Monday, October 01, 2012

Foreign Policy? What's That?

David Ignatius presents what on one hand is a fair criticism of the President for his failure to articulate clear policies on foreign policy issues, and is on the other hand an unfair implication that this failure is both unique to President Obama and not a predictable consequence of our political system with its rigidly scheduled elections, presidential term limits, shallow political commentary and larger public disinterest in foreign policy.

Let's be blunt, our nation's Middle East policy has been a disaster for pretty much as long as the Middle East has had geopolitical significance. For much of that history, the United States has backed dictators and monarchs, even if that meant suppressing secular democratic movements and turning a blind eye to the rise of Islamic radicalism and the impact our policies have on popular opinion. We have been consistent in our support for Israel, but that's a one-off, not a coherent regional policy. The most articulate Middle East policy I can recall is the Carter Doctrine, "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." But that's more about hegemony than about creating a Middle East that, if not aligned with our interests, is at least not in large part openly hostile.

I have commented for years on what is obvious, that Presidents shy away from doing anything important prior to elections. And I'm not just speaking about the months or year leading up to an election. I'm talking about any major policy proposal or change that is expected to be difficult or potentially unpopular. To the maximum extent possible many of those issues are postponed until after the President is elected to his second term, or are implemented on a time table that delays important policies and benchmarks from being implicated until a year or two after the election.

Ignatius complains that a comment by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a "laugh line" that reflects "President Obama’s risk-averse refusal to engage on foreign policy issues", but I find it to be neither a laugh line nor even about Obama.
“I do believe that some conversations and key issues must be talked about again once we come out of the other end of the political election atmosphere in the United States.”
It's a candid statement of the reality faced by any nation hoping to effect foreign policy change in the United States. If it's controversial, the President is likely to put it off until after the election. If it's both difficult and controversial, there's a good chance any given President will punt, or take late action that leaves his successor to deal with any problems or to clean up the mess.

Ignatius complains,
The “come back after Nov. 6” sign is most obvious with Iran. The other members of the “P5+1” negotiating group understand that the United States doesn’t want serious bargaining until after the election, lest Obama have to consider compromises that might make him look weak.
It's fair to ask, what does Ignatius believe that the nation will gain by pushing ahead with negotiations right now, and trying to come to some form of deal with Iran in advance of the election? Will we suddenly be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief, end all sanctions against Iran, and live forever as a big happy family? Of course not. If and when an agreement is reached, things will continue to carry on pretty much as they are.
Ahmadinejad and some of his aides let slip during their visit to New York that they may be willing to offer a deal that would halt enrichment of uranium above 5 percent. Is this a good deal or not, in terms of U.S. and Israeli security? Sorry, come back later.
Why does Ignatius pose that as a rhetorical question rather than sharing his opinion, or the opinion of any of the other nations in "" who aren't burdened by pending elections? In case he needs the reminder, Netanyahu, bomb chart in hand, just gave the U.N. a somewhat condescending lecture about Iran. I missed the part when he said, "But if Iran says they won't enrich past 5%, peace will break out all over." If, consistent with the consensus view of their plan, Iran hopes to be the turn of a key away from becoming a nuclear state, does it matter if they "only" enrich uranium to 5% if with a few taps on a keyboard the very same centrifuges can enrich uranium to 20%?

This is pretty amazing:
Will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keep his gun in the holster until after the polls close? The White House certainly hopes so. But someone should check the odds with Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who is one of Mitt Romney’s biggest financial backers.
What we saw over a period of months was Netanyahu's open effort to influence the outcome of U.S. elections, despite a growing criticism of his tactics by other political and military leaders, right to the point he flew to the U.S. to grouse about being snubbed by the President and to appear on Meet the Press, but then... oh, those polls. Time to be contrite, stay out of U.S. election politics, distance himself from any claim that he hopes for a Romney victory. Looking at Adelson's bet on Romney and their joint visit to Israel earlier this year, it isn't the President who looks like the loser in that round of high stakes gambling.

Ignatius then complains that, although the President has implemented programs in Egypt and Syria that Ignatius seems to regard as promising, the President isn't talking about those programs. So the problem isn't that the President is failing to form good policy, or is making bad bets, it's that he's not flashing his cards? How would public attention improve Obama's policies? How might Republican demagoguery affect their implementation? Given Romney's embarrassing demagoguery on Russia and New START, it's difficult to believe that it would be helpful.

