Throughout the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican and Democratic political operatives have strived to articulate major foreign-policy distinctions between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney. Several close foreign-policy watchers, however, have struggled to identify any such differences.
The final presidential debate on Oct. 22 finally cemented what has been apparent to many over the course of the campaign: Neither Romney nor Obama wants to discuss foreign-policy issues because they don't matter to prospective voters, and there are no substantive distinctions about how either candidate would deal with prominent issues such as Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and targeted killings via drones. The only potential variation is that Romney has promised massive defense budget increases, but his advisors admit that they would "very much depend on the state of the economy."
On a deeper level than specific countries or issues, there are five core principles of U.S. foreign policy that are widely held on both sides of the aisle. These principles underscore how presidents -- Republican and Democrat alike -- conceive of the U.S. foreign-policymaking apparatus, their role as the chief executive officer, and the responsibility of the United States in the world. However, these principles also rest on shaky ground and often undermine U.S. national interests because they reflect a profound misunderstanding of policymaking and how the rest of the world views the United States.
Regardless of who resides in the White House on Jan. 21, 2013, you can assume that he, his senior advisors, and his partisan commentariat allies will believe the following five precepts.
First, the U.S. intelligence community (IC) should have total omniscience over global events, including the precognitive ability to perfectly forecast any malicious behavior by potential adversaries. The IC is a sprawling network of roughly 210,000 civilian and military employees, 30,000 private contractors, and 17 agencies. With a budget of $75 billion for the national and military intelligence programs, the IC is expected to provide warning of national security threats and challenges to policymakers that is timely, accurate, and easily condensed into a one-page memo.
For policymakers who expect the impossible from the IC, intelligence doesn't merely "fail," but fails spectacularly in ways that are routinely described as "catastrophic," "colossal," or "massive." To be repeatedly shocked by the IC's inability to flawlessly warn about the behavior of malicious actors is to misunderstand how such information is generated. As the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, stated this month about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya:
The challenge is always a tactical warning, the exact insights ahead of time that such an attack is going to take place.… If people don't behave and emit a behavior or talk or do something else ahead of time, and if you don't detect it, then it's going to be very hard to predict and come up with an exact tactical warning that you need.
But blaming the IC allows policymakers to hide behind such allegedly predictable failures. As John Maynard Keynes remarked: "There is nothing a Government hates more than to be well-informed; for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult." The IC is tasked to provide specific information and analytical judgments in order for the executive and congressional branches to construct informed policies.