What role will national security issues play in the 2012 presidential campaign? Probably a small one, at most. All current signs point to both the primary and general elections turning on the economy -- especially jobs, the deficit and debt, and ObamaCare. Yet even if foreign policy is stuck at the back of the campaign bus, it won't be entirely absent. One of the leadership intangibles that voters will be assessing includes who they trust as president to have his or her "finger on the button," i.e., to fulfill the roles of commander-in-chief and diplomat-in-chief. Moreover, a foreign policy crisis -- such as an Iranian nuclear breakthrough, a terrorist attack, or any other unforeseen headline event -- could thrust national security back into the forefront of campaign debate.
As the GOP primary field takes shape, the candidates are spending most of their time figuring out how to distinguish themselves from each other. But it is not too early to begin thinking about how they should be distinguishing themselves from President Obama. Herewith a few foreign policy themes that GOP presidential candidates should consider highlighting as challenges to the Obama administration:
Diminished American power. America's economic woes are also a foreign policy concern. Historically, our nation's global strength has come from our economic prosperity, our values, and our military. The Obama administration's economic record of high unemployment, low growth, and crippling debt hurts most at home but also weakens our standing abroad. Yet in foreign policy terms, the White House seems to be acquiescent in this diminishing of American power. In the now infamous New Yorker article on the Obama administration's foreign policy, author Ryan Lizza portrays the White House holding the strategic assumption that American decline is a current reality and an inevitable future. The administration's embrace of this risks making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. During his final weeks as Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates raised his own pointed concerns about American decline:
I've spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position … It didn't have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time … To tell you the truth, that's one of the many reasons it's time for me to retire, because frankly I can't imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that's being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world."
The Obama administration has presided over declining American power in specific ways such as Pentagon budget cuts, a burgeoning national debt, and new lows in American soft power in key regions such as the Middle East. Even more fundamentally, as Ryan Streeter laments over at the indispensable ConservativeHomeUSA, under Obama the United States seems to be losing its character as an aspirational nation and global model.
Declining American leadership. Rarely in the annals of American diplomacy has an unattributed quote from a "senior White House official" become an instant headline, persisted as an unflattering tagline for the Obama Doctrine, and offered campaign fodder for every possible GOP candidate. But that's exactly what "leading from behind" has become, following its appearance in the aforementioned New Yorker article. No doubt the official who uttered it at the time thought that he/she was coming up with a clever formulation to satisfy multiple constituencies while displaying the administration's strategic acumen. When it reality what it did is distill and confirm the worst suspicions of many observers of this administration's foreign policy: the White House is uncomfortable displaying American leadership in the world. This is manifest in ways including France and Britain's leadership of the Libya campaign and continued frustration over American passivity, in the White House's reluctance to provide visible support for dissidents in Iran and Syria, and in the worries from our Asian partner nations such as India and Japan about the strength of America's commitments. Yet a world without American leadership will be a less secure, less prosperous, less peaceful, and less free world.
Politics trumping policy. Too often this administration seems to let political considerations play too large of a role in foreign policy decisions. Such as the White House's decision on the Afghanistan force drawdown timetable, which appears to favor the political calendar over the operational calendar and the military's best advice. Domestic politics also seems to be influencing the administration's half-hearted posture in Libya, even as our allies the French and British, along with the Libyan rebels themselves, repeatedly beg for more American support.
Deferring problems. A recent Washington Post editorial observes that the White House is "quietly toasting" its Iran sanctions policy. Which would be fine if the threat from Iran -- as a state sponsor of terrorism, as a regional hegemon, as an aspiring nuclear power -- was diminishing. But as the editorial notes, "the threat from Iran is not diminishing but growing. Where is the policy to reverse that alarming trend?" Unfortunately the Obama administration seems content to kick the Iran problem down the road. The strategic assumption behind this is unclear, though it most likely reflects the administration's unspoken resignation that Iran will get the bomb, or the audacious hope that Tehran will moderate its behavior.
Flailing on free trade. The Obama administration has consistently snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on free trade. After taking office skeptical of free trade (remember Obama's promise to renegotiate NAFTA?), the administration first let languish the three FTAs negotiated by the Bush administration with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Then, after belatedly realizing that its neglect of these FTAs was hurting the American economy, relationships with key allies, and our global posture, the White House came around to supporting the passage of the FTAs. That is, until it didn't again, deciding instead to encumber the legislation with further concessions to labor unions and procedural maneuvers that undermined good faith with Republican supporters, as Phil Levy has described.
As the points above show, GOP candidates have ample material to critique the Obama administration's foreign policy. However, there is a final point to bear in mind: just because the Obama administration does something, does not mean it is a bad policy. A fundamental mistake the Obama administration succumbed to upon taking office was an immature "Anything But Bush" posture, as the White House reflexively rejected almost every Bush administration policy -- several of which it later came back to embrace. Republicans shouldn't make the same mistake with the Obama administration, either as candidates or upon potentially winning the White House back. On some policies -- such as maintaining the Bush administration's counter-terrorism structure, killing Osama bin Laden, taking steps to counter Chinese adventurism in Asia, and the effort for success in Afghanistan -- the Obama team has done well, or well enough. GOP candidates should offer agreement where agreement is merited, since as the above points show, there is plenty else to disagree with.
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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.