The conventional wisdom coming out of last week's presidential town hall debate is that it is Gov. Romney, not President Obama that has a foreign policy problem going into today's third and final debate on foreign policy.
Gov. Romney supposedly got the worst of a dispute over President Obama's willingness to concede that the September 11th attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Obama campaign official Jen Psaki went so far as to call the exchange "one of the best moments in recent debate history."
Libya is important because it has revealed several uncomfortable truths about the Obama foreign policy. Despite the emerging narrative, Gov. Romney should double down on Libya and foreign policy more broadly. He's got a good case to make about the failures of President Obama's leadership when it comes to world affairs.
The real story of the two presidential debates and the vice presidential debate is the insight they have provided into the Obama worldview. What President Obama and Vice President Biden have put on display has been little more than spin and bluster, backed up by trite sound bites -- accusations that Gov. Romney wants to spend $2 trillion on the Pentagon that the generals don't want, talk of ending wars to fund projects at home and bumper sticker slogans about bin Laden being dead, as if that alone means Americans are safe.
This has been the Democratic Party's playbook for decades. As Jim Mann writes in his book The Obamians, the party elite has struggled since the Vietnam War to reconcile an antiwar progressive base with their desire for the opportunity to control the nuclear codes.
In recent years, this has resulted in the spectacle of Democrats overplaying their hand, whether it was Sen. John Kerry saluting the crowd and "reporting for duty," at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 or this year's veteran and war-themed convention of a party that doesn't know the difference between foreign and American military materiel and is presiding over $1 trillion in defense cuts and pledging to end wars to fund their domestic agenda.
Despite the spin, President Obama's record is clear.
His doubling down in Afghanistan in 2009 has been replaced by an increasingly uncertain and under resourced strategy that he has failed to explain to the American people. His trumpeting of the killing of bin Laden and the narrative that "al Qaeda is on the run" has been undermined by the very real gains that the terrorist organization is making in North Africa and other regions.
His policy of "leading from behind," which we were told by administration officials was the better, safer, and cheaper alternative to the policies of George W. Bush, deposed a dictator but has led to proliferation of weapons throughout the region and the very instability that resulted in the deaths of four American officials on September 11th. His humanitarianism supposedly on display in Libya has now been shown to be nothing more than rhetoric as tens of thousands are dead in Syria and America stands idly by as the Syrian people and our allies in the region plead for American leadership.
He has serially alienated allies and failed to speak out on behalf of those oppressed by despotic regimes, even as he engages the tyrants who threaten U.S. interests and crush dissent. As Iran gets closer to a nuclear weapons capability by the day, the gap between the United States and our ally Israel, grows and terrorist plots and attacks on U.S. personnel ordered by Tehran go unanswered.
With the polls tight and the last debate on foreign policy, this could now be the decisive issue in this election. Earlier this year, Gov. Romney consistently trailed President Obama, often by double digits, when voters were asked who they trusted more on national security. Now, with the administration's bungling response to the Libya attack, Gov. Romney, with no firsthand foreign policy experience, has narrowed the gap and in many polls, rates better than President Obama.
Gov. Romney needs to ignore the chattering classes and continue to make the case against another four years of "weakness, indecision, mediocrity, and incompetence," and ask "Is the world today a safer place in which to live?" just as Reagan did in 1980 when he smartly described Carter's foreign policy.
Squabbling over transcripts and who said what when will not win Governor Romney the presidency. Reminding Americans that they -- and the world -- deserve a president that is willing to unashamedly stand up for our values and interests overseas might.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
If words were weapons, the Obama administration would have already brought down the Assad regime and probably started a conflict with Russia and China. Last week, Jay Carney responded to Russia and China's veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution imposing additional sanctions on Syria by saying that the two countries were on "the wrong side of history," describing the vetoes as "very regrettable," "deplorable," and "highly unfortunate." UN Ambassador Susan Rice added "reprehensible and immoral" to the mix in an appearance on CNN, before saying: "The reality is that Russia and China are isolated outliers, [have] put all their chips on a sinking Assad vessel, and [are] making a big miscalculation over the long term, in terms of their interest and in terms of how history will judge them. History will judge them as having stood by a brutal dictator at the expense of his own people, and at the expense of the will of the international community and countries in the region."
