable extent of the difference between domestic foreign policy discussion and the realities on the ground. Further, we often have the idea the dominant relationship in foreign policy is one where one country acts and another reacts, and so on. We should replace that perspective with one where both countries are not acting or reacting based on the other countries but instead simply using the changing events to further their own consistent domestic interests.
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