Pandering to a Cynical Public – Binders full of Foreign Policy!

To gain some insight into how Obama and Romney will handle questions in tonight’s Foreign Policy Presidential debate, take a quick read through the Pew Research Center national survey on the public’s views on the “Arab Spring”, US involvement in the region, Israel, Afghanistan, China and Iran.

The survey was conducted in early October among 1,511 Republicans, Democrats and Independents  – including 1,201 registered voters, is surely being studied at length by Obama/Romney campaign advisers to identify the strengths and weaknesses in their perceived positions, and the nuances they must speak to in the debate.

Here are top-line takeaways from the report:

Americans are much less interested in Middle Eastern Democracy than they are in stability.

  • 54% of Americans say stable governments are more important even if there is less democracy
  • More Democrats (39%) vs. Republicans (31%) favor democratic governments even if there is less stability, while independents are only at 27%

Americans are very cynical as it relates to outcomes of the revolutions.

  • 57% of Americans believe changes in leadership in countries “such as Egypt and Libya” will not lead to lasting improvements
    • Republicans and Independents overwhelmingly drive this opinion (68% and 60% respectively)

Americans think changes in political leadership won’t have effect or will be bad for US.

  • Only 14% of Americans believe the leadership changes will be good for the US
  • 49% of Republicans even believe these changes in leadership will be bad for the US
  • On the other hand, 48% of Democrats believe the changes won’t have much effect

Public wants less, not more involvement in Middle East.

  • 63% of Americans want less involvement in leadership changes in the Middle East
  • Republicans (34%) do want to be more involved than Democrats (20%) and Independents (19%)

Partisan reaction to Administrations handling of the embassy attack in Libya.

  • 60% of Democrats approve and 73% of Republicans disapprove of the Administrations handling of the situation
  • 59% of Independents who “follow the news about Libya” disapprove as well

Everyone wants to “Get tough with China”.

  • Republicans are more likely to want to ‘get tough’ with China on economic/trade policy matters – 65% compared to 54% last year
  • Independents have also spike up – 47% compared to 30%
  • Democrats still favor stronger relations (53%), however do see a spike from 33% to 39% in “getting tough”

Age gaps and ideology drive perspectives on dealing with Iran.

  • The more conservative on the political spectrum, the higher the percentage on “taking a firm stand” with Iran vs. “avoiding military conflict”
    • 84% of Conservative Republicans want to push for firmer stances
    • Only 38% of Liberal Democrats say that a firm stance more important than avoiding military conflict
    • Younger Americans are less likely to take a firm stand (44%) compared to older Americans (i.e. 65+ are at 62%)

Americans differ on how much to support Israel not “whether to support”.

  • 66% of Americans felt the amount of support to Israel was “about right”, or “not supportive enough” – only 22% felt the US was too supportive
  • 46% of Republicans feel the US is not supportive enough as compared to Democrats (only 9%)
  • 55% of Democrats answered US support is “about right” (Republicans are at 34%)

Question isn’t whether to get out of Afghanistan, but how quickly.

  • 60% of Americans want to get US troops out of Afghanistan ASAP
  • Republicans tend to favor leaving troops until “situation stabilizes”

And what about Syria?

Well, Syria wasn’t in the survey, however Romney has been battering away at Obama’s failed Syria policy to gain political points on the most polarizing and explosive issue the Middle East faces today.

Obama will continue to bring up distractions to justify the inaction/lack of support for revolution (i.e. divided opposition, fear of Islamists, etc.). He will continue to speak to diplomatic efforts and non-lethal support.

Romney will hit Obama hard by mentioning that Assad has murdered ~40,000 Syrians and how the administration has done almost nothing. He’ll also try to differentiate his approach from Obama’s by repeating that he would “arm the rebels that share American values.”

To not look impotent, Obama will probably insinuate that the US “will work with allies to support the Syrian opposition” (aka, “arm the rebels”). Both candidates however will be vague in describing real tangible support as Syria is a bigger policy issue that will not substantially change based on who is in the White house, but will evolve to reflect the realities on the ground in Syria.

So what does this all mean for today’s debate?

Well, tonight’s debate is a tie-breaker of sorts. The first two debates are considered split decisions, so both sides will aim to reach an increasingly aggressive, isolationist and self-serving American public as it relates to US foreign policy.

Obama will rely on his “Osama/Get the Terrorist” record in light of questions of his “toughness” and will surely touch on how he “ended a war (Iraq)”.

Romney will hammer away about the resurgence of “Al-Qaeda”, the lack of Embassy security in Libya and try to show that his [non-existent] experience will be better for the next 4 years by picking on Obama’s weaknesses.

Both will talk about the “tough road ahead” as it relates to the struggles for democracy in the Arab world and how the US will be there to help through the process (of course, this discourse won’t reflect the realities of Syria, Bahrain or Yemen).

Both will talk about the special relationship the US has with Israel. It will be interesting to see who pushes this envelope – Romney will claim the relationship is strained and Obama will talk about the importance of friendship.

Both will attack Iran, most likely from the perspective that Iran (and a nuclear bomb) is a threat to Israel’s and regional security (and therefore US interests), but stop short of threatening any military action.

Both will talk about magically getting results while having less American involvement. Drones, “arm the rebels”, Afghanistan pull-out, and even tough talk on China fits in nicely here.

At the end of the day however, there are few substantial differences between the policies of the two candidates – this debate will be an exercise in “who is listening” to specific segments of the American public, and tying campaign narrative to the cynicism and fears (as expressed in the recent Pew survey) to gain more last minute swing-voters.

Despite the lack of substantial differences however, this may be the most entertaining [or nauseating] of the Election 2012 debates – brace yourselves for binders full of foreign policy!

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