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September 29, 2012

Obama Foreign Policy - A Six-Week Appraisal
Posted by David Shorr

11142011_AP111113085935_300According to David Ignatius, President Obama's refusal to make major foreign policy moves in the final weeks before the election will leave the 2012 campaign without a meaningful public airing of the subject:

This strategy of avoiding major foreign policy risks or decisions may help get Obama reelected. But he is robbing the country of a debate it needs to have — and denying himself the public understanding and support he will need to be an effective foreign policy president in a second term, if the “rope-a-dope” campaign should prove successful.

This is a pretty odd idea. Ignatius seems to argue that without real-time statecraft at the height of the political season, voters won't know where the candidates stand. I guess the last four years somehow don't really count. 

In terms of the campaign itself, only by spending the last year living under a rock could you believe voters head to the polls with no foreign policy issues they can weigh. Take President Obama's press conference at the November 2011 APEC summit in Hawaii for example. In the midst of the Republican primary candidate forums, reporters asked the president about Governor Romney's cheeky boast that he would stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon whereas Obama would allow it to happen. That claim and President Obama's response (quoted in part below) were early salvos in a debate Mr. Ignatius appears to have missed. 

[Y]ou take a look at what we've been able to accomplish in mobilizing the world community against Iran over the last three years and it shows steady, determined, firm progress in isolating the Iranian regime, and sending a clear message that the world believes it would be dangerous for them to have a nuclear weapon.

Now, is this an easy issue? No. Anybody who claims it is, is either politicking or doesn’t know what they're talking about. 

This has been the heart of an ongoing debate for nearly a year: how exactly, aside from tough-talking bluster, would our Republican friends manage to compel Iran to roll over and obey US wishes? Last spring I gave an optimistic view of the quality of the foreign policy debate, arguing that in 2012 the opposition couldn't dodge the tough choices that governing entails. Throughout the campaign Team Romney has been pressed to say how their policy would differ from President Obama's mix of strong international pressure and attempted negotiations. (By the way, I'm not sure how Ignatius can argue -- on the basis of an Ahmadinejad taunt in his UN speech -- that these pre-election weeks represent a critical window for the nuclear talks with Iran.) In terms of the Romney-Obama contrast, the president himself has tried numerous times to goad Romney to admit that he favors going to war with Iran, most recently in his 60 Minutes interview (h/t RealClearPolitics). After all, the Obama administration has run a full-court press on all peaceful means.

And the debate has continued literally to this very day, with Romney saying on the campaign trail Friday about Iran that "I do not believe that in the final analysis we will have to use military action." From the Washington Post's report, here's how Romney tried to distinguish his position from Obama policy:

When a reporter asked how Romney’s position on Iran’s nuclear arms development differs from President Obama’s, Romney accused the president of having “moved over time.”

“From the very beginning, I thought crippling sanctions needed to be put in place,” Romney said. Of Obama, he added, “his words more recently are more consistent with the words I’ve been speaking for some time, and we’ll see what actions he pursues.”

So the latest line from the Romney camp is that they'd take the harsher steps more quickly. Okay, this is another substantive contrast we could debate. Two problems. First is the inconvenient fact that the sanctions imposed by President Obama are far more stringent than any of the steps taken by President Bush.

Second is the importance of lining up international support. As they teach you in Foreign Policy 101, sanctions have to be multilateral in order to work; they're just not effective unless all the key players are on board. I make the comparison to President Bush not to say he should've gone further, but to highlight the hubris of Team Romney's we'd-be-tougher argument. Because recruiting international support gets much harder when the United States tries to rush things -- rather than persistently yet steadily spotlighting Iranian intransigence, just as President Obama's done. For one thing, the international community is a little leery of American alarmism after that whole episode with the WMD that turned out weren't in Iraq.

As Romney has campaigned on a platform of general toughness and bluster with scant practical policy steps, it's become clear that their core argument is a belief in what can be achieved with just an aura of strength. Just a couple weeks ago, top Romney surrogate Rich Williamson claimed the Middle East embassy protests wouldn't even have occurred under a President Romney. This is the same blind overconfidence and magical thinking behind Romney's secret videotape boast that the eonomy would get a major boost just from his being elected and before he'd done anything. (With a nod to Paul Krugman, I invented the "Resolve Fairy"TM to drive home the point.) 

With Williamson's boast as backdrop, I'll close with a question about Libya. As we know, there has been confusion over the nature of the Benghazi attack, which has prompted this statement by the Director of National Intelligence and an ongoing investigation by the State Department. But for the purposes of offering voters a constructive debate to help inform their choices, which is more important for us to discuss: diplomatic security in Benghazi or what was the right response to Ghaddafi's bloody assault on civilians in that city last year? Which issue is a better commander in chief test? As ABC News' Jake Tapper documented a year ago, Romney's position on intervening in Libya was all over the map.

Of course the chief difference between the two issues is that the atttack that claimed the lives of Ambassador Stevens and three others occurred just a few weeks ago, here in the midst of the campaign. Does that mean it's more important? That seems to be what David Ignatius is saying, and I don't think Ignatius' argument is a good case for making the campaign season action-packed with foreign policy. Unless he's saying voters can only decide issues that happened recently; in which case he doesn't give voters much credit.

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