This is the Democrats’ election to lose. That doesn’t mean that it cannot be lost; parties have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the past, but it will take strenuous efforts by the Democrats to do so on November 4, 2008. Why so?

Historically, there is a remarkable correlation of economic, political, and foreign affairs factors that leads to this conclusion more than six months before election day. First, just as it is difficult to deny an elected president a second term in office, it is even more difficult for a party to secure a third consecutive presidential victory, particularly as the party must “change horses,” given the constitutional limitation of a president to two elected terms.

Thus, since the end of the FDR-Truman domination of US politics in 1952, only George H.W. Bush secured a third term for his party (in effect Bush got Ronald Reagan’s “third term”). The exceptional popularity of Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower did not transfer to Richard Nixon in 1960. Nor did Vice President Al Gore secure President Clinton’s “third term” — indeed, one might conclude that Clinton’s most significant political legacy was Gore’s defeat. And no one can argue that George W. Bush has a level of popularity that would convey benefits on a Republican nominee; if anything, he is the equivalent of a poisoned chalice, and Republicans are grateful that they do not have to endorse his vice president as the party nominee.

Second, although the “it’s the economy, stupid” mantra has been repeated so frequently that it has devolved into cliché, even clichés have a reality basis. The United States, after extended periods of prosperity during both the Clinton incumbency and remarkable recovery after the post-9/11 plunge, has stumbled into semi-recession. We can defer to the inconclusive arguments of economists whether the recession will be long, short, or even exist at all; however, for the Democrats, the coincidence of rising unemployment, rising inflation, a falling stock market, the falling value of the dollar, rising energy costs, declining real income for average workers, surging mortgage foreclosures, losses of manufacturing jobs, and federal debt/deficit increases have the sweet smell of opportunity. They ask the classic question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” And the answer is likely to be “no.”

Nor can Republicans point to foreign policy success (not that a massively successful Gulf War victory in 1991 saved Bush 41). Frustrating foreign wars mean defeat for incumbents. “Truman’s war” in Korea helped elect Eisenhower; the Vietnam War helped elect Nixon in 1968. Currently, the most virulent four-letter-word in US politics remains “Iraq.” It doesn’t matter whether the “surge” of US troops has worked or whether it will continue to work so far as beating down the insurgency. It may eventuate that at the cost of a trillion dollars and 4,000 US lives, we have assured that Iraq will never have weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But most supporters of the attack on Iraq in 2003 based their support on the presumed presence of WMD and would not have done so simply because Saddam and his regime’s cadre were murderous thugs.

And while “security” — in the form of protecting the United States against a 9/11 repeat — remains a Republican strength, it has a dual-edged element. The longer the continental United States remains free from major terrorist attack, the more the citizenry will see it as a new “given,” a problem solved (and now an irritant in the form of airport inspections and travel delays), and accord the Republicans less credit for success. But should there be a repeat major attack, say a “7/7,” the popular response could be that the Republican efforts had failed (which the Democrats will assert, at least implicitly), and it would provide still further logic for removing them from office.

Predictions are difficult: just look at the past. Before trying to foretell the future prior to it becoming the past, it is useful to remember the US and global scenario in spring 2000. Retrospectively, it may have been one of the most benign domestic and international affairs environments in 50 years. While eight years of the Clinton presidency certainly had its tawdry moments, the US economy was peaking: the GDP was growing strongly; unemployment was low; inflation were low; the stock was market high; housing values were climbing; massive federal budget surpluses were projected far into the future, with prospects for debt reduction. Internationally, the Cold War was a decade in the past; democracy in both Russia and the former states of the USSR was still emerging; fighting in former Yugoslavia had ended; the Rwanda genocide (“never again”) had ended; Saddam was “boxed” under UN sanctions; there were flickers of hope for an Israel-Palestine agreement (before the second intifada); and nobody except specialists in counter-terrorism had heard of Osama Bin Laden/al-Qaeda, despite terror attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

So what happened to those halcyon days? “Events, dear boy, events,” as former British prime minister Harold Macmillan reportedly responded to a question regarding what can disrupt government plans. And “events” range from 9/11 to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Islam-connected terrorism wherever one may look (London, Madrid, Beslam, Casablanca); chaos in a nuclear-armed Pakistan; dissipated democracy in all-too-many countries; a revanchist Russia itching to reaffirm hegemony over the previous Soviet empire; a vibrant nuclear program in Pyongyang; and an Israeli-Palestinian deadlock that is probably the worst in 40 years. Perhaps some developments were predictable, e.g., fragile democracies failing, Russia rising from politico-economic rubble, North Korean duplicity over its nuclear program, even suicide bombers in various previously untouched capitals. But at the turn of the millennium, four terrorist-directed commercial airliners plunging into US targets was fiction fantasy rather than anticipated reality. And with it, the US perception of the global reality changed — and that change is unlikely to be significantly altered by a new administration, Republican or Democrat.

