Originally Published 2004-05-16 10:39:57 Published on May 16, 2004
Foreign policy, a key issue in US elections
The Bush Administration's foreign policy, especially the much-debated War on Terrorism, is likely to play a crucial role in the 2004 elections. The War on Terrorism, according to recent public polls, remains as high a priority to the American people as the economy in the election year. This is a significant shift from the 2000 elections, in which foreign policy issues had little, if any, importance to the average American voter.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and President Bush's military response in Afghanistan, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, has made foreign policy issues take precedence over other equally important domestic issues like environment and the economic deficit. In more ways than one, terrorism has become a focal point of the US foreign policy. For the first time in over three decades, since the race between George McGovern and Richard Nixon in 1972, the US is today debating a major foreign policy issue during the presidential election.

In 1972, Richard Nixon, a Republican, made his re-election bid against McGovern, a liberal Democratic senator from South Dakota; Nixon emerged victorious with a landslide margin. The issue which won the day for Nixon was the foreign policy debate sparked off by Vietnam and the issue of America's role in the world. The Vietnam part of it was quite clear during the debates. McGovern said, "Get out, and get out as quickly as possible." Nixon countered, "You could only get out in a negotiated settlement 'with honor.'" As far as the world was concerned, McGovern accused Nixon for conducting a foreign policy that was overly dominated by a sense of a Communist threat, "While the Soviet Union was a problem, it wasn't an omnipresent superior power that was likely to overwhelm US, and every time a conflict broke out in some country around the world, it didn't mean that US national interests were engaged." Nixon countered, "It was still a very dangerous world, that the communist threat, though perhaps limited to the Soviet Union rather than both the Soviets and the Chinese, was still very dangerous and had to remain the focus of U.S. foreign policy".In 1980, there were possibilities of a real debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan but it never really came to the forefront because of Carter's mishandling of the Iran situation, which hurt him deeply. Carter and Reagan had profoundly different views on how to manage the world.

Today again, the American public is concerned about the foreign policy as they feel a greater threat from enemies who are this time anonymous and hence more lethal; in 1996, 6% of those quizzed during exit polls thought foreign policy issues were important, in 2000 the percentage rose to 12 % and this time as manifest in opinion polls it's going to be still higher. The focal point of foreign policy debate which has surfaced in this election is unilateralism versus co-operation--the Bush era of isolationism versus new era of alliances with other countries in dealing with international issues such as terrorism, Iraq crisis, Afghanistan crisis, and North Korean nuclear program. Democrats are accusing Bush for his unilateral approach in dealing with post 9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq , and the Bush supporters are accusing Kerry of being weak on terrorism. The increasing US isolation on issue after issue due to this unilateral policy, causing widespread anti-Americanism around the world, could come in handy for John Kerry to checkmate Bush during the presidential run-up. There are indications that he is already doing it. During a recent debate on Campaign 2004 at the Council on Foreign Relations, Kerry criticized Bush administration for pursuing an arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in modern history "We have lost the goodwill of the world, and over-extended our troops, and endangered rather than enhanced our own security," Kerry pointed.

The other issue that may affect the Bush to a certain extent is the way events are shaping up in Iraq. So far, despite the rising casualty figures and the recent allegations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners, people do believe that invading Iraq was not a bad idea although doubts are increasing about the manner in which the operation was conducted.. The Democrats are sure to exploit these doubts if the situation continues to deteriorate in Iraq which is most likely to happen going by the sustained violent opposition to the US presence. Recent polls also tend to suggest that there were serious doubts about the manner in which Bush had conducted himself in the international context - his failure to have a multilateral dimension or his inability to get UN to cooperate. Kerry's camp may undermine the President on this front by propagating that the Iraq venture, however good an idea it might have been, has not been executed successfully, or as successfully as it might have been. But one factor that could go in favour of Bush is the fact that terrorist groups and countries harbouring them were more fearful of reprisals from his administration than from Clinton's. They didn't see the necessary kind of resolve and toughness in Clinton and his key advisers. The kind of resolve and firmness that Bush has shown on national security issues, especially in dealing with terrorism, was lacking in the Clinton administration.

All said and done, Bush has more to gain from the foreign policy debate than losing. One, an incumbent President always has an advantage because of the stature gap; Kerry will have to measure up to this challenge. Secondly, the Republicans have the track record of doing better on foreign policy issues than Democrats unless things turn out to be real bad. 

But Bush administration's failure to rally the other nations to fight terrorism could prove to be his minus point and Kerry could, perhaps, gain a notch or two, that is if he were to convince the American public that terrorists could not be defeated by military force alone.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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