Leader of the Free World?

November 22, 2011

Tonight the 2012 presidential hopefuls convene again to debate foreign policy and national security issues.  Democracy in Egypt, defense spending, financial meltdown in Europe – the news is full of challenges to U.S. interests and to governments’ very ability to meet their citizens’ basic needs.  But, as commentators from conservatives Marc Thiessen and George Will to the New York Times Editorial Board have noted, the debate is unlikely to produce new wisdom on  America’s role in the world or how to best keep Americans safe and prosperous in the 21st century. Following recent patterns, we can expect instead reflexive attacks on the Obama administration as well as a return to the neoconservative framework that defined the Bush administration, thanks to the presences of many of its architects among the candidates’ advisors.

Poll  after poll demonstrates that the public joins non-partisan military and national security leaders in supporting the pragmatic, results-based approach of the past three years. Addressing the challenges of the 21st century requires leadership that is able to recognize and draw from the true strength and potential of the American people. From killing Osama bin Laden, to bringing the Iraq War to an end, to boosting exports and helping stabilize the economy, this is an approach founded on pragmatism and competence. In an ever-more complex world, America’s interests are advanced by refocusing all the tools of national power – diplomatic, economic, military, intelligence, social and moral – rather than seeing every problem as a nail to be hit with a very costly hammer.

Conservative candidates offer “bad analysis and worse solutions.” As George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen has complained, “You would not know it from the GOP debates so far, but the next president of the United States will also be the next leader of the free world.”  Candidates’ analysis and prescriptions for headline-grabbing events in Europe, Pakistan, and Egypt have fallen far below the level demanded of our chief executive.  The New York Times Editorial Board writes: “Certainly, the Republican hopefuls have put to rest any lingering notion that their party is the one to trust with the nation’s security. The United States is involved in two wars with more than 100,000 troops overseas. China is rising, relations with Pakistan are plummeting, Iran and North Korea are advancing their nuclear programs. The Middle East is in turmoil. Yet the candidates offer largely bad analysis and worse solutions, nothing that suggests real understanding or new ideas.” Conservative columnist George Will says the candidates “have some explaining to do.” [Marc Thiessen, 9/19/11. NY Times, 10/17/11. George Will, 11/4/11]

Candidates oppose the views of military leaders, nonpartisan security experts in reflexively criticizing the policies of the Obama administration. As NSN wrote earlier this month, “The contenders’ failure to mount a substantive critique of the Obama administration foreign policy reflects a lack of ideas and experience. In response, the field has tried to build agreement where it can: on reflexive opposition to the administration’s policies. In the parlance of Herman Cain, it is the strategy of asserting that all the president’s policies are ‘dumb.’ Often that requires adhering to ideological positions that have little support or basis in fact and run counter to the advice of military and national security experts.” The candidates’ positions on the conflict in Libya provide an illustrative example: Although candidates criticize the president for “leading from behind,” they offer no plausible alternatives. Instead, they waffle: According to ABC News’ Jake Tapper, Mitt Romney has held five different positions on Libya. According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning group Politifact, Newt Gingrich committed his most famous flip-flop on the issue, calling for intervention until it happened, then coming out against it. [NSN, 11/11. Jake Tapper, 10/20/11. Politifact, 3/23/11]

Candidates’ positions thus far signal a return to the George W. Bush administration. Robert Merry and Robert Golan-Vilella of The National Interest magazine conducted a full review of the candidates’ positions on national security. They found that, “to the extent there is a guiding Republican foreign-policy philosophy, it is essentially the neoconservative philosophy-the same outlook that guided Bush during his post-9/11 presidency and fueled John McCain’s 2008 White House quest. There are a few minor departures and nuances along the way, but none of much significance, and the few candidates who are most strongly opposed to the neocon view have gained little political traction so far.”

