The third debate could be The One for President Obama. A strong, confident performance could give him his most successful night since the debates began and leave him poised for a strong finish in a close race. But it comes at a difficult time; President Obama would have had a much easier time winning a foreign policy debate before September 10, when the world seemed to be going his way. Now the picture is messier, and it is going to be harder to use his experience and track record as a steward of the nation’s foreign policy to convince voters to stick with the devil they know.
This is not about the murder of four Americans by terrorists in Benghazi, and not even about the fumbling and mumbling with which the administration addressed the event. That event and the subsequent controversy (including CIA documents that appear to support key contentions coming from the White House) are less important for the election than the questions they raise about the state of President Obama’s grand strategy and it is the larger questions rather than the sequence of blunders that the President needs to address if he is going to make foreign policy work for him on November 6.
Campaigns aren’t the best forum for this kind of discussion, but the President has or at least had a grand strategy, and it isn’t, as these things go, a bad one. Looking at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the danger that radicals and fanatics in the Muslim world could capitalize on anti-American feeling to succeed where Bin Laden failed and unite a sizeable portion of the Islamic world behind the idea of a civilizational conflict with the United States, the President set about reducing America’s military profile in the Middle East and attacking the radical strategy by narrowing the gap between the United States and the Muslim masses as much as he could. He also set about repairing relations with leading European countries, partly with an eye to assembling a broader diplomatic coalition to deal with Iran.
By working more closely with regional partners and moderate Islamists (like the Turks), the President wanted to reduce America’s direct exposure to the region’s dangerous, messy conflicts while steering the region toward more democratic forms of governance, more moderate forms of religion – and all within a geopolitical framework that protected vital American interests.
It was a strategy of withdrawal because the President believed that under George W. Bush if not before, the United States was overstretched and overcommitted. He sought to reduce America’s commitments and liabilities in the region while protecting our vital interests by shifting to the role of an offshore balancing power.
Those who think of Obama as spineless or unpatriotic don’t understand his intentions very well; Obama’s strategy is Nixonian. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon believed that the United States was overextended in both economic and military terms, and that America needed to step back. They did their best to negotiate an acceptable withdrawal from Indochina (as Obama is attempting in Afghanistan), they sought to rely less on direct U.S. power than on regional allies (like the Shah of Iran), they accepted nuclear parity with the Soviet Union and sought to reset, as it were, US-Soviet relations through the concept of détente. If all that looks familiar to students of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, it should.
But that wasn’t all. Aware that the United States needed to do more than retreat, Nixon and Kissinger dramatically opened relations with China on the basis of mutual concern about excessive Soviet strength. The opening served two purposes; in substance it redressed the global power balance and strengthened America’s hand vis a vis the USSR; in theatrical terms it demonstrated that despite the loss of Vietnam and the rise of the USSR, the United States remained an active, creative global power that could not be ignored.
For President Obama, liquidating the Middle Eastern wars and the reset with Russia were also only part of a larger strategy. The “pivot to Asia,” stepping up America’s diplomatic presence in Asia and strengthening our alliances in the region similarly increased the reality and the perceptions of American power around the world. As countries from India to Japan rallied to America’s side, even very small additional deployments of American forces in the region would paint a compelling picture of American power and determination. Asia played a similar role in both the Nixonian and Obaman strategies: Nixon created a relationship with China and Obama balanced against it, but in both cases Asia served as an eye catching example of American diplomatic and military power.
For both Nixon and Obama, retreat could not become a rout. Nixon sought to avoid outright defeat in Vietnam by aiding the South Vietnamese government even as American forces withdrew. For Obama, killing Osama bin Laden played a somewhat similar role; having gotten the man it came for, the United States could turn its attention to withdrawal without appearing to retreat in disarray.
Moreover, for both Nixon and Obama, their foreign policy strategies were intended to serve domestic purposes: allowing cuts in the military budget that could support domestic programs of various kinds. For Nixon, liquidating the Vietnam War and achieving a measure of détente and arms control with the Soviet Union offered a path toward substantial defense cuts at a time when deficits were forcing the United States off the gold standard and Republicans as well as Democrats favored expanding the role of government. For Obama, ending the wars and shifting from a ‘boots on the ground’ approach to the Middle East to an offshore balancing role in both the Middle East and Asia also offered the prospect of significant defense cuts at a time of economic and fiscal stress. Navies are much cheaper than armies, and patrolling is cheaper than war.