What is coming in the form of “events?” That is the magic of events — nobody knows. We could try some for size. The Iranian revolutionary guard “chicken” exercise with high speed small craft in the Hormuz Strait could escalate. Almost forgotten is that 20 years ago, there was a bloody series of exchanges between the US and Iran, with an American US warship seriously damaged by an Iranian mine and US retaliatory strikes on Iranian oil platforms. How would we respond to a barrage of cruise missiles that sank one or more navy vessels?

Or suppose the intelligence community decides that the Iranian nuclear weapons program has resumed. The famous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the program had been suspended, but that production of fissile material continued. And naturally the indicators of a resumed weapons program would be ambiguous. But Tel Aviv is more inclined to believe the rhetoric of Iranian mullahs seeking the destruction of Israel than the temperate counter-arguments by EU/UN bureaucrats. Israeli strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities are probable. What would the US do then?

Or Serbia threatens military action against an independent Kosovo. Russia refuses to permit UN Security Council action. “President Clinton’s” secretary of state Richard Holbrooke presses for a NATO/EU/US military response to any Serb intervention. Moscow counsels otherwise. What would the US do?

And Kenya’s continuing political animosities devolve into civil war. Luos (the tribe of “President Obama’s” father) are absorbing the worst of the fighting, claiming genocide against its members, and calling for US assistance. (Coincidentally, Obama’s father’s gravesite is defaced by unknown perpetrators.) The African Union is as ineffective as it has been in Darfur and the UN as feckless as in Rwanda. What do we do?

And the foregoing is just a sample. Try mixing in a post-Castro uprising in Cuba; a global “bird flu” pandemic; an Islamic fundamentalist coup in Saudi Arabia; nuclear tests by North Korea; extended Turkish incursions into Iraq’s “Kurdistan”; and a major European leader, e.g., French President Sarkozy, assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists.

We can be sure that the next US president will face a medley of unpredicted foreign policy challenges.

But what about today’s realities? Given that there will be a new administration on January 21, 2009, and a new face in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we can confidently predict that “things will change.” Or not? And when? Indeed, those looking at the prospects for US foreign policy in the second decade of the 21st century do not have the neatly bound “Red Book” platforms that Canadian or other parliamentary systems offer to the world.

Changing policy is time consuming; the equivalent of reversing course of a huge oil tanker in heavy seas. Even a “friendly” takeover in politics, e.g., the 1988 transition between President Reagan and “Bush 41” took upwards of a year to complete. Thus, for example, strategic nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Soviets in Geneva marched in place for upwards of a year while new officials were appointed and policy was reviewed; the momentum from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty dissipated. Already in anticipation of change, current US foreign policy is short-term with limited objectives.

In that regard, let us examine the major points of global US foreign policy.

Any expectation that there will be a global love fest for the next US president is deliberately overblown. Detesting “Dubya” is a convenient rationale for rejecting US policies that are unlikely to be changed. When “change” doesn’t occur to the satisfaction of global observers, the new president will be detested regardless of age, gender, or race.

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Indeed, much simply cannot change. There is no predestination in history for nations or for people; however, short of revolution or unprecedented catastrophe, a country has widely known limits and imperatives based on geography, demography, economics, and the like. Thus island nations, e.g., the United Kingdom or Japan, are forever skeptical of the concerns of their continental neighbours. A country surrounded by others, e.g., Germany, cannot be isolationist. Resource rich but population poor states, e.g., Saudi Arabia and Canada, require strong allies to preserve their independence. States facing threats will band together attempting to stave off the perceived threats (NATO in the Cold War).

Whether or not the United States is a “hyperpower” in all of the terms of the political calculus, it remains remarkably powerful and able to project its influence globally.

Other actors seek either to constrain US efforts or direct the US ox to pull their special-interest plows. The question for post-2008 politics is not whether the US will be called upon to act, but how it will choose to do so.

The multilateral versus unilateral approach has been overblown. Virtue is not multilateral and vice-unilateral. Fascist Germany had an array of allies; for much of the Second World War the United Kingdom fought virtually alone. For its part, the United States, as all powers, can act both unilaterally and multilaterally. Regardless of how weak a state is, it can act unilaterally if other, stronger states are not concerned by its action and/or if an opponent is weaker yet. In truth the United States prefers multilateral action; it can be cheaper in blood and treasure, as well as assembling others to share the onus for unpopular action. But if it cannot convince others to support its positions, it will not forego action it believes important to its national interests. One can assume that Clinton, Obama, and McCain appreciate these realities.

And, regardless of how much they may serve the United Nations with their lips, none of the presidential candidates will take action simply because of urging or forego action simply because of UN condemnation.

Thus the likelihood that the United States will endorse Canadian shibboleths such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Anti-personnel Landmine Treaty appear slim. Both would place unacceptable (and perhaps, in the case of the ICC unconstitutional) burdens on US citizens and military personnel.