Yesterday Newt Gingrich rolled out his national security team, the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes reported:  “Former CIA director R. James Woolsey and Robert McFarlane, national security adviser to President Reagan, have joined Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign as members of his national security advisory team. They’re the best known of the 10 men and two women who’ve signed up to advise Gingrich, many of them veterans of the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.” AFP reports that Mitt Romney’s team “draws heavily on top aides to former president George W. Bush… The list notably includes veterans of Bush’s policy on Iraq — including Dan Senor, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority that governed the country in the bloody aftermath of the March 2003 US-led invasion. It also comprises Meghan O’Sullivan, who served as Bush’s deputy national security adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan.” [Robert Merry and Robert Golan-Vilella, 10/12/11. Fred Barnes, 11/22/11.  Josh Rogin, 11/22/11.  AFP, 10/6/11]

See the NSN policy paper Ready to Lead? The 2012 Candidates and Foreign Policy.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has scored foreign policy and national security successes ranging from hunting down Osama bin Laden to securing nuclear weapons:

Tackling core security issues:  Combating terrorism -the death of Osama bin Laden and decimation of Al Qaeda’s leadership; eliminating Muamar Qaddafi, who Ronald Reagan labeled the “mad dog of the Middle East,” at a very low cost to America; bringing the Iraq War to an end; and beginning the transition in Afghanistan. These advances help to keep America safe. [See: David Rothkopf via Foreign Policy, 10/20/11. John Brennan, 6/29/11. David Ignatius, 9/3/11. NSN, 8/31/10]

Engagement and shrewd diplomacy for America’s security. The Obama administration has been successful at utilizing shrewd diplomacy and leading global powers to address security challenges and advance American interests. These successes include: addressing the nuclear threat through the New START Treaty and forming the first ever Nuclear Security Summit; rallying the world to isolate Iran internationally; getting key gains and cooperation from Russia as a result of the “reset”; and making international institutions work to America’s advantage.  [See: NSN, 1/4/11. [David Ignatius, 10/11/11. Suzanne Maloney, 9/16/11. Samuel Charap, 11/12/11]

Strengthening the foundation of American power: the economy. America’s power abroad is based on its strength at home. The stimulus bill, the overhaul of the financial system, the growth in exports  and the focus on rebuilding the economy at home will strengthen the foundations of this power.  [See: NY Times, 7/12/11. Les Gelb, 11/10]

Using all the tools in the toolbox. An important component of the Obama administration’s success in foreign policy is the ability to utilize all components of national power, instead of seeing every problem as a nail to hit with an expensive hammer. Developing a 21st century relationship with China based on cooperation and competition; balancing America’s interests and values around the Arab Spring; and taking important steps to keep America’s promises to our troops. [See: Robert Danin, 7/27/11. Bruce Jentleson, Washington Quarterly, 7/11. Bruce Jones, 6/14/11. Hillary Clinton, Foreign Policy Magazine, 11/11]

On the issues, see The GOP Foreign Policy Debate, by the Issues at DemocracyArsenal.org   

What We’re Reading

Egypt’s transitional cabinet offered its resignation to the interim military administration amid increasingly deadly clashes between Egyptian protestors and military forces ahead of parliamentary elections on November 29.

The United States, Great Britain, and Canada will all impose stricter sanctions on Iran’s access to foreign credit and on its petroleum sector in response to the recent IAEA report critical of Iran.

The Pakistani Taliban has begun formal talks with representatives of the Pakistani government to end the two-year-old conflict in the province of South Waziristan.

Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan sharply criticized Syrian president Bashar al Assad’s recent escalation in attacks on anti-government protestors, as leaders of the opposition Syrian National Council met with British foreign secretary William Hague in London.

King Abdullah II of Jordan traveled to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in preparation for negotiations with Hamas.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy is increasingly at risk of being the next European leader voted out of office as a consequence of the widening European debt crisis.

The South Korean parliament approved a bilateral trade agreement with the United States originally signed in 2007, despite opposition members resorting to fisticuffs and tear gas in the parliamentary chamber in their effort to oppose the deal.

Three former leaders from Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime are on trial in Phnom Penh on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for the regime’s massacres in the 1970s.

Ethiopian troops have entered Somalia to assist with Kenyan efforts to suppress the activities of the al Shabab Islamist militant organization.

Commentary of the Day

Simon Tisdall discusses how the evolution of the Egyptian revolution may pose a problem for Western leaders.

Joshua Keating analyzes the rise of opposition to German leadership in the European Union and the fear of creating a “German Europe.”

Daniel Drezner cautions that the U.S. “pivot” to Asia cannot come at the expense of Europe and the Middle East, both of which are in the midst of widespread instability.

Jason Pack argues that the forthcoming trials of Saif al-Islam, son of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and Abdullah al-Senussi, Qaddafi’s spy chief, will define the future of Libyan politics.

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