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Foreign Policy in Focus

Moralism v. Pragmatism in First Debate

Ira Chernus

I sat down to watch the first presidential debate with one question in my mind: which candidate would tell the most compelling story? Four years ago, pundits Stanley Greenberg and James Carville argued that "a narrative is the key to everything." John Kerry lost because the Republicans "had a much more coherent attack and narrative."

I expected Obama and McCain to recite their competing narratives about the war in Iraq. But would either one place their story in the broader narrative of America's role in the world? And could either one make that broader picture even more compelling by linking foreign affairs to the crashing economy?

The answer to that second question turned out to be a disappointing and surprising negative. Since the economy is the issue most Americans really want to hear about right now, I expected the candidates to use every opportunity to turn the subject back to pocketbook issues. Moderator Jim Lehrer made that point from the start. Though this debate was supposed to be only about international relations, he spent the first 40 minutes of the 97-minute program asking about the domestic economy.

And the candidates had plenty of chances to make the connection. The very idea that the domestic emergency eclipses international concerns is misleading, because it assumes that the two arenas can be neatly divided. Foreign affairs and the domestic economy intersect in countless ways. But the candidates failed to make these connections or tell a compelling story about how they would remake U.S. foreign policy and, by extension, the U.S. economy.

Everything is Global

It hardly makes sense to talk about a "domestic" economy any more, since the flow of capital - which is really what the current crisis is all about - is so massively global. Whatever economic policies the United States adopts in the coming days will have a major effect on markets around the world. And if the U.S. government is going to come up with hundreds of billions of dollars in a short time a lot of that money will come from foreign sources, since they may be the only ones equipped to raise and invest such massive sums.

Consider China, which is, by almost any measure, the overriding long-term U.S. foreign policy concern. China's diplomatic influence is felt everywhere. It has a mutual cooperation treaty with a Russia that seems determined to stare down NATO. At the same time, China is rapidly becoming America's major competitor for global dominance in foreign trade and every other economic measure. Most importantly, the Chinese hold a large amount of dollar-denominated assets. The decisions they make about those assets, and about their own currency, could transform the U.S. economy. Yet China was virtually MIA in the debate, too.

Obama did briefly note the difficulty of imposing sanctions on Iran "without some cooperation with some countries like Russia and China." In his improvised closing remarks he said more broadly: "We've got challenges, for example, with China ... They now hold a trillion dollars' worth of our debt. And they are active in countries like - in regions like Latin America and Asia and Africa...The conspicuousness of their presence is only matched by our absence, because we've been focused on Iraq."

But Obama missed many opportunities to bring the conversation back to the economy. He was too focused on Iraq and on hammering home his simple narrative about the war: It was a diversion. We took our eye off the main target, Osama bin Laden. It has harmed America's global interests far more than it has helped. In this narrative, Obama foresaw it all and opposed the war from the outset, which proves he has the rational, prudent judgment to safeguard American interests wherever they are threatened.

McCain only mentioned China once: "One of the major reasons why we're in the difficulties we are in today is because spending got out of control. We owe China $500 billion." Yet in those few words he, too, used China as a prop to reiterate his favorite narrative, namely selfishness versus service to country. As McCain tells it, out-of-control spending is an example of the moral failures of the "me-first crowd." He cites Obama's plan for phased withdrawal from Iraq as another example of the very same failure: putting self before country, letting America's honor be tarnished by defeat. President McCain would never let that happen, he insists. His motto is "country first." The surge worked; now it's on to victory. No surrender.

Grand and Not-So-Grand Narratives

These competing grand narratives that shaped the debate have also shaped the whole presidential campaign. But they weren't the old-fashioned kinds of global narratives. Neither side has a clear ideological or geopolitical vision. The references to "freedom" and "democracy" were perfunctory and did not add up to the consistent narrative of the Cold War era that George W. Bush revived in his second inaugural address. In fact, though both candidates did a bit of Russia-bashing, both explicitly rejected a return to the Cold War paradigm. Nor was "realism" or Wilsonian liberal internationalism strongly in evidence.