There is no visceral enthusiasm in US politico-economic circles for the hairshirt environmentalism required for compliance with Kyoto or whatever a revised proposal would require. Conservation, yes; constraint, no. That said, there has been evolution since the US sense of the Senate resolution in 1997 rejected the Kyoto Treaty 95 to 0. And while Kyoto would probably do better than “zero” if presented today, the likelihood that it would receive the two-thirds Senate majority necessary for treaty passage appears highly dubious. US environmental concern is more a phenomenon of the left side of the Democratic Party than a mainstream commitment, but the requirement to cater to this group will force accelerated lip movement rather than serious economic commitment. The reality remains that the degree of economic/social change necessary to meet Kyoto-type requirements would be expensive; and the interest in further burdening an US economy struggling in semi-recession will be minimal. And interest will certainly be still lower in any compliance regime that leaves Asian economic competitors such as China and India largely unconstrained. Thus while McCain, Clinton and Obama have recognized the import of global warming and stated their concerns, none has endorsed Kyoto. The most interest shown has been in an undefined “cap and trade” system.

The most obvious and prominent current foreign policy issue for the United States is Iraq/Afghanistan. Here the picture has been confused by the mid-term success of the “surge” of US military forces into Iraq, but this is countered by the perception that progress in Afghanistan is faltering and perhaps regressing.

So far as Iraq is concerned, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a Jack Layton “get out now and don’t let the door hit you while departing” approach. On the other hand, no presidential candidate has any interest in staying longer than absolutely necessary. The classic Bush response has been that “as they stand up [develop force/security capability], we will stand down.”

But the reality has been that in some regions they have never “stood up” to the level that the ally or the US government believed sufficient to protect them from external threat. Hence, 54 years after an armistice ended fighting on the Korean peninsula, there are still 32,000 US military personnel in Korea and another 35,000 in Japan/Okinawa. And more than 60 years after the end of the Second World War, upwards of 100,000 US troops remain based in Europe.

Thus for Iraq, Senator McCain, reflecting his military experience, is more likely willing to commit US forces more actively and for a longer period than his Democratic alternatives. Clinton and Obama appreciate the costs of precipitous departure, but their baseline domestic constituents want “out,” and their instinct will be for “less of the same” with less concern over consequences. And since Obama repeatedly emphasizes that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, a protracted presence would be counter to his instincts and preferences. Clinton has straddled the issue — essentially saying that the war was an error but refusing to apologize for her initial support or to place specific deadlines for US force withdrawal (this position is akin to the “you broke it; you bought it” Pottery Barn motto).

Afghanistan is a pain of a different poignancy. Al-Qaeda terrorists trained and were given safe haven under Taliban protection. There is no likelihood that any near-term US leadership will accept a Taliban return to power. More US forces are headed to Afghanistan — and, despite current denials, the US is the NATO partner most likely to provide the 1,000 additional combat troops required by the Manley report to sustain a Canadian commitment in Kandahar. Criticism of Afghan policy is directed not at the administration’s post-9/11 invasion, but at its execution. Criticism reflects frustration over the ineffectual Afghan central government and Pakistan’s refusal/failure to control the border territory shielding Taliban elements.

But global policy toward Afghanistan begs for recalibration. The world, through its UN mandate, is committed to a stable, developing Afghan state. However the mix of defence, development and diplomacy is played out, there is an intense global need to resolve the poppy/heroin/narcostate evolution of the country. Since the overwhelming percentage of the heroin ends up in EU countries, one would think that their concern would be compelling — but thus far it has not. For any 2009 US president, stabilizing Afghanistan will be a major objective.

We have spent almost 60 years attempting to create a secure, recognized Israeli state existing in peace with its neighbours. US commitment to Israel is essentially nonpartisan. It is not driven by a “Jewish lobby” but by appreciation that for all its flaws, the country remains the most democratic, human rights abiding society in the region. And international criticism of Israel, particularly by UN bodies, is so undifferentiated in its hostility that it has no credence in Washington. We can anticipate a fresh array of Madrids, Oslos, summits, and road maps — with the same results.

And what about Canada? Canadians will hardly be surprised that they don’t register on the US foreign policy agenda. On domestic issues that side-swipe Canada, unsurprisingly the candidates look to US interests. Clinton was late in appreciating that none of the 9/11 terrorists had a Canadian connection; she criticized Bush’s reopening of the border to Canadian cattle exports, given “mad cow” concerns. If she (or Obama) supports delays in secure identification for crossing the US borders, it is in response to local business interests, not out of sympathy for Canadian desires.

But what about free trade and renegotiating NAFTA? Here Canadians — or at least those supporting NAFTA — might take comfort in recalling that “Clinton 42” led the fight for NAFTA ratification, against considerable challenge from “great sucking sound” Ross Perrot’s predictions that US jobs would go down the drain to Mexico. And, to be sure, the steady loss of US well-paying manufacturing jobs has prompted understandable concern, particularly among union members and in old industrial states that are Democratic Party supporters. Still, it is doubtful that any US president will undo NAFTA — unless prompted by demands from a Liberal/NDP Canadian government. What is likely is “less” in the way of expanding continental cooperation.

But if there is one iron law of transitions to remember, it is that “much as you hate the current set of bastards, you will hate the new set of bastards even more.”

David T. Jones
David T. Jones, a former minister counselor at the US embassy in Ottawa, follows Canada-US relations from Washington.

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