But unfortunately, the tyrants of the world do not fear words, at least coming from this president. So how will history judge the Obama administration's handling of the Syrian crisis even if Assad falls in the coming weeks or months? Despite the self-righteous indignation of administration officials, Syria still burns. Secretary of Defense Panetta noted on Wednesday that the situation was "rapidly spinning out of control" and State Department officials have described a growing humanitarian crisis as thousands of refugees flee to Syria's neighbors to escape the violence.
This all comes as elements of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile are reportedly on the move, raising the real possibility that the regime might use such weapons against civilians in embattled areas in a last ditch, desperate attempt to survive or that these deadly weapons of mass destruction will fall into the hands of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other terrorist groups.
Even if chemical weapons are not used and the Assad regime collapses quickly, there is a real concern that violence between elements of the opposition or various sectarian groups could break out as state institutions collapse or fade away
Amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear. The Obama administration is completely unprepared and possibly unwilling to shape Syria's future. What is also clear is that in recent months and even this week, the United States has sent a horrible message to tyrants elsewhere about the (non-existent) costs of mass killings of innocents.
On July 16th, Secretary of State Clinton told Margaret Brennan of CBS News that the key to resolving the conflict was all about the "will that we're trying to engender between both the government and the opposition to ease the violence and work toward a transition that leads to a democratic future." That followed this exchange:
BRENNAN: "How is the U.S. supplying the rebels at this point?"
SEC. CLINTON: "With non-lethal assistance. Which is what we said we would."
BRENNAN: "What would make you change the type of support?"
SEC. CLINTON: "At this point, nothing. We are focused on doing what we think is appropriate for us to do. We don't want to further militarize the conflict. We don't want to support either directly or indirectly the arming of people who could perhaps not use those weapons in a way
we would prefer."
Remember, this is more than 17,000 deaths into the crisis and even as chemical weapons were being pulled out of storage. The equivalence between the regime and the opposition is absolutely stunning, as is the statement that "nothing" would cause the administration to think about more aggressive actions. So much for a "responsibility to protect" or for the much publicized Obama administration's track record of faster, more nimble, less messy interventions than its predecessors.
Despite the ham-handed way in which the Libya intervention was explained to the American people and to Congress, it did save thousands of lives and has given Libyans an opportunity to make something of their country. But in Syria, there is a fifteen month record of "leading from behind" and empty rhetoric, but no real willingness to save Syrian lives or to protect and advance American interests. Even as U.S. allies in the region jumped in to fill the void, pursuing their own, more narrow interests, we stood largely on the sidelines, giving us little leverage now with Syria's future leaders.
So, even before the fall of Assad, which now in and of itself, may bring further chaos and bloodshed absent significant outside intervention, the Obama record is clear. Secretary Clinton and her colleagues will now join the pantheon of American officials who have stood idly by while thousands died. Move over James Baker -- although at least Baker was honest with his view that America had no reason to get involved in Bosnia, just as the Russians and Chinese are honest about their interests in propping up Assad.
So what would help to resuscitate this Obama record littered by the bodies of innocent Syrian men, women and children and the very real repercussions of an imploding Syrian state? At this point, short of a miraculous change in behavior, nothing.
BRUSSELS – For supporters of the war in Afghanistan, recent news has been depressing. Here in Brussels at NATO headquarters, where I've been observing the so-called "jumbo" ministerial of NATO defense and foreign ministers, officials were forced to address the Haqqani network's brazen attacks in several Afghan cities, including Kabul, over the weekend, as well as photographs published by the Los Angeles Times of U.S. Army soldiers posing with the body parts of suicide bombers in 2010.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
In his 2009 Inaugural Address, President Obama laid down a marker to those who would threaten the United States:
"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken -- you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
In 2011, he fulfilled this promise by ordering a daring raid on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, resulting in the death of the architect of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Given that the greatest responsibility of any commander in chief is keeping the American people safe, this action, combined with the president's continuance and expansion of many of the counterterrorism policies initiated by the Bush administration, were the president's greatest accomplishments in 2011.
