In June, Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. Speaking before the council or writing an essay in its house organ, Foreign Affairs, had for decades offered candidates a means of proving their foreign-policy gravitas. And the former Minnesota governor was running his campaign by a traditional script. But in a GOP field where contempt for the foreign-policy establishment has become the norm, Pawlenty's aspiration for its imprimatur seemed almost touching. Pawlenty presented himself as a champion of the Arab Spring and a voice for "moral clarity." "What is wrong," he bluntly warned, "is for the Republican Party to shrink from the challenges of American leadership in the world."
What do the 2012 Republican candidates have to say about foreign policy?
Pawlenty quickly became the darling of conservative foreign-policy experts. And then his candidacy sank like a stone. By August, after a dismal showing in the Ames straw poll in Iowa, he withdrew. "He probably spent too much time on foreign policy," one rueful conservative activist told me.
The world beyond America's borders just doesn't figure in the 2012 campaign. In the 2008 Republican debates, candidates regularly crossed swords on the war in Iraq, the nuclear showdown with Iran, and the proper conduct of the war on terror. At this year's first real debate, held in Manchester, New Hampshire, the rest of the world wasn't even mentioned until more than 90 minutes into the two-hour event. "Given the focus on economic issues, it's difficult to get the candidates interested in foreign policy," laments Jamie Fly, head of the Foreign Policy Initiative, which acts as a transmission belt between conservative intellectuals and politicians. Audiences seem similarly apathetic. The heartiest applause often goes to libertarian Rep. Ron Paul when he calls for as little foreign policy as possible, as he did recently in Iowa during a discussion of the Middle East. His prescription: "Stay out of their internal business. Don't get involved in these wars. And just bring our troops home." This is precisely the disengagement of which Pawlenty was warning.
Sometimes, of course, foreign policy really is politically salient. Strange though it sounds today, for much of the 2008 campaign Barack Obama thought that his worldview would be the campaign's defining issue. He was the candidate who would eliminate nuclear weapons, stop browbeating America's allies, bring the troops back from Iraq, and end the "color-coded politics of fear." In the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton attacked him for his lack of foreign-policy experience (remember the 3 a.m. phone call ad?), and the two had a genuinely telling difference of opinion about whether a policy of "engagement" should extend to talking with tyrants without preconditions.
Then the economic crisis hit. Although Obama and Republican nominee John McCain dueled over Iraq, foreign policy quickly receded from center stage. As president, Obama has disappointed many of his liberal supporters, but also blunted Republican lines of attack on his foreign policy by pursuing the war on terror much as George W. Bush did and adding 30,000-plus troops to Afghanistan; by killing Osama bin Laden, he has strengthened his hand with voters across the political spectrum. But Obama is also terribly exposed on jobs and the faltering economy, issues on which the GOP candidates have good reason to believe that they can ride national dissatisfaction to the White House. So it's no surprise that foreign affairs has gotten so little attention.