Shadow Government

Can the Obama team give Romney credit for any good ideas?

Over on FP's homepage I have a response to a critique of Romney's foreign policy by two prominent Democrats, both foreign policy experts and likely senior players if President Obama wins a second term. The two, Bruce Jentleson and Charlie Kupchan, are old friends and Bruce is also my Duke colleague. They present as strong a Democrat brief as can be presented and so their piece is worth reading carefully.  

They take the same tack that President Carter took against then-Governor Reagan in 1980: they try to paint Romney as an extreme ideologue whose ideas are far out of the mainstream. I understand why they are trying to do this -- Obama's reelection turns not so much on convincing voters that he has been a successful president as it does on scaring them about the Romney alternative. But as the title ("Sound and Sensible") of my piece indicates, I don't think their description of Romney really fits the evidence. Romney's foreign policy stance is fairly mainstream and even where he has taken controversial stances, eg. on Russia, he has ample facts on his side to make his point at the very least arguable. Perhaps they even secretly agree, because I notice that their piece does not contain a single smoking gun quote from the Romney speech. (Yes, I know it was mostly written before the speech, as was mine, but we both had the opportunity to reference the speech to underscore our points.)

Of course, Romney's foreign policy positions and messaging are not above critique. The Romney white paper on foreign policy is sound but needs to be updated in some places (eg. on Iraq and Syria) and fleshed out in others (eg. on Afghanistan and the war on terror). Recognizing the need to avoid endless hypotheticals, Romney can nevertheless explain a bit more fully how he might react to a collapse of the eurozone or to Beijing's likely reactions to his threat to label China a currency manipulator. And I agree with Bill Kristol: Romney should have discussed the Afghanistan war in his speech, especially given how Clint Eastwood muddied the waters with his set-up skit.

But calling out Romney to expand and refine his foreign policy stances is a far cry from pretending, as Jentleson and Kupchan do, that Romney holds dangerous views that are beyond the pale.  

Jentleson and Kupchan have promised a fuller response to my response (and doubtless I will have more to say, too -- on it goes, well past the patience of our audience!) and I look forward to it. I hope they will do two things:

(1) I hope they will do what I did, which is identify places where the other side has done praiseworthy things. They write: "Contrary to the rebuttal to this article written by our colleague Peter Feaver, there is much good to be said about Obama's foreign policy." I know they were writing on a tight deadline so perhaps they missed it, but if they go back and re-read my piece they will see that I credit Obama with quite a few good decisions. I have so many kind things to say about Obama -- "...foreign policy, an arena where the president has had some genuine successes and where voters seem ready to give him comparatively better marks" and "some significant successes, to be sure" and "Obama deserves credit"[3 times] and "It is good that Obama..." [2 times] and "notable successes or partial successes and certainly legitimate boasting points for the campaign."-- that some of my Republican friends have called me a squish. So far as I can tell, Jentleson and Kupchan do not credit Romney with a single good foreign policy stance or recommendation or insight. They would have you believe that Romney is wrong in every particular -- no, worse than that, they would have you believe Romney is dangerously wrong in every particular. I can understand why the fevered (not feavered!) partisans on MSNBC and in the comments section of the blogosphere talk like that, but why are serious foreign policy experts doing so?

(2) I hope they will do what I gather is very dangerous for Democrats to do: admit some areas where Obama's foreign policy has made mistakes. Many others have noticed what I have noticed -- this Administration is exceptionally thin-skinned. Obama has basked in a largely sympathetic press and taken great exception when anyone has offered a critical word. When pressed to identify any error at all, the Administration retreats to the lame concessions of "we didn't explain our policy well enough" or "we were too trusting of Republicans" or "it was Bush's fault." This is the kind of abdication of responsibility one expects from people who post comments under pseudonyms. I don't take such people very seriously, but I do take seriously the adults holding the reins of foreign policy -- and I would like to see a bit more honesty and candor from them. In my piece, I identified four obvious mistakes (there were many more I could have chosen): announcing an arbitrary withdrawal timeline at the same time that the Afghan surge was announced; the failure to leverage the Green Revolution in Iran in June 2009 to ramp up more pressure then on the Iranian regime; the imposition of new preconditions on Israel regarding building in Jerusalem; and the delay in ratifying the free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia. Are Jentleson and Kupchan willing to concede that those were indeed mistakes?

