Anastasio Somoza was the corrupt and brutal dictator of Nicaragua from the U.S. presidency of Franklin Roosevelt well into Dwight Eisenhower’s White House tenure. When an opponent with real evidence directly accused him of having stolen an election, Somoza retorted, “Indeed, you won the election, but I won the count.”
Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian “strongman” (you call a despot a dictator when he mostly opposes your national self-interest and a strongman when he has mostly served your national self-interest) is just one of many anti-democratic oppressors the United States has been close to over the years.
Yes, the stakes in Egypt are enormously high — primarily for the people of Egypt but also for the future of the Middle East, with consequences for much of the world beyond, including the United States. If the eventual outcome is a happy one, with a free, stable and prospering Egypt constructively engaged with its neighbors, it’s possible that the United States and President Barack Obama will receive at least some credit for having positively contributed to that result.
But if the Obama team is planning to emphasize the incumbent president’s foreign policy strengths in the 2012 campaign, they can save money, time and effort by forgetting about it.
When the economy is bad, the economy is only the issue in American presidential politics. Foreign policy successes do not by themselves re-elect presidents faced with immediate problems on the domestic front.
Look at President Harry Truman, whose Truman Doctrine providing military aid to Turkey and Greece and saved both of those countries from falling under Soviet control, who rebuilt a war-devastated Western Europe through the plan named for his secretary of state, Gen. George Marshall, who crafted NATO and the European defense system and, through a bold airlift, saved Berlin. With sagging poll numbers, economic strife and a revolt in his own Democratic Party, Truman didn’t even run for re-election in 1952.
Or what about President George H.W. Bush? After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Bush, with his Secretary of State Jim Baker, assembled a genuine international coalition of 32 nations, and won endorsement for actions from the United Nations and from a Democratic-controlled Congress. In an impressive four-day military blitz in late February 1991, the U.S. and coalition forces drove the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait and crippled Iraq’s military capacity.
During this, Bush’s first and only term, the Berlin Wall came down, after 45 years Germany was reunited, democracy peacefully bloomed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union broke up. This is truly the stuff of history. And this remarkable record of foreign policy triumphs meant nothing to voters, plagued by a faltering economy and unemployment. They elected Democratic Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, whose foreign policy credentials, earned from his mastery of the historic boundary dispute between Arkansas and Oklahoma over who owned Fort Smith, must have impressed voters in Philadelphia and Fresno.
Finally, take the case of President Jimmy Carter, whose skill, mastery of details, endless capacity for hard work and singular stubbornness were all indispensable through 13 days of secret negotiations to broker the 1978 Camp David agreements, which led the following year to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. One year later, when the “misery index” (the sum of the nation’s inflation and unemployment rates) pushed 22 percent and Ayatollah Khomeini held power and American hostages in Iran, the Camp David miracle was forgotten.
The lesson: A perceived foreign policy failure can defeat a president, but even a celebrated foreign policy success will not re-elect him if Americans aren’t working.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.