“The world needs more Chris Stevenses,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she paid tribute to the U.S. ambassador to Libya moments after he and three colleagues were assassinated in Benghazi. As usual, the secretary was spot on. But she could have also said, “America needs more politicians like Chris Stevens.”
An Arabic speaker and diligent international relations nerd since his time in the Peace Corps, the ambassador was well respected in the State Department for his courage, intelligence and astute understanding of foreign policy. In an Arab world filled with uncertainty, Mr. Stevens managed to turn even the greatest risks into opportunities. This was true when he was first smuggled into Benghazi aboard a creaky cargo ship at the start of the revolution in Libya, and it was true when he helped topple Gadhafi from power.
Set against the intellectual acuity of a man like Mr. Stevens, this election cycle’s foreign policy debate is nothing short of appalling. As protests rock the Middle East and North Africa and tensions flare in Southeast Asia, Republicans and Democrats are doing Americans a grave disservice by ignoring important foreign policy issues. When they do open their mouths, they sound sophomoric.
This juvenile atmosphere grew most apparent after the Romney campaign accused President Obama of a “disgraceful” answer to Mr. Stevens’ assassination. Romney’s words came after the American embassy in Egypt slammed the low-budget anti-Muslim film that sparked protests in the Middle East. Not least because American diplomats to Egypt rather than the president initially criticized the film, the Obama campaign declared themselves “shocked” and puzzled by Romney’s attacks—made so soon after Mr. Steven’s death to boot. Nonetheless, Romney refused to back down.
President Obama is also guilty. On Sept. 17, the administration announced that it is launching a complaint with the World Trade Organization against China because the Chinese are allegedly providing illegal subsidies on automotive exports. Since this announcement came at an outdoor rally in the battleground, automobile-producing state of Ohio and only hours after Romney released an ad promising to “crack down on cheaters like China,” it is hard to escape the conclusion that the complaint was at least partially motivated by the election.
The foreign policy debate, like other debates that get filtered through electoral rhetoric, is problematic because the product is invariably inferior. As diplomats like Chris Stevens know, foreign policy is nuanced stuff. Some of the largest issues facing us—the Israel-Palestine conflict, a fracturing European Union, the slow and volatile transition of Arab autocracies into democracies, worsening Sino-Japanese relations and so on—cannot be sufficiently explained in a campaign sound bite.
In addition to watering down the issues, this election is motivating jingoistic policies that might seem good in the short-run but could backfire in the long run. The economic complaints launched against China are only one example of this. Indeed, the ease with which both Obama and Romney are bashing China in order to raise their poll numbers is troublesome because of how key our future relations with that country are. As the Chinese relationship with neighboring countries such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan worsens, it could serve the U.S. well to play the rational actor, to appear as a middle-man. Instead, some politicians are siding with smaller Asian countries even when the facts support the Chinese position (as they might in the heated dispute over the Diaoyu islands that have recently rocked Sino-Japanese relations).
Although elections have a natural tendency to simplify foreign policy and to charge it with a jingoistic undertone, it is irresponsible for either campaign to do this. The issues facing us are too large, too important and too complex. They affect not only Americans, but also billions of people living outside our country. The long-term consequences of the debate could involve shifting alliances or even military action. Thus, to trivialize foreign policy because we are in the middle of an election cycle does a disservice to Americans and non-Americans alike. We must debate foreign policy with all the nuance and complexity it deserves.
Through his efforts to understand the other side, to fully comprehend the nuances of every issue and to empathize before condemning, Chris Stevens treated foreign policy with all the complexity it deserves. That is why, until his death, he found success in Libya while American efforts elsewhere failed. He was beloved by Libyans, as apparent from the sympathy expressed around the country in the wake of his murder.
Mr. Stevens’ death is a true tragedy, but it could lead to even greater tragedies if, instead of learning from his example, we continue a foreign policy debate that has so far been narrow, simple and short-sighted.
The geopolitical stakes are too high for irresponsible electioneering to influence our foreign policy, and, as the year drags on, the stakes are only looking to increase.
Mike Shammas is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.