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Careless political rhetoric won't help Americans choose

It's an election year, and therefore what many observers rightly have labeled "the silly season." But as every daily newspaper and TV broadcast reconfirms, this campaign season is even sillier than most. 

Impugning the character and motives of one's opponent is a time-honored political sport. But while we claim to prefer that candidates debate policies rather than attack personalities, this year's personal vituperation is almost unprecedented. 

If you believe Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton is a criminal and pathological liar. If you believe Ms. Clinton, the Donald is a weird combination of careless isolationist and dangerously erratic warmonger. And for both, Mr. Sanders is a hopeless naÔf.

Meanwhile, their respective policy views ó already oversimplified into virtually meaningless sound bites for communication in 140-character tweets ó become no more than fodder for equally oversimplified distortion by their opponents.

Hyperbole, euphemism, and playing fast and loose with the facts certainly aren't new to American politics, or those of any other nation, for that matter. 

Neither are they reserved to presidential candidates. If you believe Mr. Obama, for example, U.S. troops are in combat only when it kills them. If you believe his critics, the problem is his reluctance to expose still more of them to that risk.

In principle, voters dismayed and/or disgusted by all this careless rhetoric and seeking some clarity to guide their electoral decisions have plenty of potential sources ó many of them free for anyone with Internet access ó in which to find reasoned discussions of foreign policy alternatives and their implications.

 In today's Washington Post, for example, Obama critic and scholar Eliot Cohen and supporter and former Pentagon official Derek Chollet debate the president's effectiveness as commander in chief. 

 Similar pro-and-con debates in journals ranging from The Atlantic to The National Interest have appraised Ms. Clinton's foreign policy performance as both senator and Secretary of State. 

Lacking any government experience, Mr. Trump offers no equivalent basis from which to judge his foreign policy acumen ó or lack thereof ó a problem only aggravated by his undisciplined speech. 

But for all his "bizarre rants," to quote Ms. Clinton's recent description, he still has managed to spark serious debate among reputable foreign policy analysts about the desirable direction of U.S. policies from trade agreements to alliance burden-sharing.

Those debates and other foreign policy discussions relevant to the choices that we confront in November are readily available to anyone willing to take the time to examine them. 

But a good deal of research suggests that not enough of us will, and that even those who do will tend to consult only sources that confirm their preconceived views. Where politics is at issue, sadly, we tend to seek reinforcement rather than enlightenment, a tendency merely magnified by social media.

One result is that foreign policy debates inevitably migrate to unrealistic extremes. In his commencement address Thursday at the U.S. Air Force Academy, for example, the president warned against "isolationism" in remarks widely interpreted as a rebuke of Mr. Trump's criticism of recent U.S. military interventions, and by extension, the policy-makers responsible for them.

But, as this column has argued before, treating isolationism and interventionism as binary choices trivializes the foreign policy problem. One needn't urge disconnecting the U.S. from the wider world ó an impossibility in any event ó to disapprove gratuitous and expensive military interventions such as 2003's invasion of Iraq and 2011's decapitation of Libya's Gadhafi regime and the chaos to which it led.

Similarly for regulation of foreign trade. The claim that the U.S. always has favored unfettered foreign trade is demonstrably false. U.S. trade policy is integral to other national objectives from industrial performance and employment security to national defense, and suggesting that any effort to renegotiate terms of trade intrinsically invites economic warfare is utter nonsense.

The routine abuse of the terms "realism" and "idealism" in political debates reveals the same tendency toward binary description. Realism doesn't require approving the behavior of governments that fail to satisfy basic human rights. Idealism doesn't require refusing to negotiate with those governments when their acquiescence or even their outright support is essential to achieving other important policy objectives.

 In his classic On War, Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously commented that "Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult." What is true of war is even more true of foreign policy. 

U.S. foreign relations must reconcile the desirable with the achievable in an environment in which the surest route to failure is oversimplifying the problem. Our leaders, current and aspiring, do us no favors by bombarding us with rhetoric that does just that.

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