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Shifting Winds

As the focus on domestic politics grows, the importance of foreign policy wanes.

photo of Reid Wilson
April 18, 2012

For the most part, the first three years of the Obama administration have reinforced the tropes that have consumed the American political debate for decades: The administration is hopelessly obsessed with expanding the size and scope of government, Republicans say; Democrats counter that the GOP is dead set on shredding the social safety net with radical, government-shrinking proposals.

But lost amid the partisan rancor is a subtle shift in the public’s opinion of each party’s strength on foreign policy. Since the Vietnam War, Republicans have played offense by casting Democrats as weak on defense and national security. Now that thread of argument has largely unraveled.

If President Obama has had any success in the public’s eye, it has been in foreign affairs. The war in Iraq has wound down; the administration has set a timetable for extricating the nation from an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan; and, as Vice President Joe Biden points out at every opportunity, Osama bin Laden is no longer among us. Even the aerial campaign in Libya, which had some Republicans (and even Democrats) grumbling about the lack of congressional involvement, went well enough that few Obama opponents bring it up anymore.


The president’s foreign-policy success bears out in public polling. On specific issues, Obama’s approval rating on the war in Afghanistan and on international affairs at large is significantly better than his overall approval rating. An ABC News/Washington Post survey from last week showed that 48 percent approved of Obama’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan (43 percent disapproved), while 47 percent backed his handling of international affairs (44 percent disapproved). Americans trust Obama to handle international affairs more than Mitt Romney, by 53 percent to 36 percent, and they even trust the Democrat to deal with terrorism better than the Republican, by 47 percent to 40 percent.

Contrast those numbers with exit polls from the 2004 election, when 58 percent of Americans said they trusted President Bush to handle terrorism while just 40 percent said they trusted Democratic nominee John Kerry. As it turns out, more Americans think this Obama guy is pretty good at answering the 3 a.m. phone call.

In an era in which domestic politics, and particularly the struggling economic recovery, have come to dominate our national debate, it’s unlikely that Republicans will make Obama’s foreign policy a central part of their argument this fall.

Beyond the presidential campaign trail, the GOP is likely to undergo a serious generational shift in its foreign-policy establishment. With just under three weeks to go before Indiana’s Republican Senate primary, consensus has emerged that Sen. Richard Lugar, the most prominent foreign-policy mind in the GOP, is likely trailing his opponent, the more-conservative state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Regardless of the outcome, Lugar’s time as the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, a position he has held for a decade, is coming to an end sooner rather than later. By the start of the next session, Lugar will have served six years as the committee’s ranking member, reaching the Senate GOP’s self-imposed term limit. If Republicans take back the Senate and Lugar wins another term, he’ll have two more years as chairman before hitting the six-year limit.

Barring a waiver, which is not unheard of, Lugar’s departure will give a new senator the opportunity to bolster his or her foreign-policy credentials. That duty looks likely to fall to Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the second-ranking member on the panel.

Corker, who is best known for working on financial-regulatory legislation, has quietly been preparing to take over. He has made foreign travel a priority, venturing into former Soviet-bloc countries, Africa, and South America, along with the requisite visits to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“By the standards of the storied, legendary figures of the past, he’s junior, but he’s been a thoughtful, serious voice for the equivalent of three House terms,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign-policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

Corker is at the head of a relatively junior Republican roster on the Foreign Relations Committee. Third and fourth on the seniority list are James Risch of Idaho and Marco Rubio of Florida, both freshmen. None of the remaining Republicans—James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, John Barrasso of Wyoming, and Mike Lee of Utah—is known for his foreign-policy expertise. Besides Lugar, the other two Senate GOP foreign-policy specialists are John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, neither of whom sits on the committee.

Corker and Rubio, O’Hanlon said, are evidence that the old guard of foreign-policy specialists is giving way to a new breed. But it’s also a reflection of the emphasis on domestic policy and the consequential waning of the perceived importance of foreign-policy expertise on Capitol Hill.

“In the era of the imperial presidency, the role of the Senate (and Congress in general) in foreign policymaking has been marginalized. As a result, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has witnessed a slow erosion of its influence since the high times of the early Cold War,” said Brian Etheridge, a historian of U.S. foreign policy at the University of Baltimore. “Senators may not see service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as desirable.”

The Foreign Relations Committee has historically been a bastion for senators with gravitas within their parties, from William Fulbright to Frank Church to Jesse Helms. Out of the committee’s last seven chairmen, five—Charles Percy, Church, Lugar, Kerry, and Joe Biden—at least explored a run for president at some point during their careers. But as domestic politics has come to dominate the discussion, the importance placed on foreign policy has waned, giving more-junior members such as Corker, Risch, and Rubio the chance to fill the vacuum and make their own marks on America’s place in the world.

This article appears in the April 19, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.

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