Correction to This Article
This article on foreign policy coverage in the presidential campaigns incorrectly identified Ari Melber as the author of an article in the Nation magazine that was actually written by Ari Berman. Both men are contributing writers to the Nation. This is the corrected version of the article.

It's a Scary World. Don't Campaign Reporters Care?

By Michael Signer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

The last year has thrown a dizzying array of foreign policy challenges at the United States. We deployed an additional 30,000 troops to Iraq. Venezuela's Hugo Ch¿vez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blustered their way across the world stage. Russian President Vladimir Putin flirted with a new cold war with Washington. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan.

And, of course, we all continue to live in the chilly shadow of 9/11.

You might imagine that such red-hot foreign policy issues, combined with a wide-open presidential election, would spark a journalistic fire so intense it would force candidates up into trees and out on limbs to defend their foreign policy positions.

But you'd be dreaming.

A few weeks ago, I concluded a 10-month stint as foreign policy adviser to former senator John Edwards's presidential campaign. During that time, he made a series of major foreign policy addresses. Last March, he gave a speech on global poverty. In May, he talked about strengthening U.S. force structure and replacing the outmoded "global war on terror" strategy. In September, there was a major speech on counterterrorism and intelligence, including a proposal for a new multilateral treaty organization. In October, Edwards proposed a new diplomatic framework for Iran.

The reaction from the major news media? A big yawn. We struggled to get any coverage.

This isn't sour grapes from a losing campaign. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have faced the same indifference. Obama presented a wide-ranging foreign policy speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last April, a speech on veterans' issues in August, an Iraq address in October. Clinton gave a national security address in June, one on Iraq in July, a veterans' speech in August.

In every instance, the mainstream media were almost completely AWOL in providing thoughtful, analytical coverage.

There were exceptions, of course. Jason Horowitz of the New York Observer wrote an in-depth piece on Edwards's counterterrorism proposals. But mostly you had to look to the blogs -- places such as the Atlantic Online, the American Prospect, TPMCafe and Democracy Arsenal -- for serious, sustained foreign policy reporting.

This is troubling, because what a candidate says on foreign policy matters. Often, major policy proposals are road maps to what the candidates actually do once elected. George W. Bush's famous national security speech on Sept. 23, 1999, at the Citadel in South Carolina accurately portended his most provocative policies as president, from "transforming" our armed forces through technology and lighter brigades, to disengaging from the Clinton administration's many diplomatic commitments.

Even if candidates fail to implement them in office, the proposals they put forth during a campaign are a reflection of their courage (or lack thereof), their intellectual depth, their fluency in difficult subject matter and their knowledge of history.

This time around, the three top Democratic candidates all proposed assertive ideas for tackling major problems in roughly the same time frame. In April, May and June respectively, Obama, Edwards and Clinton all gave major speeches on national security. Obama called for "building a 21st-century military." Edwards proposed building a "mission-focused military." Clinton called to "rebuild our strength and widen and deepen [the military's] scope."

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