The candidates tackled each problem area - Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia - as if it were a separate issue. They made some ad hoc connections between one area and another. But neither one showed any interest in teaching the public to see the world entire through the lens of an overarching vision.

Each side has different reasons for this lack of overarching vision. Obama gets his advice from pillars of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, who think that ideology is positively dangerous in foreign policy. They would rather work pragmatically, advancing U.S. interests on a case-by-case basis. One of them is Anthony Lake. When he was Bill Clinton's national security advisor, political realities demanded that he come up with something that looked like an overarching ideological vision. His answer, "democratic enlargement," was pretty much a dud. That may have convinced him even more that the anti-ideological approach is the best way to go, and Obama's performance in the debate reflected this anti-ideology.

McCain, on the other hand, needs no overarching geopolitical vision in the classic sense because he has an overarching moral vision. In the hell of that North Vietnamese prison, he tells us at every opportunity, he learned that there are just two kinds of people: the selfish, who care more about indulging every whim than serving their country and who will surrender to evil as soon as the going gets tough; and the selfless, who sacrifice every personal advantage to protect and defend the honor of their country and are tough enough to fight on to victory, no matter how much they suffer in the process. In McCain's world, despite all his talk about bipartisanship, this dichotomy translates into a divide between "me-first" Democrats and "country-first" Republicans.

Morality vs. Interests

The candidates played out their fundamental difference when they tangled directly on two issues: Iraq and diplomatic talks with foes. In both cases, McCain tried to take the moral high ground. You don't let your soldiers die in vain, he preached. You bring home a victory that bestows honor upon them and their nation. You don't sit down with evil leaders without preconditions because that would only legitimate their evildoing.

Obama tried to take the prudent, interest-promoting ground. You don't persist in the wrong war. You go after the real danger to our national security. You don't demand that your foes capitulate to you before talking to them. Instead, you go into talks expecting to give as well as take.

Thus the candidates have competing narratives, but they are not stories about the goals of foreign policy and how the geopolitical world should look. They are about what kind of people Americans should be and the values we should display as we choose our goals. It's a classic confrontation between two styles of moral decision-making: absolutist moralism and prudent pragmatism.

These stories can help us predict how the candidates would link foreign policy to the domestic economic crisis. McCain would let concerns of national honor (as he sees it) override the cold calculations of the bottom line. Obama would run cost-benefit analyses, letting the specifics of each case override concerns as vague and fuzzy as national honor.

This contrast was the principle difference on display in the first debate: Obama the cerebral calculator of interests versus McCain the passionate warrior. And moral style seems to be what most voters care about most. In poll after poll, a majority of voters say that they base their decision on factors other than the candidates' stands on the issues.

The clearest evidence comes on the issue that both men made the center of gravity in the debate: Iraq. Though a clear majority of the public still prefers Obama's approach of a phased withdrawal of combat troops on a timetable, a majority also trusts McCain more than Obama to handle the Iraq War. More broadly, McCain continues to outpoll his opponent only in the area of war and national security. That's what is keeping him competitive in a race the Republicans were supposedly doomed to lose.

When it comes to foreign policy, then, the heart and the gut can still sometimes win out over the head. In 2004 Greenberg and Carville found that Bush won because he "was able to keep the election centered on safety (the terrorist threat) and values, rather than on Iraq and the stagnant economy." That's the essence of McCain's story, too.

In 2008, however, the economy isn't just stagnant. There are widespread fears that it's collapsing. And that's partly because, over the last four years, Iraq has drained billions out of our treasury - not to mention the 4,000-plus Americans who never came back alive. So even though McCain's image as a tough, patriotic guardian of national honor still stirs hearts across the land, keeping him surprisingly close in the polls, a narrative of safety and values will probably not be enough to give the Republicans another victory. A substantial number of the voters who trust McCain more on Iraq say they won't vote for him anyway. In the end, it looks like the winner will be Bill Clinton's famous 1992 narrative: it's the economy, stupid.

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Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, author of Monsters to Destroy, and a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor.

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