Sunday, February 11, 2007

Why American foreign policy begins and ends with the President of the US?

As a new president takes office, he usually rides a wave of momentum from the mandate he received in the November election. This gives him a brief ‘honeymoon’ (typically 100 days) to push many of his domestic campaign promises through Congress. Reagan did this successfully with his tax cuts in 1982, despite a heavily Democratic Congress. Bush passed his Education act “No Child Left Behind” on his 3rd day in office. However, as any married person can attest, all honeymoons come to an end. Congress returns to its business-as-usual self that is fraught with petty partisanship, pork-barrel legislation (which is a law that garners money and/or infrastructure projects for a Congressman’s home district, such as a new 10-lane bridge in small town, Kansas), and the perpetual re-election campaign (House of Representatives are elected every two years).

So, where does this leave the President? As Congress reassumes its control over the domestic agenda, the President is left looking outward toward foreign policy. This is the area in which over the next 2 to 6 years, if re-elected, where he will enjoy the most room to manage and affect policy. He appoints the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the CIA director. This is his domain where he can act unfettered. Congress does have to approve the ‘extended’ use of force but in general it has been the tradition of Congress to leave foreign affairs to the executive branch. In fact, this tradition was born in the drafting the Constitution, and a partial reason for the creation of that document.

This is where the cruel irony begins. While a president can affect the most change in foreign affairs, this is the area where he is the least versed. The past 4 out of the 5 US presidents were state governors immediately before assuming the Oval Office. Simply put, this meant that they don’t have a clue about foreign affairs upon assuming office. They spent their governor years worrying about education in Jerusalem, Ohio and tornadoes in Paris, Indiana…and rightly so. This paradox is unambiguously detrimental to the American people and to the world. No doubt, this inexperience caused JFK’s misjudgment to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and contributed to George W’s sheep-like susceptibility after 9/11 to neocons such as Cheney and Wolfowitz (9/11 occurred only 8 months Bush’s inauguration).

The only non-governor president in the past 5 was George H. W. Bush (Bush I), who previously served as VP and CIA director, and he was wildly successful in foreign affairs. He marshaled together an unparalleled international coalition in the first Iraq campaign. No doubt, he leveraged his previous executive branch experience. Ironically enough, his success abroad arguably cost his reelection at home in 1992 against Bill Clinton.

This leads us to the cruel irony #2 about the American presidency. While the president can impact the most change abroad and the least at home, he has historically been held accountable by the US citizenry for the opposite. Looking back at the past 30+ years, the incumbent president or VP has only been unseated due to economic downturns (Ford, Carter, Bush I) or scandal at home (why Gore didn’t win in 2000 and Nixon with Watergate). LBJ (Johnson) was the last president not to run for reelection based on a foreign issue, Vietnam. Can the President control the economy? No. Besides natural economic cycles, fiscal policy (tax cuts, hikes) must be passed through Congress, which as we saw earlier is tough for a president to manage. Monetary policy is governed by the federal reserve, whose governors are elected to 14 year terms, which restricts any one president’s influence. So, the president finds himself utterly responsible for an outcome that he can’t control.

Conversely, Americans, like Congress, give the benefit of the doubt to the President concerning foreign affairs. This deference stems from the American tradition of isolationism, both sociological and geographical. I believe this is why Americans voted Bush back to office in 2004. We don’t like to change leaders in the middle of a war; at least until we are damn sure it is wrong. Unfortunately, we weren’t at that point as a nation back in 2004.

In summary, my hope is not to dissuade you (i.e. business leaders) from improving US foreign policy, but to only highlight the vast influence the US President holds over American foreign policy. Indeed, a change of leadership can make a marked difference in US foreign policy (or at least its tone).

Thus, my action item is to elect a new president in 2008 that espouses:

Sincere contrition to the world for its misjudgment in Iraq and its insensitivity to all involved. There is a myth that the world superpower will look weak if he recognizes ‘enemies’ such as Iran and Syria by talking with them. My bet is that only good could come from this. The US still can boast a $420 billion defense budget (more than the rest of the world combine) and an economy that can kick anyone’s ass (GDP $12.6 trillion; the #2 is Japan with $4.6 trillion). Talking and understanding does not automatically mean legitimizing or approving (B. Hall taught us this).

A humble yet firm posture in other world affairs (i.e. Iran, North Korea). Like Ricardo and Nico said tonight, rebuild and bolster international institutions and take on ‘low-cost high benefit’ initiatives like AIDS in Africa. In short, rebuild the goodwill and win back the hearts and minds of the world. ‘Remind’ them about the best of America…its ideals and values.

A leadership role in nuclear nonproliferation. The US is clinging to the moral high ground here, and can easily reclaim it by ceasing all developments of new nuclear weapon designs, such as nuclear bunker busting bombs. For god’s sake, the benefit of these such developments can by no means outweigh the costs to international goodwill and/or trust. On such an important issue, we must be fervently consistent. The easiest way to prevent a nuclear catastrophe is preventing the bombs from being created in the first place. Indeed, as one moves from enriched uranium to warheads to border security it becomes exponentially more difficult to defend against.

By Tim Heis