However, lurking beneath these successes are the President's greatest failures of 2011.
The president's counterterrorism accomplishments over the last three years have been supported by his policies toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His willingness in 2009 to extend his campaign timeline for withdrawal from Iraq and his initial stewardship of the gains achieved by President Bush's 2007 surge of forces created the opportunity for a significant victory in the war on terror. As the events of the last two weeks indicate, that outcome, unfortunately, is no longer certain given the administration's inability or unwillingness to negotiate a U.S. military presence in that country after the end of this year.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, the president initially appeared intent on achieving a military victory against the extremists that threaten Afghanistan's stability. His 2009 surge of forces has produced significant gains, especially in the south. But the president now seems more focused on winning reelection than winning the war. The surge forces will be out of the country by October of next year and the press is rife with reports of secret reconciliation talks with the Taliban that could undermine the Afghan government and reverse the gains made by the Afghan people since the brutal days of Taliban rule.
Compounding these two failures in 2011 was the president's inability to leverage the momentous developments of the Arab Spring. As people seeking their freedom took to the streets in country after country, President Obama stood by, letting others, many of whom do not share America's interests, take the lead. Fundamental change in the sclerotic Arab world has the potential to reverse the trends that led to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the extremism that continues to threaten our way of life. Unfortunately, the leader of the free world refused to lead.
Great leaders shape the strategic landscape rather than allow themselves and their countries to be buffeted around by world events. President Obama deserves credit in 2011 for policies that led to the deaths of many who plotted to kill Americans, but because of his unwillingness to consolidate gains in Iraq and Afghanistan and embrace the revolutions of the Arab Spring, 2011 will likely be remembered as a year of missed opportunities rather than strategic successes.
Kent Nishimura/Bloomberg via Getty Images
I agree with many of the responses from other members of the
Shadow Government community to my friend Kori Schake's assertion that "we
have a national security vulnerability of epic proportions in our federal
debt," and her contention that defense cuts need to be part of the
solution to our fiscal woes. I will thus strive to avoid repeating many of the
same arguments here.
My concern about Kori's approach to the defense budget is that it ignores the fact that the Pentagon has already taken significant cuts during the Obama administration. While President Obama submitted budgets to Congress which allowed for growth barely at the rate of inflation, the appropriators consistently cut the top-line amounts allocated for defense, leaving the Defense Department with less than what Secretary Gates had stated was required to fulfill the missions that the military had been tasked to complete.
Critics often go so far as to allege that, even with these reduced funding levels year after year, the Pentagon has escaped "real cuts." Most recently, the Associated Press did this in a story on Governor Mitt Romney's statement that, if elected, he would reverse President Obama's defense cuts. Yet the Associated Press overlooked an inconvenient fact in its "fact check": in the months prior to the passage of the August 2011 deal to raise the debt limit deal, Obama not only bragged in a major policy speech that defense spending had been cut by $400 billion on his watch, but also said he wanted to repeat the cuts. The follow-up round of $400 billion or more in military cuts will now be enacted as part of the immediate reductions required by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
So, the reality is, despite what many of us defense hawks would like, defense has indeed been put on the table for both Republicans and Democrats -- and cut very deeply.
This is concerning for two reasons.
The departure of Gov. Tim Pawlenty from the race for the Republican nomination for president deprives national security conservatives of one of the field's leading champions of a robust internationalism. Despite the ludicrous rants of Rep. Ron Paul and efforts by some Tea Party organizations to back significant defense cuts, most of the remaining Republican contenders appear to be relatively hawkish. However, Pawlenty's willingness to speak out on foreign policy and to push back against undercurrents of isolationism in the party will be sorely missed.
Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Gov. Mitt Romney all have the potential to fill this role if they decide to do so. This is important because there is a void for the eventual Republican nominee to fill, especially since President Obama has, perhaps intentionally, tried to appeal to both those on the left and the right who wish to reassess America's role in the world.
During his announcement of the Afghanistan drawdown on June 22, President Barack Obama tried to frame his decision in the context of gains achieved over the last eighteen months. He also, however, argued that it was "time to focus on nation building here at home," and to "responsibly end these wars."
This sort of rhetoric from Democrats is nothing new. At the height of the violence in Iraq during the last decade, most of the party rushed to wave the white flag. Democrats spoke of the need to build bridges and schools at home, not in Iraq. During the 2004 Presidential campaign, Sen. John Kerry criticized the Bush administration for spending $200 billion in Iraq that "we're not investing in education and health care, job creation here at home." Sen. Harry Reid famously declared on April 19, 2007 that "this war is lost."
On Afghanistan, the locus of the 9/11 terror plot, these anti-war views took longer to emerge. Obama after all referred to Afghanistan as the "good war" during his campaign for the presidency in 2008. However, by the time he decided to surge forces to Afghanistan in 2009, his fellow Democrats had already given up on the moral/humanitarian case for the war and were encouraging him to cut and run, willing to leave the Afghan people to the whims of the Taliban.
In July 2010, when Time magazine ran on its cover a photo of a young Afghan woman whose nose and ears had been cut off by the Taliban, many in the media rightfully tried to provoke a discussion about whether the United States was ready to abandon the women and girls of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Democrats put on the spot at the time squirmed, unwilling to admit that it was in U.S. moral interest to ensure that the humanitarian gains of recent years were not reversed. Then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told Christiane Amanpour on This Week that "it's in our strategic national interests to be there for our own national security to stop terrorism and increase global security" and that gains in women's education and health "can't happen without security."
In short - it's a shame, but it's too difficult, so too bad for the Afghans.
On Wednesday, in response to Rep. Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity," President Obama announced sweeping cuts to the budget to pay down the deficit, including significant defense cuts. In contrast, Paul Ryan's budget proposed last week did not significantly decrease defense spending, indeed it matched President Obama's FY12 request submitted in February.
House Republicans seem to realize that defense is different. President Obama appears to believe that defense is a large part of the problem.
His proposals would cut $400 billion in security spending from the budget by 2023. Two months ago, the president submitted a budget to Congress that already included cuts to defense. The president now seems to think that those were not significant enough.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that during the run-up to the administration's FY12 request, Secretary Gates made clear that the $178 billion in cuts forced upon the Pentagon by the White House during the budget process left "the minimum level of defense spending that is necessary, given the complex and unpredictable array of security challenges the United States faces around the globe: global terrorist networks, rising military powers, nuclear-armed rogue states, and much, much more." Gates went on to say that proposals for major reductions in defense spending would be "risky at best, and potentially calamitous."
Instead of listening to Gates, Obama now is following the lead of Deficit Commission co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. They, at least, were honest about their goals. Their proposals released last December included "Keep America safe, while rethinking our 21st century global role."
Ongoing unrest in the Middle East and U.S. involvement in an unexpected war in Libya, extensive humanitarian operations in Japan, and continued threats from rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, should remind us that "rethinking our 21st century global role" is not possible. Just addressing current challenges, let alone preparing for the threats of tomorrow, will be difficult at current funding levels.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
In recent weeks, civil unrest in much of the Middle East has reminded many Americans of the very uncertain world in which we live. Repressive regimes that appear stable one day can just as quickly be overthrown the next, altering the strategic landscape and impacting U.S. interests.
This is an important lesson for the members of the 112th Congress as they debate ways to reduce the United States' spiraling deficit. As the search for savings has begun, some members have gone after areas of the federal budget that have nothing to do with our fiscal woes to pay down the debt.
