Foreign policy and our future: debatable issues
By Matthew Leatherman
For the Salisbury Post
Howard Dean and Karl Rove are rock-ribbed partisans — Rove the electoral maestro for George W. Bush, and Dean a former national committee chairman and presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. Neither is the specialist typical for an international affairs debate, but this evening they will square off at Duke University on just that issue.
Turning to them is a proper, if uncommon, choice. Americans are the root of America's overseas interests and, unlike the stereotypical specialist, Dean and Rove will frame their ideas as a decision for Americans to make. Triangle voters will be well-served by a forthright exploration of what we want done in our name and how we want to pay for it.
Several issues at stake in the 2012 election ought to drive the debate. Prominent North Carolinians have given voice to each of them, and they all pivot on a question: How much should our government try to direct life in the rest of the world?
Start with Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff. He routinely lists defense in his top five budget challenges, observing that "we spend more on national defense than the next 15 largest countries combined."
Economic strength is the root of U.S. influence no matter how it's measured. This election's winner will confront immediate decisions about what we want from the Departments of Defense and State and also how much cost is enough for them. Spending too little will leave plans unfulfilled, yet spending too much will undercut the economy by misapplying revenues and driving up government debt.
Dean's and Rove's first burden should be to detail their plans and the way costs would be allocated. One tangible point is how the Pentagon should contribute to a deal that amends the automated cuts currently slated to bite Jan. 2. Another is defending the direction they would set as practical, not just ideal. Perspectives on the role of government are as significant here as they are domestically.
Next is Rep. Walter Jones. His focus on the war in Afghanistan is unwavering. In February, the Republican congressman told a Raleigh audience that "too many times, administrations will say that the date for coming home is a year from now, 18 months from now, 24 months from now, and we the American people just accept it."
Defining the conditions of "success" will be important for Dean and Rove. If those conditions have not yet been met, then we need to understand whether they will be by the 2014 deadline - or ever. If killing bin Laden, dismantling al-Qaida and scattering the Taliban do constitute success, though, then we need to know why we're waiting until 2014 to leave.
Behind these decisions are assumptions about how much we can expect the Afghan military, police force and central government to conform to the direction we've given them. Dean and Rove need to address whether Kabul will live up to our plan or whether that plan needs amending. Given today's strident posturing on Iran and Syria, they also ought to explain what Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have taught us about orchestrating regime change.
China represents a third issue, one with major implications for the ideas of economic and military security that Bowles and Jones respectively represent. Many North Carolina voices, from a HanesBrands executive to a leader from the N.C. Military Foundation, gathered last month at a forum that asked how "the two most prominent nations of the world [will] maintain peace and prosperity." Dean and Rove should tackle this concern directly, focusing foremost on how much we can script this relationship and how we can best engage.
Peace depends on being prepared for conflict. At the same time, planning too eagerly risks gratuitous, self-fulfilling rivalry. Now is the time to consider whether another next-generation fighter program, simultaneous upgrades to nuclear bombers and submarines, and a new aircraft carrier fleet that will quintuple that of China and Russia combined really add to our military security - or if these hundreds of billions in government spending are worth the economic trade-offs.
A related question for Dean and Rove involves trade and diplomacy. How the U.S. integrates these interests will influence our relationship with China dramatically. Managing issues as they arise, an approach with more emphasis on the Departments of State and Treasury, offers different opportunities and challenges than attempting to direct the relationship militarily.
It is in our name that Washington establishes, finances and pursues international interests. North Carolinians need to be equipped to shape that agenda especially as election choices loom.
Erskine Bowles, Walter Jones and many other state leaders have framed the critical issues, and Howard Dean and Karl Rove will debate them in a way that makes choices meaningful. As they do, scrutinize how comfortable they are about directing the rest of the world, as well as the financial implications of the plans they promise.
Salisbury native Matt Leatherman is with the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense Project of the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. A version of this article first appeared in the News & Observer of Raleigh.