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Thursday, Apr 24, 2014

Al Hutchison: Two presidents, and better U.S. foreign policy


It isn’t going to happen, and nobody is even pushing the idea, but until Americans become more knowledgable about the rest of the world, might not the United States be better served by having one president in charge of domestic affairs and another looking after our nation’s best interests in foreign affairs?

That one elected leader should bear the enormous burden of responsibility (often translated as blame) for both important areas seems almost unfair and irrational, especially given the ever-changing complexities of today’s thoroughly complicated world, one our 18th century leaders could never have anticipated, and our nation’s persistent tendency to know far too little about the rest of the world.

Has anyone been keeping tabs on the tensions in the Balkans lately?

Yes, in theory the president hands off the foreign issues to the secretary of state, but the average voter quite naturally holds the president responsible for the conduct of our nation’s foreign affairs, even if many of these very same average voters know next to nothing about the international issues that keep the president, any president, awake at night.

How many of them even know where to find Ukraine on the map?

Obviously, holding the president responsible makes sense because the secretary of state is selected by the president and his or her identity isn’t even known, with any certainty anyway, during the election campaign. The name of a prospective secretary of state is rarely, if ever, a critical issue prior to Election Day. Had Mitt Romney won the last election, who would have been his secretary of state?

And yet at times, foreign events have become hugely important to the security and economic health of the United States. Granted, some of that debate of these matters may be more inspired by blatant partisanship than by genuine differences of opinion, but the public’s response to the debate will be more or less informed by the public’s knowledge of the issues.

It may be largely forgotten now, but one reason American troops were the last to show up for World War I — they didn’t join the fight until 1917, three years after it began — and became combat participants in World War II only after Pearl Harbor (more than two years after Hitler invaded Poland) is that a major domestic political issue in those days was that of isolationism.

Later there was the bitter (and now largely forgotten) “who lost China?” debate on Capitol Hill and, of course, the enduring argument over whether the United States had any business fighting in Vietnam, a nation that until then many Americans had never even heard of. Remember the “domino theory”?

To this day, part of the American public — the part that was paying close attention at the time — may remain divided on these long-ago issues, but the fervor of the argument has faded and been largely replaced by often-vigorous debates over much later decisions made in Washington about America’s proper role in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

Foreign issues of that importance undoubtedly must be addressed in the Oval Office. Nobody would dare suggest that the president delegate responsibility of that magnitude to a person of less political stature. But what about the present crisis in the Central African Republic, or the bloody Buddhist-Muslim confrontations in Myanmar? What’s the role of an American president in matters of that scale?

There are many issues overseas that may not rise to the level of crisis, yet the president of the United States — regardless of party affiliation — is required, if not by law then by sheer political necessity, to understand their details, recognize the likely consequences of any conceivable conclusion, and calculate the effects (especially on this country) of any American intervention.

Under our political system, that’s only fair and any president worthy of the office understands that before being sworn in. But fairness and awareness are not the only issues. What also may be worth discussing is whether there isn’t a better way — better not only for our elected leaders but also for the American public and, importantly, for the world at large.

No president can be faulted by the American public for not having anticipated the total collapse of the civil government in Somalia, and yet look at the consequences, among them the widespread, out-of-control pirate activity in the region. Another has been the emergence of a brutal jihadist movement that was blamed for the attack on a shopping mall in neighboring Kenya not long ago.

The problem is that the United States is more important to the rest of the world than any other nation. That may be a tribute to America’s political values, its abundant (and varied) resources and its readiness to support noble causes, but it’s also a tremendous responsibility, and it is rife with risks.

The American presidency wasn’t conceived quite the way it has evolved. And while nobody will seriously argue for a separating executive responsibility for domestic and foreign affairs, neither can anyone deny that the concentration of all that responsibility in one elected official has its drawbacks.

There is one thing that could be done and should be done to make the presidency work better in the world of foreign affairs, and that is for the American people, from elementary school pupils to retirees, to take a much greater interest in how (and why) the rest of the world operates. They won’t do that without encouragement from somewhere — perhaps the presidency itself. Supportive legislation would be very helpful.

The present crisis in Ukraine is a perfect example of our nation’s problem. How much does the average American know (or care) about that beleaguered nation? Unless he or she knows far more than most of us believe is the case, how can that average American make an informed judgment of the president’s response? So in the end this isn’t so much an argument for separation of powers within the White House as it is a call for an intelligent, insightful adjustment of our public education system so that American students are as well informed on global issues as their counterparts around the world.

Unless progress is made in that direction, those seriously studious foreign students may some day be dictating their values to us.

Al Hutchison is a retired newspaper editor and publisher who lives in Citrus County.