Joshua Busby is assistant professor of public affairs in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and a fellow in the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service as well as the Crook Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
As the March 6 Super Tuesday Republican primary approaches, foreign policy issues understandably are likely to play a marginal role in the decisions of most voters. Since the middle of 2008, Gallup polls have found that more than 60 percent of voters identified economic issues as the most important problem facing the country. In their February 2012 poll, for example, less than a half a percent of Americans identified either terrorism or conflict/war in the Middle East as their top concern.
Does that mean that foreign policy concerns are unimportant in the primary and the general election? Not exactly. With Osama Bin Laden and a number of other top-level terrorists dead, Democrats are hopeful that President Barack Obama has made foreign policy a non-issue. However, both the nature of the GOP primary and events may yet bring both foreign policy issues and a variety of “intermestic” (part international/part domestic) issues like gasoline prices to the fore.
GOP Primary Dynamics and Foreign Policy
All the Republican hopefuls are saying things about foreign policy on the campaign trail to try to appeal to the 8-10 percent of the party faithful that have turned out in the primaries thus far (even less in caucus states like Maine where less than 1 percent of the electorate turned out). It doesn’t appear that these primary-goers are any more concerned about foreign policy than the rest of the public (the economy dominates the exit and entrance polls as the top concern), but they certainly tend to be conservative on average. In South Carolina, 68 percent of the voters self identified as very (36 percent) or somewhat conservative (32 percent). In Iowa, that combined percentage was fully 84 percent.
With a conservative leaning electorate and foreign policy concerns only weakly salient, the default position for most of the Republican candidates appears to be the old stand-by of being strong on defense. In practice, this means opposing any cuts to defense spending, supporting continued military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and potentially backing a new military conflict with Iran.
Front-runner Mitt Romney has used the charged language of “appeasement” in describing the Obama administration. Governor Romney’s language seems to be emblematic of the wider GOP field’s effort to use harsh rhetoric in describing President Obama. Perhaps the candidates feel compelled to make up for the enthusiasm gap that has emerged as Republicans survey the candidates they have before them. Ultimately, I think this hyperbole on foreign policy will ultimately fall flat in the general election.
For the first time in recent memory, the GOP enjoys a semi-serious anti-war candidate in Congressman Ron Paul. At a time when even Republican primary voters overwhelmingly are concerned about the state of the U.S. economy, it’s unclear whether pledges by the leading candidates to ratchet up defense spending and sustain expensive military engagements are popular with the party base.
Events: A Week is A Long Time in Politics
Even if foreign policy seemingly is a secondary concern in the upcoming election, events on the world stage may change that calculation. Among the issues, the situation in Iran in particular threatens to bring foreign policy front and center. Relations over Iran’s nuclear program have deteriorated such that observers are increasingly talking about whether or not Israel will launch an attack on Iran, potentially drawing in the United States.
Bipartisan legislative efforts have sought to restrict the President’s room for maneuver with respect to Iran. One piece of legislation in the Senate rejects any containment policy of a nuclear Iran, which would make it almost impossible for the U.S. not to go to war with Iran if it did in fact possess nuclear weapons. These maneuvers and others may box the president in, making conflict more likely or triggering some other effects that could upend the country’s fragile recovery.
For example, the sanctions bill that passed the Senate in late 2011 was intended to force the president to cut off any public or private institution from access to the United States if it does business with Iran’s central bank. The president was to decide by the end of February whether to impose these rules, subject to some discretion about the volume of oil in the market and whether states have reduced their oil transactions with Iran. Just last week, the administration deferred action pending further investigation.
With Europe to begin an embargo on Iran’s oil by July 1 and Iran saber rattling about cutting off oil supplies to other European countries, oil prices may spike. As the U.S. economy has shown signs of recovery, the Republican candidates have pivoted to talk about rising gas prices as one of their key issues. Soaring gas prices may pose both a threat to the recovery and the president’s re-election. Newt Gingrich, in an effort to energize his faltering campaign, has pledged to restore $2.50 a gallon gas.
So, even as domestic issues loom large, the nature of the Republican primary and world events over the summer may make foreign policy a more pressing concern come fall. We’ll have to see how it all plays out.