Foreign Policy, Undigested

Analysis eludes The New York Times as it reviews the candidates’ world views

The New York Times’s “If Elected…” series seems to promise insight into what a candidate might actually do if sworn into office next January. (“If elected… John McCain will make the Bush tax cut permanent,” for example.) But unfortunately, the latest installment, “Rivals Split on U.S. Power, but Ideas Defy Labels,” fails to provide any of the implied speculation about what Barack Obama or John McCain might do when one of them becomes president.

In more than 2,600 words, David E. Sanger rehashes the candidates’ positions on Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, the United Nations, and so on, from every source available under the sun. There is talk of humanitarian intervention and nuclear disarmament, and more.

As the campaign has unfolded, both men have been forced into surprising detours. They may have formed their worldviews in Hanoi and Jakarta, but they forged specific positions amid the realities of an election in post-Iraq, post-crash America — where judgment sometimes collides with political expediency.

The result has included contradictions that do not fit the neat hawk-and-dove images promoted by each campaign. As spelled out in presidential debates, in written answers provided by their campaigns, and in an interview with Mr. McCain in January, some of their views appear as messy and unpredictable as the troubles one of them will inherit.

So reads the nut graph of the piece. The next two thousand words are dedicated to the twists and turns the candidates’ positions have taken. There are reversals and surprises. Obama’s response to the Russia-Georgia conflict is closer to Bush’s than McCain’s. Obama speaks out boldly about a willingness to sit down with Iranian leadership without preconditions, is criticizes, and scales back. There’s hemming and hawing, but no real answers, as Sanger readily admits.

On the one hand, the Times should be commended for taking the time to review the substance of this election. The last few weeks have been punctuated by too many distractions (CoutureGate, Ayers, Acorn, Plumber Joe, and the Kitchen Sink) and it’s admirable of the Times to cut through that (even though this story did share the front page with this account of Sarah Palin’s wardrobe).

But the piece reads like an endless game of He Said, She Said. Falling back on the default mode of campaign stenography at this late date in the election cycle does nothing to provide readers with any kind of meaningful analysis or context. “We report, you decide,” the article seems to proclaim.

Sorry, but that’s not good enough. Laissez faire journalism may work for some things, like profiles of different dog breeds, but foreign policy is too complicated. Readers, myself included, need some critical perspective on the candidates’ positions.

Sanger himself seems to admit so much in describing their views as “messy and unpredictable.” If he can’t make sense of them, how are we supposed to?

So why not go a step further? Why not call up a few career diplomats—American and foreign—a few professors of history and international affairs, and a couple of foreign policy analysts to make something out of this mess? Neither campaign appears to have made itself very available for the interviews necessary to write an article stuffed with specifics, which may make it hard to parse the implications of their actual positions. Oh, well. Try.

What’s more, Sanger admits that the essential premise of the article and the series—what they might do “If Elected…”—is a relatively useless exercise:

It is worth remembering that presidential campaigns are usually terrible predictors of presidential decision-making. John F. Kennedy said virtually nothing about building up troops in Vietnam in 1960, nor did Richard M. Nixon talk in 1968 about engineering an opening to China. George W. Bush, in an interview at his ranch 10 days before his first inaugural in 2001, lamented that sanctions against Saddam Hussein looked like “Swiss cheese” but did not appear, at that time, to be heading toward a military confrontation with him.

Instead of devoting endless inches to the back-and-forth of the candidates’ words, the Times could have compiled a list of specific challenges that the next president will inherit, with some insight into what will be required to meet those challenges. In reading the two candidates’ words, one might think that Obama’s actual plan to dealing with the Iranians is to sit down and talk without preconditions. This idea in itself has become the entirety of his foreign policy approach, and was recently seized upon by the McCain-Palin ticket.

The real, important, and necessary point is this: What would they talk about at this now-mythical sit-down? Perhaps Mideast experts could offer some insight into what incentives the U.S. could use to achieve its goal of stopping the Iranian nuclear program, and honestly assess whether or not such a goal is even feasible at this point.

Sanger admits as much. “The harder question,” he writes, “is how to force Iran to give up its uranium enrichment quickly, before it produces enough material to build a weapon?” It would have been nice if he’d asked someone to take a crack at it.

There are myriad reasons why editors may be reluctant to push forward the type of story I’ve described, and campaign fatigue and poll numbers may occupy the Number One and Two slots on that list. Presumably, part of the reason that the Times is running such long policy pieces at this point in the campaign is that, hard as it might be to imagine, there are still voters out there who are trying to make up their minds. If the story’s goal was to help readers make up their minds, then, unfortunately, it fell short.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.