Foreign policy made a cameo appearance in the 2012 presidential election last week and stole the scene. It’s impossible to say whether its role will recur. That fate seems to be in the hands of an odd group of producers: a bigoted preacher, a meth-cooking filmmaker and mob elements throughout the Arab World that never miss a chance to explode.
But the return of foreign affairs to our campaign shores was instructive, if only fleeting. We still don't know what we've learned about the Arab world in the 35 years since I was a journalism student and sent to cover the Hanafi Muslim siege in Washington. That four-day ordeal, in which hostages were taken, Councilman Marion Barry was wounded and two others were killed, was also the result, in part, of a protest against a film about Muhammad and Islam, starring Anthony Quinn and bankrolled by Moammar Qaddafi. (The film, by the way, in keeping with Islamic custom, never portrayed Muhammad or any of his relatives — just his voice was heard.) The crisis was resolved in no small measure because of the courage of the Muslim ambassadors of Iran, Egypt and Pakistan, who personally met with the leaders of the siege and emphasized the non-violent compassion of Muhammad.
Despite all that has happened since, our general naïveté about this nation’s role in the world continues. There are many notable exceptions. One of them, Chris Stevens, our ambassador to Libya, was killed last week. But too often politicians play to the pit on foreign policy. The Democratic convention boasted repeatedly of the killing of Osama bin Laden without regard to how that might play in the Arab street. And Mitt Romney's adviser said that quelling the recent outbreak of violence will be easy. Under Romney, his foreign policy adviser Rich Williamson says, a new sheriff would have that mess over there cleaned up in no time.
Into this long-standing void of ignorance and arrogance has stepped a group of foreign policy ideologues who have built, over the past 30 years, a mostly Republican orthodoxy on the proper role for the United States in world affairs. Buoyed by the half-right conclusion that the United States brought down the Soviet Union by forcing it to spend itself into ruin and instability to keep up, this group gathered strength in the Carter and Clinton years. Republicans were out of power, and the great internationalists in the Republican Party retired or were defeated in the 1980s — Charles Percy, John Danforth and Howard Baker — so these advisers, housed in academia or residing in think tanks, became even more important. Two out of the last three Republican presidential candidates had no foreign policy experience or feel for this country’s role in the world. People like John Bolton, Condi Rice and Dick Cheney were more than happy to fill the void.
Their philosophies of foreign affairs and their axioms — the certainty of good and evil, the effectiveness of preemptive war — have now set up shop inside Romney's brain. Unchastened by the Iraq fiasco, a Romney administration would like to assert a “more muscular” foreign policy, as the saying goes. Will Romney be the next host body?