[Overseas view]An American ‘polifessor’JoongAng Ilbo readers and editors have asked me what one actually does as an adviser to a presidential candidate during a U.S. election.
I am a foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain. This is actually my first experience working for a presidential candidate. I am an independent and had not actually worked for the Bush campaign. My experience as a foreign policy adviser is therefore limited to this election, but it has been exciting and worth every moment.
I left the Bush White House in December 2005 to return to academia at Georgetown University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was quietly contacted to help on some of Senator McCain’s speeches related to Asia. His staff knew that he was getting ready to run for president and they were beginning to reach out to experts who might be able to help.
Republicans and conservatives in the United States generally fall into three groups: national security conservatives, fiscal (or economic) conservatives, and social conservatives. McCain’s greatest strength has always been with national security conservatives and it was important to his team that they had the experts lined up early. By the spring of 2007 they had enlisted all of the former Republican secretaries of state (other than Colin Powell, who has remained neutral in this election so far), in addition to experts on various issues and regions of the world.
However, in the Republican primary McCain ran into trouble in the summer of 2007 because of his strong support for the surge strategy in Iraq and for reform of the immigration system — both of which were becoming unpopular at the time. It looked like his campaign might collapse, but he kept on fighting. I remember taking a plane to New York in August 2007 and when the airport security screener saw a “McCain” sticker on my bag he told me that the senator had passed through the airport the day before, carrying his own bags and looking determined to keep up the fight.
Senator McCain also told us that he would rather lose the election than surrender in Iraq, or pander to special interest groups on immigration or abandon free trade agreements like the U.S.-Korea FTA (which he strongly supports).
Senior advisers to the other leading Republican candidates, Rudoph Guliani and Mitt Romney, could smell blood in the water and began approaching me and asking me to defect to their camp, but I refused. Senator McCain had proven to me exactly why he was ready to be president — he had put his country first on issues like free trade and Iraq — even if it put his own political position in jeopardy.
This was the same patriotism and courage that led him to tell his North Vietnamese captors that he would not go home before his fellow prisoners of war, even when they offered to release him early as a propaganda ploy because his father was commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific at the time. “This will be very bad for you, McCain,” they told him, and they beat him for two years. But he emerged with his pride and his principles intact. And in the Republican primary the voters rewarded him for his strong convictions and “straight talk” and he became the party nominee.
Once John McCain became the nominee, the foreign policy advisers became busier. We provided regular updates on developments such as the North Korean nuclear negotiations and gave recommendations on how to respond to the press or what statements to issue.
When Senator McCain’s close ally, Senator Joe Lieberman, traveled to Asia in June, we briefed him and got him ready for meetings with counterparts from the region. We also met with key officials from abroad — including from [Korea’s] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Blue House and the National Assembly — to hear their views on U.S.–Korea relations so that we could inform Senator McCain and work on a comprehensive vision for the U.S.-Korea alliance that would resonate for Koreans as well as the American public. And as “surrogates” for the candidates, we engaged in spirited debates with representatives from the Obama campaign (readers can watch one of the major debates on Asia policy at http://www.nbr.org).
On the whole, the McCain foreign policy team is a leaner and more agile group than Senator Obama’s. There are four advisers working on Asia, including South Asia, for McCain. We can also reach out to a broader group of experts who help on specific issues when needed. The Obama campaign has hundreds of advisers on foreign policy, with reportedly over 50 on East Asia alone. We McCain advisers argue that we have quality over quantity and that McCain doesn’t need an army of tutors because he is already well versed in foreign policy. But the Democrats have also been out of power for eight years and have a larger backlog of people eager to get back into government.
Friends and colleagues in South Korea have also been involved in presidential campaigns for both the conservative and progressive camps. Like me, many are professors. One of the challenges we all find is how to retain objectivity as a scholar while working in a partisan environment where scoring points is usually more important than rigorous methodology.
There is also a debate about whether professors should shield their students in the classroom from their own political views. In my academic writing I have strived over the past year to use objective empirical evidence, such as polling numbers or trade data, to make my case. That helps to prevent charges of bias and also to keep academic integrity in the midst of a political food fight.
I have also decided that my students at Georgetown University are mature enough intellectually that they will not be unduly influenced by my work on the campaign. In fact, even the Obama supporters find it interesting and it would be difficult to shield from them anyway.
On the whole, I believe that active involvement in policy debates makes for better scholarship and teaching, though scholars in both the U.S. and Korea should guard against letting the glow of politics weaken their contributions to society as intellectuals and teachers. Korea and the United States are unique in the role that scholars can play in policy formation, and I think it makes both of our countries’ universities and governments stronger.
*The writer is a former senior director for Asian affairs at the United States National Security Council.
by Michael J. Green