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Foreign Policy and the President's Irrelevance

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By George Friedman

We are now a year away from the inauguration of a new president, and Super Tuesday has arrived, when it seems likely that the Democratic and Republican nominees will start to become obvious. At the moment, there is a toss-up between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton among the Democrats, while John McCain appears to be moving in front of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee among the Republicans. It seems an opportune time to ask whether it matters who gets the nomination and who ultimately wins the November election, at least from the standpoint of foreign policy.

The candidates' discussion of foreign policy has focused on one issue: Iraq. Virtually all other major foreign policy issues, from the future of U.S.-Russian relations to the function of NATO to the structure of the U.S. armed forces in the next generation, have been ignored in the public discussions.

The discussion of Iraq has been shaped and reshaped by events. The apparent improvement in the U.S. position in Iraq has quieted that debate as well. At one extreme, Obama has said he favors a rapid U.S. withdrawal, although he has been vague as to the timing. At the other extreme, McCain has endorsed the Bush administration's handling of the war. This means that even though he has been quite pro-surge, he does not oppose withdrawal in principle but does insist on not setting a timeline for one. The others' views are less clear.

The consensus on foreign policy is the most interesting feature of the election, especially regarding Iraq. We don't mean the posturing or the shouting or the attempt to position one candidate against the others. We mean two things: first, what the candidates are saying after the passion is boiled away, and second, what they are likely to do if they become president.

There is, of course, a great deal of discussion about who supported or opposed what and when. That is not a trivial discussion, but it doesn't really point to what anyone will do. On a second level, there is the discussion about whether the United States should withdraw from Iraq. Even here, there is actually little that divides the candidates. The real question is when that withdrawal should take place, over what period of time and whether the timeline should be announced.

There is no candidate arguing for the permanent stationing of more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. There are those who believe that political ends can and should be achieved in Iraq, and that the drawdown of forces should be keyed to achieving those ends. That is essentially the Bush policy. Then there are those who believe that the United States not only has failed to achieve its political goals but also, in fact, is not going to achieve them. Under this reasoning, the United States ought to be prepared to withdraw from Iraq on a timetable that is indifferent to the situation on the ground.

This has been Obama's position to this point, and it distinguishes him from other candidates -- including Clinton, who has been much less clear on what her policy going forward would be. But even Obama's emphasis, if not his outright position, has shifted as a political resolution in Iraq has appeared more achievable. He remains committed to a withdrawal from Iraq, but he is not clear on the timeline. He calls for having all U.S. combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months, but qualifies his statement by saying that if al Qaeda attempts to build a base within Iraq, he will keep troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region to carry out targeted strikes against the group. Since al Qaeda is in fact building a base within Iraq, Obama's commitment to having troops in Iraq is open-ended.

The shift in Obama's emphasis -- and this is the important point -- means his position on Iraq is not really different from that of McCain, the most pro-Bush candidate. Events have bypassed the stance that the situation on the ground is hopeless, so even Obama's position has tacked toward a phased withdrawal based on political evolutions.

It has long been said that presidential candidates make promises but do what they want if elected. In foreign policy, presidential candidates make promises and, if elected, do what they must to get re-elected. Assume that the situation in Iraq does not deteriorate dramatically, which is always a possibility, and assume a president is elected who would simply withdraw troops from Iraq. The withdrawal from Iraq obviously would increase Iranian power and presence in Iraq. That, in turn, would precipitate a crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two powers with substantial differences dividing them. The United States would then face the question of whether to support the Saudis against Iran. Placing forces in Saudi Arabia is the last thing the Americans or the Saudis want. But there is one thing that the Americans want less: Iranian dominance of the Arabian Peninsula.

Any president who simply withdrew forces from Iraq without a political settlement would find himself or herself in an enormously difficult position. Indeed, such a president would find himself or herself in a politically untenable position. The consequences of a withdrawal are as substantial as the consequences of remaining. The decline in violence and the emergence of some semblance of a political process tilts the politics of decision-making toward a phased withdrawal based on improvements on the ground and away from a phased withdrawal based on the premise that the situation on the ground will not improve. Therefore, even assuming Obama wins the nomination and the presidency, the likelihood of a rapid, unilateral withdrawal is minimal. The political cost of the consequences would be too high, and he wouldn't be able to afford it.

