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."
You'd think that journalists would do a comparative analysis of what the three candidates had proposed for the U.S. military in the coming decade; what they could do, practically; and what the speeches might predict about national security during their presidencies. But no.
Sometime in the summer, I asked a major Washington journalist why we weren't seeing any rich comparative articles on foreign policy. He looked at me and said, "But you guys haven't done anything on foreign policy." I took a deep breath and recited the major speeches Edwards had already delivered. He thought a moment and then said, "You know, you're right." I implored him to write something substantive about our major proposals -- on global aid, national security, veterans issues and Iraq. He readily agreed. "I owe you guys a piece," he said. "I'll write it."
It never happened.
In November, I got a call from a major national radio program saying that they'd be doing a substantive piece on the candidates' foreign policies -- how they were developed and what the process revealed about the candidates' thinking.
Perfect! I thought. At last. I was in Iowa City and drove 45 minutes through blinding snow to a small studio for an hour-long interview. When the segment aired, my heart sank. It had changed into a quick-and-dirty recitation of a few policy proposals from all the candidates, Republican and Democrat -- not the substantive compare-and-contrast that had been promised.
We did see a few articles in a few places that knitted together, in a backward-looking way, the candidates' various statements on foreign policy. Michael Gordon of the New York Times did a good job with individual candidate interviews exclusively on foreign affairs.
But there were few deep contrast articles -- the sort of thing we'd see from columnists such as Paul Krugman on domestic policy. The stories we saw tended only to compare the candidates' foreign policy advisers, with the flavor of a fantasy baseball article in Sports Illustrated.
In the waning days of our campaign, Ari Berman wrote a comparative story in the Nation that was rich in detail (he gave Edwards only a couple of paragraphs, though he wrote that the former senator "paradoxically said some of the most interesting things during the campaign"). Berman deserves credit. But this was a small, elite, niche magazine -- not a major newspaper or, God forbid, a broadcast segment.
Just entertain the thought for a moment. What if, in the coming months, every major journalist who covers foreign affairs wrote one story that actually recounted what the candidates are proposing on a foreign policy issue. On the Middle East, or the developing world. On energy independence, proposals to help veterans, the critical role of global aid, denuclearization, or how we should deal with rising powers such as Russia, China and India.
These stories would tell us what the candidates have proposed and whether their ideas are silly or workable. They would quote experts and present tough criticism and fair praise. They would tell us something about the candidates' characters. They would illuminate the future and tell us something about the past.
Most important, they would give us insight into this most critical of decisions -- who should be commander in chief of the world's most powerful country in a time of war and a time of momentous choices.
Frazzled campaign aides are frequently desperate to know that what we're doing has meaning, and our lives oscillate between idealism about our work and cynicism about its limitations. Call me naive, but I still believe that what the candidates propose can and does make a difference.
History shows it. In 1959, John F. Kennedy was arguing that we had a "missile gap" with the Soviet Union -- and increased tensions with Moscow. In 1979, Ronald Reagan said that "negotiation with the Soviet Union must never become appeasement" -- and as president, he ratcheted up the Cold War. There are no guarantees, but what the candidates are saying about foreign policy this time around just might affect the course of history.
The media still have a few more months to play their part. It's time they step up to the plate.
Michael Signer, a lawyer and national security consultant, is writing a book on democracy and foreign policy.