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Little Discussion of Foreign Policy

By Richard Haass

As America's primaries move beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, it is simply impossible to predict who will be the Democratic and Republican nominees, much less who will become the 44th president of the United States. But it is not too soon to address the question of what effect U.S. foreign policy is having on the campaign and what it reveals about how Americans see the world.

To the surprise of many seasoned observers, foreign policy is having only a modest impact on voters.

First, although Iraq still matters a lot to Americans, its importance for determining how they vote has receded, partly because U.S. casualties there are markedly down as the security situation appears to be gradually improving. As a result, there is considerably less public pressure to do something dramatically different.

Second, foreign policy has also become less salient as the chance of war between the United States and Iran has diminished, following the recently published National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program. The judgment by America's intelligence community that Iran has suspended its nuclear weapon development program -- and, more important, that its large-scale uranium enrichment capacity is likely years away -- postpones the day when a U.S. president may have to decide between living with or attacking a nuclear Iran.

A third reason for the modest impact of international issues on voters' choice of the next president is another surprising development: more agreement among the leading candidates than meets the eye. There is something of a consensus, for example, emerging around the notion that the United States should remain in Iraq for some time, albeit with a reduced level of military forces.

There is also widespread acknowledgement that this country must do more both at home and diplomatically to address global climate change; that the United States must work with its European allies to prevent Afghanistan from slipping back into anarchy; and that it must take the strongest possible stand against terrorism and those who would support it in any way. No major candidate is advocating anything remotely resembling isolationism.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the deterioration of America's economy is now overshadowing foreign policy. Recession, job loss and an inability to meet their monthly mortgage payments, not war, is what Americans fear most for 2008.

This is not to suggest that foreign policy is absent from the campaign. Along with the economy, a dominant issue on the political agenda -- particularly for Republicans -- is immigration.

Moreover, both parties are increasingly worried about globalization. With tougher economic times inevitably come tougher positions toward foreign competition and outsourcing.

There may also be latent concern about foreign policy in the attention being given to the quantity and quality of candidates' relevant experience. A desire for ''change'' is a common refrain of the American debate, but it is far from the only one.

Foreign policy could reemerge as a campaign issue if there were a dramatic overseas development. We saw this a few weeks ago, when former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Democratic and Republican candidates alike were called upon to explain what they would be prepared to do if there were an opportunity to capture Osama Bin Laden or a need to secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

Likewise, Iraq could return to center stage if the positive momentum of recent months were suddenly reversed, perhaps following a new outbreak of sectarian violence.

The United States and Iran could go to war over reckless behavior by the Revolutionary Guards (as occurred recently in the Strait of Hormuz), with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad possibly seeking to distract domestic attention from his economic failures. Order in Pakistan could break down irretrievably. A terrorist attack could remind Americans of their fundamental vulnerability. The possibilities are endless.

America's next president will face a host of pressing and difficult foreign policy challenges -- and how he or she responds will affect not only this country, but the entire world. In the meantime, though, foreign policy will have only an indirect influence on Americans' choice.

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Copyright 2008, Project Syndicate

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