Though Obama is the one outrider from the general consensus on Iraq, we would argue that the relative rhetorical consensus among the candidates extends to a practical consensus. It is not that presidents simply lie. It is that presidents frequently find themselves in situations where the things they want to do and the things they can do -- and must do -- diverge. We have written previously about situations in which policymakers are not really free to make policy. The consequences of policy choices constrain the policymaker. A president could choose a range of policies. But most have unacceptable outcomes, so geopolitical realities herd presidents in certain directions.

At least at this point in its cycle, Iraq is such a situation. The debate over Iraq thus mostly has focused on whether a candidate supported the war in the beginning. The debate over what is to be done now was more a matter of perception than reality in the past, and it certainly is much more muted today. To the extent they ever existed, the policy choices have evaporated.

The candidates' consensus is even more intense regarding the rest of the world. The major geopolitical evolutions -- such as the re-emergence of an assertive Russia, Chinese power growing beyond the economic realm and the future of the European Union -- are simply nonissues.

When you drill down into position papers that are written but not meant to be read -- and which certainly are not devised by the candidates -- you find some interesting thoughts. But for the most part, the positions are clear. The candidates are concerned about Russia's growing internal authoritarianism and hope it ends. The candidates are concerned about the impact of China on American jobs but generally are committed to variations on free trade. They are also concerned about growing authoritarianism in China and hope it ends. On the unification of Europe, they have no objections.

This might appear vapid, but we would argue that it really isn't. In spite of the constitutional power of the U.S. president in foreign policy, in most cases, the president really doesn't have a choice. Policies have institutionalized themselves over the decades, and shifting those policies has costs that presidents can't absorb. There is a reason the United States behaves as it does toward Russia, China and Europe, and these reasons usually are powerful. Presidents do not simply make policy. Rather, they align themselves with existing reality. For example, since the American public doesn't care about European unification, there is no point in debating the subject. There are no decisions to be made on such issues. There is only the illusion of decisions.

There is a deeper reason as well. The United States does not simply decide on policies. It responds to a world that is setting America's agenda. During the 2000 campaign, the most important issue that would dominate the American presidency regardless of who was elected never was discussed: 9/11. Whatever the presidential candidates thought would or wouldn't be important, someone else was going to set the agenda.

The issue of policies versus character has been discussed many times. One school of thought holds that the foreign policies advocated by a presidential candidate are the things to look at. In fact, the candidate can advocate whatever he or she wants, but foreign policy is frequently defined by the world and not by the president. In many cases, it is impossible to know what the issue is going to be, meaning the candidates' positions on various topics are irrelevant. The decisions that are going to matter are going to force the president's hand, not the other way around.

The most important decisions made by Roosevelt before and during World War II were never anticipated by him or by the voters when he was first elected. Wilson didn't know he would be judged by Versailles, Truman didn't know he would be judged by Korea and Bush didn't know he would be judged by 9/11 and its aftermath. None of them had position papers on these issues because none of them anticipated the events. They couldn't.

That is why it is not disturbing that the candidates are drifting toward consensus on Iraq and have no clear and divergent positions elsewhere. This is not simply a consequence of the interest or lack of interest of the American public. It has to do with a hidden dimension of presidential power, and indeed, with the limits of power everywhere. History deals up the agenda, and the options in response are severely constrained. If Thomas Dewey had been elected in 1948, do we really believe the Korean War would have played out differently?

Presidents are not to be judged by how they make history. They are to be judged by how gracefully they submit to the rules that history lays down. The consensus or disinterest of candidates is not important. What is important is this: The dominant foreign policy issue facing the candidates is going to hit them out of the blue one day. Their options will be few, and how quickly they recognize what must be done as opposed to what they would like to do is about all they will be judged by.

We know that Johnson made a terrible hash of Vietnam, while Roosevelt did pretty well in World War II. We strongly suspect that if Johnson had been president during World War II he would be respected and admired today, while if Roosevelt had been president during Vietnam he would be reviled. It's not that presidents don't matter. It's that they don't matter nearly as much as we would like to think and they would have us believe. Mostly, they are trapped in realities not of their own making.

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