You could'a been a contender - Skip Kaltenheuser

Extreme foreign policy positions are commonplace during US electioneering. Though generally dropped like hot potatoes, they nevertheless change perceptions of the values defining America.

As if reading Agatha Christie’s mystery And Then There Were None, we watch to see who’ll be the next Republican contender for Presidential nomination knocked off. For many, betting on the last man standing is a guilty pleasure, but with so much riding on the tracks leading to the last arena, where President Obama waits, much of Washington is perplexed. We’ve lost count on how often conventional wisdom – insider wisdom, all wisdom – took flight out the window. Several days before the South Carolina primary, Nate Silver, a skilled interpreter of polling data, gave former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney a 90 per cent chance of winning. Former US Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich didn’t just win, he trounced Romney. Democrats popped corks. The White House still assumes Romney, riding his well-fuelled campaign machine, will prevail. But as the rumble moves to Florida, it is a blood sport.

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But, if the world tuning in focuses less on the bloodletting, and more on foreign policy pronouncements, should it worry about the world views leading contenders espouse? Yes.

There are those who say nay, because candidates seeking the nomination are notorious for appealing to voters by laying down foreign policy positions they walk past if elected. Moving the capital of Israel and/or the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, for example, has been frequently pledged by candidates of both parties, but is dropped like a hot potato once certain realities set in. It’s one thing to campaign with positions appealing to supporters, it’s another to govern and to function in a complex, diverse world.


Extreme foreign policy positions

But this primary season raises the bar on extreme positions that the winner will have to pay homage to in order to maintain the base. Recall that former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Obama’s former ambassador to China, was once the contender Democrats feared most, as he was worldly and often reasonable. Too worldly and reasonable to have a prayer in Republican primaries, it turned out.

Where does one start? Rick Perry claimed Turkey is run by Islamic terrorists, and perhaps should be kicked out of NATO. Most contenders seek to greatly scale back foreign aid, never mind humanitarian help and US influence scaling back as well. Mitt Romney criticises Obama’s nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, rejects all negotiations with the Taliban, criticises Obama’s engagement with Tehran, pledges to support Iranian insurgents to stop progress toward a nuclear bomb and says if ‘crippling sanctions’ fail, he’ll use military action.

Candidate Rick Santorum is so gung-ho to help Israel bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, one can imagine him astride a bomb like the Slim Pickens character in the film Dr Strangelove. Gingrich says he’ll ‘green light’ any decision by Israel to preemptively attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and would consider a strike on an oil refinery. Most contenders indicated approval of waterboarding.

Perhaps most telling, with no thought of US or international law, some contenders called out to assassinate another country’s scientists. Santorum called Iranian nuclear scientists, and scientists from other countries who work with them, ‘enemy combatants’. ‘Taking out their scientists…, all of it covertly, all of it deniable,’ Gingrich urged… on television.

Not long after this cry for the moral high ground of Murder, Inc, the roster of Iranian scientists killed or wounded added a young nuclear expert, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, blown up in traffic.

A host of experts view such actions as counterproductive. William Tobey, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, says, ‘The payoffs are small, the risks involved are very large, and it looks like an act of desperation. It’s not likely to be effective; it’s difficult to imagine a state that strong could be crippled by killings.’

It’s extremely unlikely the US was involved, but the contenders’ easy advocacy enables accusations. Beyond increasing the danger for a US marine sentenced to death in Iran on trumped up spying charges, the assassination took place just as the US was winning hearts and minds after rescuing Iranian fishermen held captive by Somali pirates, and saving two other groups of Iranian fishermen in peril at sea. For those seeking to derail engagement with Iran in favour of ‘Death to America’ funeral chants, the killing was a wish come true.

Then there’s Gingrich’s bold assertion that, apparently unlike Americans, Palestinians are an ‘invented people’. There’s method to such madness. It’s not just appealing to the Tea Party or the dwindling number of American Jews who firmly buy the Likud line, or even the much larger groups of evangelical and born-again Christians, some of whom believe Israel is ground zero for the Battle of Armageddon warming up the rapture.


 ‘The super-rich now call their tunes through Super PACs [political action committees] enabled by the Supreme Court’s dismal Citizens United decision. Super PACs are outspending campaigns. Most contributors haven’t been disclosed since last summer’

Keep the backers happy

For Gingrich, with more comebacks than Lazarus, that comment pleased his old pal and backer, billionaire casino king Sheldon Adelson. An ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, Adelson kicked millions into a Super PAC that supports Gingrich. Thrashed with advertising by Romney’s Super PAC in Iowa, Gingrich wasn’t going naked in South Carolina. Adelson, whom others also pandered to, enabled Gingrich’s revenge.

The super rich now call their tunes through Super PACs enabled by the Supreme Court’s dismal Citizens United decision. Super PACs are outspending campaigns. Most contributors haven’t been disclosed since last summer. But, they’re totally independent of candidates. Right. And vice versa.

Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, says the ‘invented people’ comment ‘undermines perception of commitment to a two-state solution. As with proposals on China that could cause unintended consequences, indelicate comments risk real harm, and ignorance never shows well.’

Osman Siddique, a former US Ambassador with a portfolio of several nations including Fiji, was the first American Muslim ambassador, and the first of South Asian descent. He was taken aback when former contender Herman Cain pledged no Muslims in his cabinet. Siddique travels extensively on business in the Middle East, where people ask him how such positions gain traction.

‘This isn’t the America they know or want to live with,’ says Siddique. ‘When important people make comments like this, they go viral on the internet and change the perception of what’s going on in American thinking. People like our products, but it’s values that define America.’

As to impacts in the general election, John Tirman, executive director of MIT’s Center for International Studies, has doubts. ‘Foreign policy only works for a challenger when there’s a genuine crisis, as with the hostages in Tehran in 1980, or the Vietnam War in 1968. There’s no crisis like those this year.’

Hold that thought.


Skip Kaltenheuser is a freelance journalist and writer. He can be contacted at