These are both smart strategies, and skilled practitioners of the diplomatic arts going back to Cardinal Richelieu and beyond would have no trouble seeing and appreciating the conceptual elegance and economy of means they display. But smart strategies don’t always work; when Napoleon was asked what kind of generals he most wanted, he said he wanted lucky generals, not smart ones.
Before September 10, President Obama would have had a much easier time in a foreign policy debate. The Great Extrication from the Middle East appeared to be working: the United States was out of Iraq, Osama was dead, and Afghanistan appeared to be winding down. The pivot to Asia was well underway and the President could have spoken about a world that was going his way. There were some clouds on the horizon—most notably over Iran—but in a debate the President at that point could have responded to some of these issues by saying, simply, “Trust me. I’ve shown you that I know what I’m doing.” Moreover, yesterday’s announcement that direct talks with Iran might begin soon after the election bolsters the President’s ability to argue that his approach is on the road to success. Critics might sputter with rage and point to inconsistencies and unresolved problems, and some will denounce what appears to be an Iranian effort to bolster the man they think will be an easier negotiating partner, but the average voter would likely feel that in foreign policy at least the United States was better off in 2012 than it was four years ago.
But given the remaining and by some measures growing disarray in the region, the President will have two problems—and one big advantage—in the foreign policy debate.
The first problem, and it is a big one, is that the Great Extrication doesn’t seem to be working. Part of this is Iran; getting a nuclear deal with the mullahs has always been critical to Obama’s grand design, but the mullahs so far have been unresponsive. Vital allies in the region and beyond are terrified by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In order to gain time for his diplomatic strategy to work, President Obama has had to issue an increasingly unambiguous commitments to take military action against Iran’s nuclear drive if the Iranians don’t negotiate an agreement. As the clock runs down, the likelihood of yet another major Middle Eastern conflict involving American forces looms much larger; it is hard to base your policy on withdrawing from a region in which you seem increasingly committed to a dangerous and unpredictable war.
Beyond that, the assassination of Osama bin Laden is looking less like VQ Day (Victory over al-Qaeda) as time goes by. The brand survived the founder, and while the specific organizational apparatus around the man who inspired the 9/11 attacks has been severely degraded, the collection of loosely organized affiliates and copy-cats who embrace the al-Qaeda name and at least some of its ambitions and tactics is a growing not a shrinking concern. The murder of the four Americans in Benghazi poses a political problem for the administration partly because it undercuts the idea that al-Qaeda, as former Vice President Cheney might have put it, is in its death throes and ironically, the death of bin Laden set the stage for a return to the global war on terror approach the administration hoped to bury.
It is far from clear that the President’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan will pass off without serious problems, and it is abundantly clear that the strategy of reconciling the Islamic world to the United States by pressuring the Israelis to make major concessions to the Palestinians blew up in the President’s face.
But there’s more. The Arab Spring has sucked the Obama administration back into the quagmires it was hoping to leave. In Libya, the administration launched its own war for regime change; the chaotic and bloody international mess that resulted—clearly never envisioned by the White House idealists who with Rumsfeldian confidence thought taking Qaddafi out would be a consequence-free “cakewalk”—has once again put the United States in the position of nation building in an anarchic and violent Arab land.
Beyond that, events in Egypt and Syria raise basic questions about the viability of an offshore balancing role for the United States in the Middle East. An offshore balancer requires stable onshore partners; the fall of the Shah exposed the weakness of the Nixon Doctrine and its reliance on local strongmen. With the crisis in Libya, the fall of Mubarak, the likely fall of Assad and the potential for revolutionary upheaval even in the Gulf, the Obama administration has been unable to avoid entangling the United States ever more deeply in a region it longs to escape.
The Obama administration has been unable to rebalance America’s role in the Middle East; the problem reminds one of Chesterton’s comment that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. The same could be said of the Obama administration’s plan to extricate the United States from the Middle East; in the end, the administration itself abandoned the attempt.
