Presidential campaigns are rarely, if ever, fonts of restrained, nuanced, or comprehensive discussions of foreign policy and national security—but 2012 seemed to reduce this already lowest common denominator conversation . . . even lower.
While President Obama had a strong foreign policy record to run on, it should perhaps come with little surprise that even in the light of important diplomatic successes with Russia, the avoidance of global economic catastrophe, and the flowering of democracy in the Arab world, he was far more interested in talking about the bad guys that he killed. And considering that Obama killed many of them—including the most wanted man in the world, Osama bin Laden—it wasn’t as if he didn’t have a strong leg to stand on. The politics of foreign policy are what they are; any president benefits from wrapping themselves in the American flag and speaking in reverential tones about the U.S. military. Of course, for a Democrat, the benefits are even greater, because it allows them to neutralize and deflect the inevitable attacks from Republicans (of which there were many this cycle) of weakness, fecklessness, and “European-like” views on the use of military force.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Obama took a victory lap on bringing the troops home from Iraq and beginning troop withdrawals from Afghanistan (even though the decision to escalate was probably the single worst decision that he made as president).
But what was depressingly clear from the campaign was that Democrats still lack the confidence to clearly differentiate their vision of the world from that of Republicans—preferring instead to play on the GOP’s turf on national security. Obama was happy run campaign ads that suggested he could be as solicitous of Israeli leaders as Republicans and just as inclined—if not more so—to employ drones in the pursuit of killing terrorists.
And this fear of appearing weak—and this veneration of military power and uncompromising diplomacy—seeped into the policy decisions of the president. On Afghanistan, Obama’s perhaps most failed foreign policy endeavor, the need for bold U.S. action on moving forward with political outreach to the Taliban was held hostage by the campaign season. He refused to apologize to Pakistan for a cross-border attack by U.S. jets from Afghanistan for fear of playing into the GOP attack line that he was the country’s apologist-in-chief. On China, rhetoric from the administration was respectful, but inordinately tough (particularly from secretary of defense Panetta). And Panetta was one of the loudest voices warning about the dangers of spending cuts for the military and raising fears of potential foreign threats—arguments grounded more in politics than in reality. As is so often the case in presidential campaign years, major policy endeavors took a backseat to the demands of electoral politics—and, worst of all, the national discourse around foreign policy and national security issues presented an unrealistic and overly concerning vision of America’s place in the world.
Of course, Obama’s underwhelming and cautious campaign performance paled next to that of his opponent. Before the 2012, election no one would have ever confused Mitt Romney with an expert on foreign policy and national security. The campaign he ran for president will ensure that view is maintained. Romney’s foreign policy agenda wasn’t really an agenda—it was a critique. And it was a rather unsatisfying and unconvincing one at that. While Romney liked to argue there were stark differences between him and the president on national security on a host of issues—from Afghanistan and Iran to Iraq, Israel, and the Arab Spring—it was virtually impossible to identify them. Romney basically laid out the same policies as Obama; he just did with more verve and more aggression. Indeed, Romney made a specialty of insulting and degrading key allies and hyping potential threats beyond any close contact with reality.
Aside from these more programmatic failures the entire manner in which Romney described the world—and, in turn, U.S. power—was simply divorced from reality. As I wrote after his less than memorable foreign policy speech in mid-October at the Virginia Military Institute:
In Mitt Romney’s worldview—in so much as one can detect one—the key to American power lies in some amorphous notion of U.S. leadership disconnected from the extraordinary challenges of actually conducting foreign policy. Talking about leadership and resolve is easy—doing it is the hard part.
This explains, more than any other reason, why Romney’s policy prescriptions are so vague and meaningless. It’s the yawning chasm between what American power can actually achieve and what a politician seeking to be president says it ought to be doing.
In the end, Romney doesn’t have much of a coherent policy agenda and his critique is wildly off-base. His real problem, though, is that he barely seems to grasp how the world—and, in turn, American power—actually works.
Rarely has a politician so cheapened the political discourse around national security. His raising of the tragedy Benghazi—along with key members of his party—to something akin to a national crisis (on par with Watergate, said John McCain) was the coup de grace to a grubby, inappropriate, and ineffective national security campaign.
This is a good segue to the best development in national security in 2012 . . .
. . . Barack Obama was re-elected.
Mitt Romney tried very hard to sell Americans on the notion that Obama had regularly apologized for American power, that he was feckless in the face of foreign threats, and that he weakened the nation. He failed miserably. Now, to be sure, few voters cast their ballot on the issue of foreign policy (it was in the single digits, according to exit polls), but those who did far preferred the president to his challenger.
A Romney victory in November would have signaled a significant and dangerous shift in U.S. foreign policy—away from multilateralism to aggressive unilateralism; and away from competence and professionalism to amateurism. With Romney in office it would have meant the return of the same people who brought you the Bush years. That he lost utilizing a tired strategy of portraying Democrats as blame-America firsters will—in an ideal world—demonstrate the limits of such a campaign approach. Certainly one can hope. At the very least, it provides compelling evidence that future Republican presidential candidates will have to demonstrate a tad more rigor and seriousness when talking about U.S. power and America’s role in the world.
Beyond defeating Romney, a victory for Obama also means a victory for greater sanity in foreign policy. I’ve had some harsh words for Obama’s campaign, but that tells only an incomplete story. By and large, he’s been a pretty good foreign policy president; and has demonstrated a firm grasp of the limitations of American power. There is a sobriety and seriousness to how Obama approaches national security—one that has grown over his four years in office—that suggests he has remarkably good foreign policy instincts. Indeed, while one can fairly criticize Obama for surging in Afghanistan in 2009 he deserves praise for taking the more unusual course of action and recognizing that he was playing a losing hand there and reducing the U.S. troop presence in 2011.
And, with the election in the rear view mirror, Obama now has a chance to act on those instincts. The campaign he ran, even for its faults, does put the rest the image of Democrats as weaklings. And when a party feels less vulnerable on a particular issue that gives them a bit more flexibility on the issue a bit more leeway to act not as you think you have to, but as you want to.
If you’re less worried about being attacked, you’re perhaps more inclined to act closer to your true desires on foreign policy—and less inclined to simply look for political cover
Which says to me that if Obama takes away from this experience a feeling of liberation on foreign policy—and a willingness to put aside the risk aversion that has defined his foreign policy to date—then he has the potential to be a transformative foreign policy president.
Of course, there are a lot of “ifs” here, but the single most important priority in national security is to move toward a future that recognizes the limitations of U.S. power, that reduces the U.S. military footprint around the world, that understands the world is not really that fearsome a place, that focuses U.S. diplomatic efforts on strengthening multilateral institutions and global norms on a host of issues, and that responsibly reduces the U.S. defense budget. President Obama has made progress on all these fronts. Having been re-elected, he now has an even better opportunity to make further progress on them, all the while turning the corner on the militarism and anti-terror framework of U.S. foreign policy sine 9/11. From that perspective, his re-election—even in the midst of a not always enlightening presidential campaign—is the best development in national security and foreign policy this year.