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September 07, 2012

Obama v. Romney on Foreign Policy - A Guide for Iowans
Posted by David Shorr


Many thanks to the Des Moines Register for publishing -- on a day Obama and Biden are in Iowa -- my latest in a series of commentaries on the 2012 foreign policy debate. You can see it on the DMReg web site, but the text is below. 


The presidential campaign has been heating up and the foreign policy debate along with it. As the opposing camps’ arguments about national security go back and forth, Iowans should distinguish between two debates.

One is a phony argument over America’s fundamental strength as a global power and leader. It’s an unnecessary fight, part and parcel of this year’s toxic politics. Our country’s unrivaled military and economic might is beyond question, and the idea of either candidate lacking faith is just silly. Our armed forces outmatch any potential adversary by a considerable margin.

If anything, the lesson of the past decade is the difference between overcoming an opponent in a traditional conflict — also know as “kinetic” operations — and molding the social and political order in a country like Iraq or Afghanistan.

And that is the point of the second, more substantive, foreign policy debate this year. Can the United States achieve all of our international aims through brute strength alone?


Take the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program, for instance, a top item on President Barack Obama’s international agenda and a hot topic in the campaign. As much as Mitt Romney and the Republicans talk about Iran, they always leave out a crucial fact: Obama has put Iran under the toughest sanctions and strongest international pressure it has ever faced.

The Obama administration has marshaled this pressure by taking a different approach from President Bush — steadily building a broad united front with other nations, instead of just issuing demands and expecting others to fall into line.

Obviously the problem of guaranteeing Iran is kept from building a nuclear weapon remains unresolved. The point is that Obama’s attempts at negotiation, tests of Iran’s good faith, continued pressure and international coalition-building give the best chance to reach a peaceful solution and avoid war. Romney and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan love to talk about tough choices, yet on Iran they refuse to choose between supporting going to war or specifying what they would do differently from Obama.

I often quote a favorite line from Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass (a Republican, by the way) that captures the essential challenge to America as a global power: “The United States does not need the world’s permission to act, but it does need the world’s support to succeed.” Because of our military and economic power, America has unique leverage — and responsibility — that is, indeed, essential to our foreign policy.


As we saw during the George W. Bush years, however, when America is too heavy-handed in using that power, it can stir up a lot of hostility around the world. By the end of the Bush term, we had drawn the lesson that in today’s interconnected world: America cannot afford to have the world regard us with suspicion.

Most Americans understand that our credibility had to be restored after we invaded Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. For so many of the biggest challenges we face — fostering economic recovery from the 2008 global meltdown, averting severe disruption from climate change, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and preventing terrorist attacks — success hinges on recruiting the help of others. On all those fronts, Obama has sought international support and obtained it.

It’s not clear what lessons Romney drew from the Bush years — or whether he learned anything at all, for that matter. Listening to the Republicans’ rhetoric this year, we hear a lot more tough talk than tough choices. A lot more platitudes about American leadership than practical proposals for how to exercise it.

To put it another way, the issue this November is not whether the United States will be a global leader, but whether it will be an effective leader. As the saying goes, a leader without followers is just someone who’s gone out for a walk.


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