But perhaps the challenge really should be placed on the lap of the President. Last night, Governor Romney gave credit to Obama where credit was due and likewise admitted that not all of the investments he made while at Bain proved to be winners. Can President Obama match that in his convention? Can he recognize where Republicans were right and he was wrong? I accept that his list will not be as long as mine would, or as would those of many independent voters. But if he could even make a gesture in that direction, it would be a healthy thing for foreign policy, and for our divided nation's political culture in general.  

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Hand-wringing while the Middle East burns

As the Syrian civil war drags on, and Israel moves ever closer to attacking Iran's nuclear sites, the Obama Administration seems fixated on just one objective: delaying anything from happening in the Middle East before Election Day. The White House remains passive as Bashar al-Assad continues to up the military ante against the opposition. And it continues to send high level officials to Jerusalem bringing gifts of more military machinery that, it is hoped, will assuage the Israelis for the next few months.

Despite assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, with some sotto voce help from Turkey as well, after eighteen months the rebels still have been unable to dislodge Assad. Supported by Iranians on the ground, and the Russians and the Chinese in the UN, the Syrian dictator has shown no compunction about killing as many men, women and children as it takes to quell the rebellion.  He continues to play the ethnic card as well: his Kurdish PKK allies have stepped up their terrorist attacks in southeastern Turkey, while Syria's Christian communities, long protected by Assad and his father, remain nervously neutral.

At the same time, Assad's Alawi supporters are hedging their bets. They have begun a process of  ethnically cleansing those enclaves where they are in the majority. It is presumed that if all else fails for the Alawis, they will withdraw to their mountain fastnesses, and take Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons with them, so as to deter any attacks from the majority Sunnis that will have come to power. Indeed, the increasingly ethnic nature of the Syrian conflict has already spilled over into both Lebanon and Iraq, promising a major regional convulsion that would likely drag in Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States and perhaps Israel as well.

Israel, in the meantime, continues to express its frustration with the lack of progress in the diplomatic talks with Iran, even as Tehran continues to upgrade its centrifuges, build more of them, and increase the number of cascades to enrich its uranium; fortify its facilities, especially at its underground Fordo site; and play cat-and-mouse with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose reports increasingly are confirming Israel's worst fears. As if that were not enough, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have stepped up their exterminationist rhetoric, calling for the removal of the cancer that is Israel.

Washington's passivity has only aggravated both situations. The Syrian civil war calls for more drastic American action. After all, when rioters initially threw stones at Assad's men, his forces responded by using light weapons against the demonstrators. When the rebels obtained light weapons, Assad's military resorted to heavy weapons. As the rebels began to use mortars, the Syrian Army attacked with tanks. And so it has gone until now, when Assad has called in his air forces to bomb the opposition into oblivion. While there is no immediate need for American military intervention, the United States could certainly do more to strengthen the hand of the rebels. Washington could ship more, and more sophisticated, arms to the rebels via their allies, who certainly can afford to pay for American equipment. And the United States could also provide more intelligence support, if not directly to the rebels, then indirectly through Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. By failing to step up its support of the rebels, the Administration undermines its credibility, both with the rebels whom it professes to support, and with Assad, whose departure it so vocally seeks.

As for the impasse with Iran, here too, the key to achieving American objectives is the credibility of American pronouncements.  There is more than Washington can do as it attempts win the trust of Israel's key decision makers on any Israeli attack-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Supplying missile defense systems is simply not enough for a nation that cannot tolerate even the most minimal probability that a nuclear weapon could penetrate those defenses.

To begin with, the Administration should not backslide on the question of Iran's ability to enrich uranium. The original US position was that enrichment should terminate; any indication of a more pliable position simply reinforces the view in both Tehran and Jerusalem that Washington is not serious about stopping the Iranian program. In addition, the Obama Administration should close the massive loopholes that it has created in the sanctions program: there is no reason why exceptions should be made for China or any of the other seventeen countries that continue to buy Iranian oil without penalty. Washington's willingness to look the other way further intensifies Israeli fears that, at the end of the day, Iran will develop a nuclear capability while America and the West wring their hands.

An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to prove counterproductive. Even an American attack may not shut down the Iranian program.  As with Syria, so with Iran and Israel: the only way to achieve American objectives is to restore American credibility in the region. It does not help at all that the Administration not only continues to talk of a "pivot" to Asia, but is prepared to tolerate a massive reduction in American defense capability, which will surely signal an abrupt end to American presence in the region. Unless and until the Administration recognizes that it is futile, and dangerous, both to tread water until November, and treat the U.S. defense program as a hostage to tax increases, the situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate, to the point where, possibly as soon as October, it may well spin out of anyone's control.