Khurais Oil Processing Facility in Saudi Arabia, February 2017. CREDIT: <a href=,_Saudi_Arabia_by_Planet_Labs.jpg>Planet Labs, Inc. (CC)</a>.
Khurais Oil Processing Facility in Saudi Arabia, February 2017. CREDIT: Planet Labs, Inc. (CC).

Candidates, Calculus, and the Iran Crisis

Sep 18, 2019

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

I had the distinct honor and pleasure of speaking with the members of the Greater Des Moines Committee on Foreign Relations this past Tuesday around the topic of the role and scope of U.S. global engagement.

Iowa plays a unique role in the U.S. political system, as it is one of those places where citizens get much more exposure to and face time with aspiring presidential candidates. In discussing the competing narratives about America's role in the international system, I asked that we move away from our traditional style of compartmentalizing foreign policy and playing a version of Jeopardy with candidates (Name the president of Burkino Faso! Should we sell weapons to Saudi Arabia?).

Whether a candidate is a walking, breathing version of Google who can call up names and dates at a moment's notice is, in my opinion, less important than understanding that candidate's calculus when it comes to international affairs. By calculus, I mean understanding how he or she prioritizes competing values and interests, how he or she makes tradeoffs in terms of attention and focus, and his or her risk and cost tolerances.

One of the things that always bothered me about the 2005 George W. Bush second inaugural address was the confident pronouncement that our interests and values were now one and the same. Not only did this fall into the old and tired trope that there is an automatic clash between interests (defined amorally and selfishly) and values (seen as higher ethical aspirations unsullied by the demands of human politics) but it assumes that there are two monolithic groups of "interests" and "values." More often, our policy reflects choices between competing coalitions of values and interests that are bundled together.

This brings us to the current crisis in the Persian Gulf. In choosing whether and how to respond to the attack on the Saudi refineries, what is the calculus for determining action? Even if a candidate knows very little about any specific situation (and this is what experts and briefers are for), what will be most critical is that candidate’s narrative about what the U.S. ought to be doing and with what tools of statecraft it should bring to any given situation.

Is it maintaining the security and integrity of the international energy system, with the U.S. as the guarantor of the Persian Gulf, the bipartisan consensus that has guided U.S. policy since 1979 when it was first enunciated by President Carter? A politician who has made climate change a central organizational principle might argue that the attack and the spike in energy prices it has created, far from being a negative, is an opportunity to help wean us from hydrocarbons and to shift to newer forms of energy (a process that is incentivized when oil prices are higher and supplies are seen as less stable and reliable). An anti-war/human rights candidate might question the value of using armed force to defend the interests of a regime that by all accounts is illiberal, authoritarian, and opposed to many of our values—especially when it comes to gender equity.

Even the current administration, as much as it may use bellicose rhetoric, is assessing whether risking American lives is the correct approach. The announcement of additional sanctions may suggest that on the "die-kill-pay" paradigm, the attack on the Saudi facilities falls to a level of using American economic pressure as the deferred response, rather than American lives.

What we need to know from the 2020 candidates is how they prioritize issues and how they assign resources and risk. They need to be pressed beyond the safe political answer of "there is no need to choose" or "we can do it all." We've heard those answers before—and they never pan out.

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