Ignatius proceeds to complain, not about Obama Administration policies as such, but about the fact that the Obama Administration isn't discussing its policies.
I’m told that the talk in the Libyan underground is about a “global intifada,” like what the new al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been preaching for the past five years. But ask U.S. officials about that subject, and you get a “no comment.”
I expect that pretty much every al-Qaeda sympathizer on the planet talks about a "global intifada" and a resurgent al-Qaeda, but politics aside, that doesn't mean it's good policy for the Obama Administration to talk about those groups and their goals, to give those groups publicity and attention that they may not merit in order to vindicate Ignatius's sources. Ignatius complains, "The administration has a lot invested in the public impression that al-Qaeda was vanquished when Osama bin Laden was killed", but I think it's more accurate to say that the media has chosen to treat al-Qaeda as an old story, perhaps even a non-story, and the Obama Administration sees no benefit in trying to inspire the media to again cover the story. It's not just the media - it's also the Republican Party.

The same is true with the war in Afghanistan. Ignatius may wish that the President were giving him a play by play on troop levels, but when you hear Romney talk about Afghanistan - if he even remembers to bring it up - he'll flip between criticizing the President for setting a firm date for withdrawal and giving the enemy too much information, and insisting that he'll have Afghanistan be fully responsible for its own security by the end of 2014. Why no mention of that incoherence?

Ignatius complains about the President's off-the-cuff candor with Dmitry Medvedev that, on certain issues, he would have more flexibility after being reelected. Well, no kidding. To those who pay even slight attention to U.S. politics, the story was that the comment was caught on microphone, not that the President stated something that is blindingly obvious. So why is Ignatius trying to turn that comment into something more than it is? Into something that makes Obama's putting off issues until after the election any different than Bush's pushing off his plan for Palestinian statehood until his second term, claiming a mandate to privatize Social Security after forgetting to mention it during his reelection campaign, having his tax cuts expire two years after he was out of office....
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.
That's the wishful thinking of somebody who places a high priority on foreign policy. As Ignatius knows, the average American has little interest in foreign policy and even less knowledge. Has he forgotten Bush's embarrassing lack of knowledge during the lead-up to the 2000 election, "but it's okay, because he'll surround himself with really good advisers." And the public, buying into that argument, bought into the conceit that nations like Pakistan aren't really relevant to our interests, so why should they care if the President can name their leaders or even find them on a map.

I don't disagree with Ignatius that timing foreign policy actions around elections is unhelpful, and that our nation would benefit from finding a way to avoid the problem, but unlike Ignatius I'm not willing to pretend that the phenomenon is new or unique to Obama. I also find Ignatius's comments to be, in large part, style over susbstance. I am perfectly happy to have the Obama Administration refrain from commenting on every hyperbolic claim of every group that sympathizes with al-Qaeda, even if it means that Ignatius can't win confirmation for whispered rumors form his sources.

Let me take you back roughly a year to when elections weren't on Ignatius's mind.
Barack Obama got elected president in part because he promised to change the foreign policy priorities of a Bush administration that was unpopular abroad, had strained relations with key allies and was facing a growing Iranian challenge and a continuing menace from al-Qaeda.

So what’s happened over the past 32 months? There have been a lot of bumps and bruises, especially in the global economy. But if you step back from the daily squawk box, some trends are clear: Alliances are stronger, the United States is (somewhat) less bogged down in foreign wars, Iran is weaker, the Arab world is less hostile and al-Qaeda is on the run.
Back then, Ignatius concluded, "Obviously, it will take awhile to accept that quiet American leadership is still leadership." I hardly dare ask whether Ignatius's change of position on the Obama Administration's successes and "quiet leadership" is itself a creature of this being an election year. David Frum quotes Ignatius,
David Ignatius of the Washington Post described Mitt Romney as a man having "no grasp of foreign affairs" whose approach to the subject amounts to a "series of sound bites" all of which portray a candidate who knows little about a subject of the utmost importance.
I'll be interested to see whether those thoughts percolate through to his pre-election commentary, as so far, he's pulling his punches.

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