The Closing Arguments of Foreign Policy 2012
Posted by David Shorr
The Des Moines Register has been kind enough, this election year, to publish a series of my op-eds on foreign policy issues in the campaign. Below is the final pre-election column (also reprinted in today's Iowa City Press-Citizen)...
It is now election crunch time; everything is over except for final swing voter decisions, turnout and tallying the results.
That makes it a good time to look back at the debates between President Obama and Gov. Romney and take stock of the hot foreign policy topics of 2012.
The bulk of attention has fallen on the Middle Eastern nations of Iran and Libya as well as China. It is questionable whether the election-year foreign policy debate has kept the issues and regions in the right proportion to America’s stakes.
For exmaple, there are still 68,000 American troops fighting in Afghanistan. Both presidential candidates support the same timeline to draw down this combat force, after Romney dropped his previous strong objections to setting a withdrawal date. Still, the candidates’ discussion of the three highest profile countries offers a good basis to compare their approaches.
Overall, Romney has shown a strong impulse for confrontation and general disregard for international sentiment. He has contrasted himself with the more measured approach of Obama, who has worked to build international support for U.S. positions and keep the world’s sole superpower from being viewed as heavy-handed.
The Obama administration, for instance, has used the World Trade Organization as a referee of our disputes with China and just in the last few days won a big case on steel production. There has been important progress on China’s artificially weak currency too. The administration has combined America’s voice with others and pressured China into letting its currency strengthen by 11 percent in four years — which helps lower the price of American exports. In the eight years of the Bush administration, the Chinese currency exchange rate didn’t budge.
Watching Romney and Obama’s recent debate on foreign policy, I was particularly struck by the discussion of the extensive sanctions Obama has imposed on Iran over its nuclear program. A diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue has been elusive for the last two administrations, but Obama has had notable success in building broad international support for pressure on Iran.
Romney tried to criticize the president by claiming to have favored tougher sanctions much earlier, but Obama exposed the flaw of this critique. Sanctions cannot work unless they are multilateral, and gaining international support is harder when the U.S. tries to hurry, instead of letting Iranian stubbornness become obvious to everyone. The tough challenge of reaching a solution remains, but Iranian leaders are under greater pressure to negotiate than ever before.
In Libya last year, the dictator Muammar Gaddafi threatened to massacre thousands of civilians rising up against him in Benghazi. It grew clear that leaders in the region and the wider world community favored intervening to prevent a bloodbath, and Obama worked with European and Arab counterparts to mount a successful air operation to support the resistance and removal of Gaddafi.
The first senior representative of the U.S. to work with rebels in Benghazi was the same Ambassador Christopher Stevens who, along with three other Americans, was killed in that city a few weeks ago.
It is safe to say that Stevens would have found the political hue and cry over his death very strange. For him, and many of his fellow U.S. diplomats, it was important not to become isolated within embassy fortresses. He was proud that the U.S. stood with the people of Libya against their oppressor.
What is strangest of all, though, is hearing Romney’s loud criticisms over the September Benghazi attack when last year he came out against forcibly removing Gaddafi.
But the real point of Libya is what happened after the death of the four Americans. There were much larger protests in appreciation of the U.S. than any of the anti-American demonstrations — ordinary Libyans wanted to express their gratitude for Obama’s intervention last year, to not let the murderous terrorists speak for them. This is just one example of how Obama has skillfully navigated the Arab Spring to preserve American influence.
Romney tries to argue that tumultuous events in the Mideast represent a foreign policy failure, as if players in the region would all fall into line for a Romney administration.
He is not only flattering himself but showing dangerous naivety about world affairs.
Photo: Voice of America