In recent months, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates faced pressure from the White House to find more savings in the defense budget despite being the one cabinet secretary who has already carried out multiple rounds of cost cutting. Republicans in Congress weren't much kinder. The House approved an FY11 continuing resolution late last week providing $15.9 billion less for the core defense budget than President Obama requested. The House's FY11 continuing resolution would also cut the FY11 international affairs budget by nearly 20 percent from FY10 levels. The debate shifts to the Senate when Congress returns from recess next week.
This pressure to cut international affairs and defense is coming not just from Congress, but also from several blue-ribbon commissions that recently produced deficit reduction recommendations.
As Secretary Gates observed after deficit commission co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson proposed $100 billion of cuts to the defense budget, these recommendations represent "math not strategy." Several task forces have combined a dire assessment of the impact of the financial crisis with questionable proposals about bringing troops home from overseas, closing embassies and consulates, and canceling weapons programs. The long-term implications of these proposals represent nothing less than a rethinking of the U.S. role in the world even though the commissions were ill-equipped to analyze the implications of their proposed cuts.
Defense and international affairs have ended up on the chopping block despite the fact that the 2010 midterms were not a referendum on U.S. foreign policy. In fact, even in the midst of two wars and continuing terrorist threats to the homeland, congressional campaigns were marked by very little discussion of national security. In a late October 2010 poll done by the Pew Research Center, only 12 percent of respondents said that the war in Afghanistan was the first or second issue most important to their vote, and only 9 percent cited terrorism.
As recent events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East have shown, the United States will continue to face strategic challenges in the coming decades that will require significant diplomatic and military expenditures. For most Americans, the need to adequately fund the military, the country's most-respected institution, is clear. For conservatives looking to downsize government, the case for a robust international affairs budget may be less apparent.
In the post-9/11 era, funding via the U.S. State Department and affiliated agencies increasingly goes toward civilian missions in war zones. These programs are essential to our long-term success in front-line states such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. These targeted funds go toward U.S. efforts to support democracy and human rights abroad and help train and equip allied militaries around the world. Such security assistance is pivotal amid the increased threats of rogue states and terrorist organizations and allows an already overstretched U.S. military to focus on more immediate threats.
U.S. aid programs provide the United States with tools to counter emerging threats from weak and failing states. Often thought of solely as evidence of American goodwill and values, these programs are in fact key components in the battle against extremism, battling the conditions that often fuel anti-U.S. sentiment.
As President George W. Bush recently wrote in his memoirs, "After the attacks [of 9/11], it became clear to me that this was more than a mission of conscience. Our national security was tied directly to human suffering. Societies mired in poverty and disease foster hopelessness. And hopelessness leaves people ripe for recruitment by terrorists and extremists."
It is also important to remember that America only spends roughly 1.4 percent of the federal budget on international affairs. In polls, Americans routinely overestimate the amount spent on such programs, perhaps contributing to the temptation of lawmakers to look to such programs first when drawing up constrained budgets.
Like any part of the government, there are certainly wasteful programs and inefficiencies that should be targeted and eliminated, but the deficit is not going to be paid off by savings generated from gutting the international affairs budget.
Although the amount spent on defense is significantly larger, it too is not the source of our current fiscal predicament. Oddly, given the now frequent proposals in Washington to cut international affairs and defense, it is not apparent that the American public supports this agenda.
It was, in fact, outrage over the Obama administration's runaway domestic and entitlement spending that drove many voters to the polls last November. It is thus these areas of the federal budget that lawmakers should focus their attention on first. Targeting our military and diplomatic capabilities will only serve to put the country at greater risk.
The 112th Congress faces some tough choices about how to improve America's fiscal situation without sacrificing our standing in the world. Unfortunately, thus far, many have skirted over the strategic debate and jumped directly to the budget cutting. The United States' current economic woes are concerning, but abdicating the global responsibilities of the United States is not the solution.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.