Hope and change don't translate.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

War Is Easy for a Candidate

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Folks are making fun of comments by Scott Walker and Marco Rubio on how to defeat Islamic State, and fairly so. Walker says he will face down Islamic State with the steely will he brought to bear on the Wisconsin teacher’s unions; Rubio says he will do, well, kinda what President Barack Obama has been doing, except with Sunni troops. “The Iraqi army, of course,” says Kevin Drum, “is mostly Shiite. So apparently Rubio thinks we should ditch the Iraqi military and put together a coalition of ground forces from neighboring countries. But this would be ... who?”

Ah, the joys of being a candidate rather than a president. In Candidate Land, foreign policy is easy; you make some combination of promises to do what the administration is already doing but better, along with fine-sounding pronouncements about the need to build local coalitions and explain that you understand the need to ... well, not be like the guys in office. If you’re a Republican, that means you know that what we need to do is stop looking like pansies and show the world that America cannot be messed with; if you’re a Democrat, you comprehend the need to build up all the soft power that we could have if Republicans hadn’t squandered it with their macho swaggering.

You know who this reminds me of? Candidate Barack Obama, who got an inordinate amount of mileage out of promising an Iraq exit that George W. Bush had already scheduled, while promising that once he was in office and we stopped making everyone so mad at us, things would settle down.

Of course, once you’re in office, it turns out to be much harder than it sounded on the campaign trail. Foreign countries turn out to be independent actors who have their own interests and agendas, and they will not neatly perform their assigned roles if only threatened or cajoled with sufficient commitment. Obama ended up trying to hand some of the credit for the Iraq drawdown back to Bush when things got worse.

It’s hard to fault the candidates too much for this. First of all, we want them to promise us that they can stop all those fractious foreigners from messing up our neatly planned agendas, so it’s not surprising that that’s what they say. More important, until they actually get into the White House, they will not have the massive foreign-policy staff that they would need to make informed decisions about all the far-flung bits of this vast globe of ours. Unless they happen to already be foreign-policy experts, they’re simply not in a position to sketch out more than some vague sentiments about how things ought to be run.

America rarely chooses presidents from among its ranks of foreign-policy experts. Domestic policy is, to the American voter, generally the more pressing part of the job. True foreign-policy experts rarely have both the administrative and legislative experience that we’d ideally like our president to have. And because we usually don’t know where the next crisis will be, it’s hard to say exactly what sort of foreign-policy expert you want -- who had “Afghanistan” in the office presidential-zone-of-interest pool during the 2000 election? Or “Libya” in 2008?

So the candidates give us hazy platitudes that seem plausible and massage their base’s ideas about America’s role in the world. It’s too bad, of course, but I’m not sure what else we could realistically expect.

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To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net