The Libya invasion was the moment when the Obama administration tacitly abandoned its realist, neo-Nixonian posture in the Middle East. We have been sucked back in by a complicated mix of regional developments and our own values and perceptions. Throughout the region, the Obama administration is nation-building, intervening in various intimate ways in the hope of affecting the outcome of domestic power struggles, and attempting to counter the metastasizing cancer of radical violence.
The Great Extrication, the first pillar of the Obama grand strategy, hasn’t worked and as we look ahead to the next four years in the Middle East, we see at least one major war prospect looming with Iran, and growing rather than shrinking American engagement in nation building, political development, foreign aid and counter terrorism and anti-insurgency assistance and activity. If the administration has developed a new grand design to replace its old goal of extrication, it has not yet shared the new strategy with the public.
The second problem the President now faces is that the success of the administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ combined with the failure of the Great Extrication now leaves the United States facing a prospect of heavier burdens rather than lighter ones as it seeks to promote its interests abroad. The pivot to Asia was a challenge to China, and the game is now on. Politics and policy in China, India, Japan and other countries have now changed in response to announcements the Obama administration made and decisions it took back when it thought that the Great Extrication would work; the United States must now look forward to rising commitments in the Pacific as well as to unpredictable but probably large commitments in the Middle East.
The mix of success and failure in President Obama’s foreign policy has blown a hole in his budget strategy. It is simply not possible to have the foreign policy to which he is currently committed with the defense budget he currently envisions.
It has also blown a hole in his political strategy. President Obama wanted to civilianize American foreign policy, to stand down from the state of national alert following 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghan wars. Domestically, a demobilizing posture overseas tends to favor Democrats and Democratic constituency groups. A state of emergency and alarm empowers hawks; President Obama wanted to make the world safe for doves.
This is much harder to sustain now. If the Middle East now requires a more deeply engaged rather than a more distant United States, and if the new Pacific coalition requires our continued attention and support, then trade policy, foreign aid budgets and defense all need to be given higher priority than the average Democratic member of the House of Representatives would like. The Clinton wing of the Democratic Party benefits in this environment compared to the Obama wing, and the Republican Party benefits compared to Democrats as a whole.
Up until September, President Obama’s conduct of foreign policy was one of the underpinnings of the President’s popularity; lately this is no longer the case though fortunately for the President the domestic economy has begun to improve even as the international situation darkened.
Yet the President still has an opportunity in this week’s debate. Most Americans don’t follow foreign policy particularly closely, and the press has been reticent about explaining the strategic crisis at the heart of Obama’s foreign policy. But very few voters want to return to the George W. Bush policies, and President Obama’s most effective weapon on domestic issues in the campaign—tying Governor Romney and his domestic policy agenda to George Bush—can work even better in the realm of foreign affairs.
Obama ran a unified field theory campaign in 2o08; bad Bush policies had gotten us into wars and made us disliked abroad, and bad Bush policies at home had caused the financial crisis. John McCain wants more bad Bush policies; the choice is clear.
Obama’s best foreign policy debate strategy is more of the same. I, the President can say, unlike the crazy Republican neocons, that I am trying to keep you out of war. I, unlike the ideologues around Governor Romney, want to work with our allies and spread the burdens around. I may not get everything right, but at least the things I am trying to do are things you want done, while the things this other guy wants to do—from bombing Iran to poking Putin with a sharp stick—are things you know will make your lives worse.
The Bush-based strategy hasn’t worked as well for President Obama domestically this time around as it did in 2012, but the old tactic may enjoy more success when attention shifts to foreign affairs. The economy under President Obama has not performed very well, and voters get daily reminders of this. But the international situation is both more remote and harder to judge. Moreover, both in the primary season and so far in the general election campaign, Governor Romney has criticized President Obama from a more hawkish perspective, lending credibility to efforts to associate his ideas with those of former President Bush.
In foreign policy much more than in domestic matters, Mr. Not-Bush still beats Mr. Neo-Bush; that is the President’s most important advantage in the Tuesday debate, and we expect to see him work it for all that it is worth. Add to that Governor Romney’s less than stellar performance on his foreign campaign swing, and the clear evidence that most American allies around the world would prefer another four years with the incumbent than to risk the leadership of a man they don’t know and a party they don’t trust, and President Obama is standing on much firmer ground as he preps for debate number three.
[Coming: a look at Governor Romney's options for the third debate.]
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