Mutually Exclusive Victories: Libya in the Real World and the Political World

By R.B. Scott

Boston, MA - Barack Obama may very well win reelection next year but his administration’s recent actions in Libya will not be a cause. Success or failure in Libya does not change the fact that any president’s foreign policy—with the exception of policies that thrust themselves into voters’ personal lives—rarely if ever determines the incumbent’s fate at the ballot box. This trend is ironic and perhaps discomforting since presidents have far more control over foreign policy than any other realm of government they oversee.

With the overthrow of the Qaddafi government and the dictator’s recent death, President Obama and his administration’s recent endeavor in Libya has been nothing short of a landmark foreign policy victory. Even Republicans—with the notable exception of those running for president—have begrudgingly admitted that Libya is a victory for the embattled president.  Senator and former Republican nominee John McCain called recent developments in Libya “a victory for the president.” Senator Mark Kirk—who had previously been very critical of the administration’s Libya policy—recently returned from Libya with a changed mind calling the military endeavor “a success by President Obama and his team. Any military conflict has ups and downs or things you might have done differently…but we have all the makings of a very strong U.S. ally in Libya.”

 Beyond Republican praise, the administration’s policy has received high marks from a wide range of political elites and activists. Technocrats point to the low 2 billion dollar price tag of removing a dictator from power and installing a new government; something that America did in Iraq for over 500 times the price. Diplomacy-first advocates applaud the tremendous international coalition assembled and the hundreds of thousands saved from what Qaddafi promised would be genocide. And many foreign policy experts celebrate the exercise of American power without the ego the Bush administration believed to be an expression of American strength. All of these accomplishments will have consequences for years to come, except in the world of presidential politics.

Indeed no voter is going to go to the polls next November and vote for Obama based on his administration’s successful Libyan policy. This attitude is not merely the consequences of prevailing economic concerns but rather the political reality that the majority of voters do not care about foreign policy unless they see immediate consequences in their own lives. Such trends do not only apply for 2012 but for all presidential elections.

Even in an election like 2004 when CNN exit polls measured 34% of voters identifying “terrorism” or “Iraq” as the most important issue—compared to 20% for the economy/jobs—both national security issues mattered because they affected voters’ personal lives (i.e. scared of terrorist attack, family members or friends in Iraq). If foreign policy truly determined that election, then voters would have debated the pros and cons of the “Bush Doctrine,” the policy holding foreign governments responsible for independent terrorist groups operating within their borders.

Similarly, the Vietnam War may have played a large role in the 1968 election but as a result of the increasing number of young men coming home in caskets, not whether the “domino theory” was true or not.  For better or worse, people vote according to how politics affects their personal lives.

 Such personal politics has led many to look at the economy as a barometer for presidential election since nothing is quite as personal as one’s economic standing.  In fact, the economy’s effect on voter choice has been researched repeatedly by political scientists for the better part of four decades with many pointing to GDP’s rise or fall in election years as the strongest determinant of whether the incumbent party’s nominee wins.

Since Yale economist Ray Fair and others introduced these arguments in the 1970’s, intellectuals have continued to debate over voter motivation with every election adding more data to form a new model or creatively mold into existing ones. Predictably, more and more political scientists have come along proposing new voting models ranging from genetic explanations to social, from racial stereotypes to rational choices with no clear consensus being formed in the near future. The upcoming election will undoubtedly lead to even more theoretical models but it is doubtful any will be citing the “Libya effect.”