The 2012 election will hinge on the economy, not on U.S. foreign policy, unless there is a major overseas crisis — an Israeli attack on Iran, an Iranian detonation of a nuclear weapon, a Middle East war, a North Korean attack, or something of that sort. That said, there is much to lament in the current administration’s foreign policy. But Mitt Romney should be careful in critiquing the status quo, given that it is full of paradoxes and contradictions.
The war on terror? Forget the absurd euphemisms like “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters,” the hypocrisy of railing against waterboarding three known terrorists while blowing up over 2,000 suspected terrorists (and anyone near them), and the half-hearted efforts of both using and trying to close Guantanamo and envisioning Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court. What Obama said he wanted to do and what he actually did do are quite different things. In truth, he embraced or expanded almost all the Bush-Cheney protocols that he demagogued against as a state legislator, a senator, and a presidential candidate. That he gave George W. Bush absolutely no credit for surging in and saving Iraq, or setting up the procedures for operations like those that killed bin Laden, is again a matter of ingratitude, not foreign policy, given that the war on terror is now a successful eleven-year continuum.
But there is one caveat. Words ultimately have consequences. The constant naïveté from the administration — the characterization of the Muslim Brotherhood as largely “secular,” the mythography of the Cairo speech, the taboo against using the phrase “radical Islam” — may have been designed to offer a politically correct mask for Obama’s continuance of the Bush-Cheney protocols, but it may also have had the effect of suggesting to our enemies that the U.S. is ambiguous about radical Islam and does not necessarily connect it with anti-American terrorism.
In general, given American exhaustion over Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with the economic crisis, the Obama administration correctly gauged the public desire for no more interventions, but it finessed that isolationist impulse into its own sense of a multipolar world where America was merely one among many nations.
Aside from the war on terror, then, what are the ten legitimate areas of criticism?
1. Securitygate. The Obama administration has leaked the most intimate secrets about U.S. covert operations — the cyber war against Iran, the Predator-drone assassination program, the Yemeni double agent, the bin Laden raid — in a transparent attempt to chest-thump over the once covert anti-terrorism efforts. This was a shameful thing, and we have not yet felt the full consequences of this disaster.
2. The administration initially did not care much about the Arab Spring, but was dragged into it by the looming fall of Hosni Mubarak. Leading from behind in Libya was incoherent, and what followed Qaddafi was more incoherent. Not going into Syria was wise, even if the reasons for not going in were again muddled. Obama remains ashamed of Iraq and ostracizes it (even as it so far remains the most stable of the new Arab consensual governments), and he makes no distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood and secular democratic movements. In other words, rather than encouraging those who thought the Arab Spring might offer a pluralistic society, Obama stood back as Islamists, Khomeini-style, took control, and he then ex post facto labeled them democrats, even though, as in the case of Hamas and the Iranian theocrats, they favor one free election, just one time.
3. Russian reset is mostly a failure. Embarrassing the Czechs and the Poles over missile defense got us little. Putin has been no help with Iran. An occasional peep about Russian human rights was unceremoniously swatted down. Putin now assumes Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics fall under his own Russian Monroe Doctrine. A new loose axis of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea threatens to create a nuclear buffer to U.S. interests.
4. Obama has snubbed our closest allies, so much so that should the U.S. ever find itself again in need of a coalition, it is hard to imagine who would join it. Canada got mostly ingratitude for its presence in Afghanistan, and it is still furious over the Keystone Pipeline debacle. Our once closest ally, Great Britain, recognizes that the United States is now neutral on the Falklands (a.k.a. the Maldives), and that if Argentina were to invade again, the U.S. would probably withhold help. Israel knows that the U.S., at best neutral, votes present on the Middle East and does not much worry that Israel may soon be surrounded by Islamist frontline states. Whether we would fully supply Israel in its next war is legitimately in doubt. In contrast, Turkey, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood, for the first time in history, believe that America is more sympathetic to their causes than to Israel’s. Anti-democratic Venezuela and Cuba, and their Latin American kindred Communist states, also sense that the U.S. is a friend of such totalitarian movements — a suspicion shared by the vanishing number of regional democrats.
5. President Obama was quiet when nearly 1 million Iranian protesters hit the streets in the spring of 2009, almost as if he felt his own multicultural bona fides should be given a chance to finesse the Khomeinist theocracy — or as if the pro-democracy protesters were some sort of inauthentic neocons. It was a shameful decision at a rare time when the Iranian people were looking for pro-democracy affirmation — offering the last chance to stop the Iranian bomb without some sort of military intervention.
6. The new emphasis on Asia is so far in utter confusion. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea are less, not more, assured that a diffident U.S. would come to their defense in case of an existential crisis. Are they still under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, or is the umbrella itself shrinking fast? Simultaneously borrowing from and lecturing China leads to the image of U.S. impotence. The timing of looking eastward was terrible, as NATO sinks into irrelevance at precisely the moment when an insolvent southern Europe is waging a propaganda war against an ascendant Germany. As the euro zone unravels, a strong U.S. presence in Europe is needed more than ever.
7. Despite the growing anti-democratic tendencies of the Erdogan government in Turkey, Obama has structured his Middle East policy around that government, unconcerned that its policy of insidious Islamization is a model for slowly subverting what follows from elections.
8. The apologies, contextualizations, and bowing were trivial gestures, but in aggregate they added to the sense of U.S. diffidence and decline. As they became right-wing talking points, they also became rarer — a reflection that Obama’s own advisers understood that the optics of his one-worldism were becoming harmful to U.S. interests.
9. The addition of $5 trillion in national debt was disastrous in terms of U.S. foreign policy. It lost us what leverage we had over China. It destroyed any credibility in advising the European Union about its own financial meltdown. It curtailed options in the Middle East. Massive defense cuts loom. In this regard, the associated decisions not to open federal lands to new oil and gas leasing, and to cancel Keystone, were also strategically dense, given that an additional 2 to 3 million barrels of North American production would have given us greater leeway in the Persian Gulf and lessened our exposure to foreign creditors.
10. With a little deft diplomacy, Obama could have salvaged a vestigial American presence to monitor the security of Iraqi democracy and blunt Iranian subversion. The failure to attempt this was an especially ironic lapse, given that the administration now wants to radically increase U.S. troop levels in nearby monarchical Kuwait.
The key for the Romney campaign is not, in the manner of the anti-Bush unthinking Left, to offer blanket condemnations, given that on many aspects of the war on terror, Obama, to his credit, continued the successful policies that he inherited. In contrast, there are plenty of policies that are Obama’s own — and therefore quite dangerous.