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August 28, 2012

Republicans' Flimsy Case on National Security - Fantasy-Based Foreign Policy
Posted by David Shorr

01Romney on flight_deckWhen you take a closer look at Republicans' national security case for Mitt Romney, it really is amazing to see them wish away all the trade-offs and messiness of the real world. They aren't so much debating foreign policy as indulging their own fantasies of getting the world's troublemakers to straighten up and fly right.

Most often their proposals and critiques rest on self-serving assumptions that count on other players bending to America's will. For all their faith in military strength, Republicans should pay closer heed to the military adage that "the enemy gets a vote." 

These are the same tendencies that have led Romney supporters to campaign against a complete straw man rather than the actual President Obama. Against all evidence, they want us to believe President Obama's spent the last four years giving away the store, a hangdog declinist commander in chief.

Selective Amnesia Over Bin Laden's Killing

I'm not sure whether to be offended or amused by the Republican critique's convenient omissions. Aside from hyperventilating over purportedly devastating leaks, the following strange sentence about cooperation with Pakistan is the closest that the RNC platform comes to talking about the killing of Bin Laden:

The working relationship between our two countries is a necessary, though sometimes difficult, benefit to both, and we look toward the renewal of historic ties that have frayed under the weight of international conflict.

"International conflict," now there's a euphemism if I ever saw one. Hey, know what really frayed US-Pakistani ties? The operation to take out Osama Freaking Bin Laden! This is what I mean by the Republicans' magically tradeoff-free critique -- but in this case oozing with irony. Here we have the opposition party commenting on recent friction between the US and Pakistan, but somehow without reference to the biggest source of friction: President Obama's decision to send in the Navy SEAL team.

Iran Sanctions? What Sanctions?

We're hearing a lot from Republicans this season about the progress of Iran's nuclear program. But if you relied on them for all your information, you wouldn't know that President Obama's policies and diplomatic efforts have put Iran under stricter sanctions and greater pressure than it's ever been. And President Obama's success on sanctions stems directly from the sensitivity to international perceptions -- publicly testing Iranian good faith through engagement, rounding up others' support once Tehran failed the test -- that his critics rail against.

But as I say, the international banking and energy sanctions spearheaded by the Obama administration are more stringent than any previous sets of sanctions. Speaking of President Bush and would-be nuclear proliferators, we don't hear much from Republicans about his record on nuclear nonproliferation. Did the Bush administration keep the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs from progressing? If I'm not mistaken, Iran and North Korea actually got closer to the bomb while President Bush was showing resolve and standing pat just as Republicans still advocate. Wait, no I've got that wrong. North Korea didn't just get closer; they actually got the bomb while the Bush administration was busy not negotiating with them.

Meanwhile, as President Obama keeps plugging away -- corraling international pressure against Iran, giving Tehran further chances to prove they want a diplomatic solution -- his political opponents keep taking pot shots at his policy. In their Iran policy critique, Republicans have sought to have it both ways. They predict diplomatic failure by the administration and profess to believe in force only as a last resort, yet offering no specifics for a more effective diplomatic approach.

Friends, Enemies, and Resets

This is one of Republicans' favorite slams against President Obama, the idea that he's been snubbing America's allies while ardently pursuing deals with unfriendly or hostile nations. It's a prominent theme of Senator John McCain's new piece over at Foreign Policy, but it appears as a main talking point in every Republican foreign policy argument.

And talking point is an apt term for it. As far as I can tell, they're really only talking about two or three friends. Most famously, Republicans claim that Obama has turned his back on Israel. This is belied not only by the record of extensive support the administration's provided Israel, detailed by former senior Pentagon official and campaign surrogate Colin Kahl, but by glowingly appreciative statements from Prime Minister Netanyahu own down. The other plank in this case was the administration's reconfiguration of the missile defense systems being built up at NATO's eastern and southeastern flanks -- by the way, a shift in emphasis toward proven technologies and greater capability against missiles from Iran. Administration critics are being a tad overdramatic with all their anguish about the consequences for Poland and the Czech Republic. In fact, they've had their own problem with the Czech Republic: getting the country's name correct, that is.

I don't see what else they could mean in terms of betraying allies. I can think of a couple differences with allies that'd be an even harder sell for Republicans. Japanese leaders have chafed under the terms of a longstanding agreement over planned changes to US military bases; surely the Republicans aren't saying Obama should have given into those demands. Or do they mean the administration should have stood by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and tried to keep him in power?

Republican complaints about the reset of Russian relations share the same problem / irony as the shift of the missile defense system toward an Iranian missile threat. The biggest payoff of the reset has been improved Russian cooperation in pressuring Iran over its nuclear program. (A second crucial benefit has been the Russian transit route for the Afghanistan operation, something else Republicans consistently overlook, as an alternative to the fraught Pakistani supply route.) As I mentioned, putting unprecedented pressure on Iran has been a matter of steadily building a diplomatic coalition -- one that couldn't be built just with friends and allies. The two categories sometimes aren't even relevant. A final piece of the Iran sanctions puzzle, for instance, was dealing with major importers of Iranian oil and gas, not just China, but also Japan, South Korea, and India. If the Republicans think they could've rammed sanctions through despite Chinese and Russian objections, I would like to have seen them try. And then watch them deal with the economic fallout.

Libya and Syria

 There is a lot of outrage and second-guessing from the GOP on the administration's response to the atrocities being committed in Syria by Bashar al Assad. Kori Schake of Shadow Government blog said this the other day:

Neo-realism, as practiced by the Obama administration, seeks to keep all their options open -- to intervene in Libya if it looks easy, to avoid Syria where what needs doing looks hard.

Senator McCain had a similar line in his piece:

When people risk everything for their freedom, as they are doing in the Arab world today, our president should take their side -- not just when it is safe and convenient for him, when they are on the verge of success, but when it really matters, when the fate of their cause hangs in the balance. 

If ever you needed a reminder of the caution-to-the-wind interventionism of the previous administration, there it is. To which I'd respond, yeah we have to take into account how difficult an intervention would be. Plus, have they really thought it through and determined what's achievable? Our own James Lamond had a very good post on this the other day, looking at the ramifications of a deeper US involvement in Syria. This issue also reminded me of an excellent DA post a year ago by Eric Martin, in which he dissected interventionists' standard notches of "rhetorical escalation" that always demand the US do more.

More typical of the 2012 foreign policy debate, though, was Stephen Hadley's recent Washington Post op-ed on Syria. Hadley uses the Romney campaign's standard ploy of proposing things the Obama administration is already doing, while passing it off as starkly different. As I argue in my own post the other day, there's a reason they end up in a bind. The Romney camp wants to represent a bolder foreign policy, but without facing up to the trade-offs. They can see the same difficulties and considerations that shape President Obama's policies, and they want to slam his policies without being bold enough to forthrightly set aside those considerations. And based on this pathetic performance they want to be given stewardship of American power and leadership.

Photo: US Navy

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