National Security: Competing Visions, Single Reality

April 18, 2012

With the Republican presidential primary winding down, two distinct visions of national security are emerging. Conservatives and military experts have criticized the GOP for approaches to foreign affairs that, as Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan put it, dispense with “discretion, prudence, nuance.” Conservatives now face the challenge of describing clearly what they stand for – and of moving away from extreme positions that stand in opposition to the military and even question the integrity of military leaders. The public, for its part, continues to express growing war fatigue, demand pragmatic policies with identifiable results, and is “generally impressed with the job President Obama is doing in keeping the country safe.”

Shrinking scope for partisan fighting:  critics and the American public support substance, results of progressive foreign policy. As David Rothkopf, chief executive and editor at large of the Foreign Policy Group, has said, “Barack Obama’s position in foreign policy is substantively stronger than that of any other Democratic candidate in recent memory… The general Romney refrain of ‘I can do better’ is easily defused with one word: ‘How?’”

Dan Drezner of Tufts University and Foreign Policy magazine expands: “Obama’s foreign policy has been far from perfect, but he’s hit the key notes reasonably well.  U.S. standing abroad has risen considerably, Osama bin Laden is dead, U.S. grand strategy has pivoted towards the most dynamic region in the world, and his Secretary of State is a badass texter.  There are angles where Romney could try to hit Obama – the Iraq withdrawal, the planned drawdown in Afghanistan — except that the American public overwhelmingly endorses these moves.  That ground is not fertile.  This has reduced the Romney campaign to do little but shout ‘Iran is dangerous!  Israel is getting thrown under the bus!!’ a lot.  The fact that the Obama White House seems delighted to highlight this stuff is not a good sign for the Romney folk.”

As the AP notes today, “The most recent Washington Post-ABC News survey found that Americans trust Obama over Romney on international affairs, 53 percent to 36 percent. For Americans still gun-shy after the difficult war in Iraq and eager to be done with the prolonged and messy fight in Afghanistan — both conflicts started under Bush — Romney’s hawkish-sounding policies could prove damaging in the November election.” As a Third Way-Greenberg Quinlan Rosner report found last month, “November’s presidential election will feature something not seen in American politics in more than forty years: a Democratic candidate who enjoys some of his strongest ratings on national security. Swing voters in a new set of focus groups are generally impressed with the job President Obama is doing in keeping the country safe.” [David Rothkopf via NY Times, 4/6/12. Dan Drezner, 4/12/12. AP, 4/18/12. GQR/Third Way, March 2012]

Conservatives, military experts decry candidates’ belligerence, opposition to the military. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan has written, “[I]n foreign affairs the Republican candidates staked out dangerous ground… [In the GOP debates, t]here was no room for discretion, prudence, nuance, to use unjustly maligned terms. There was no room for an expressed bias toward not-fighting. But grown-ups really do have a bias toward not-fighting. They are allowing the GOP to be painted as the war party. They are ceding all non-war ground to the president, who can come forward as the sober, constrained, non-bellicose contender.”

By contrast, DOD Buzz’s Phil Ewing called the GOP primary’s national security conversation “absurd when it wasn’t embarrassing,” and added,  “what Romney does say — besides just cranking up the spending — will be very interesting. Romney’s campaign took a lot of heat from its former rivals when an adviser said it needed to shake itself up ‘like an Etch-a-Sketch’ to move from the Republican primary to the general election against Obama. For the national security world, however, that could be a welcome move.” Indeed, some of Romney’s own advisers have disagreed with his positions and with each other – the New York Times and Washington Post note that Romney advisors Mitchell Reiss and James Shinn advocate talking to the Taliban, and trade advisor and former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez has consistently opposed the China trade moves Romney pledges to implement “on day one.”

Perhaps most surprising, candidates have questioned the judgment and integrity of military leaders on issues from Afghanistan to defense spending to Iran policy. It is unusual, if not unprecedented, for a presidential candidate to refer to a wartime Secretary of Defense as “misguided, and so naïve,” as Romney recently described Leon Panetta’s strategy for turning combat responsibilities in Afghanistan over to Afghan forces. As Kevin Baron of the National Journal writes, “For a year, Republican members and conservative hawks off Capitol Hill have been saying that the military needs a bigger budget than Obama is willing to provide. While the Joint Chiefs signed off on a new strategic guidance for smaller and more-agile armed forces, conservatives have stayed their course, arguing that the Defense Department needs more troops and weapons. That’s not what the members of Joint Chiefs of Staff testified that they wanted. It’s not what a host of other senior U.S. combat commanders and program officers have testified under oath that the U.S. requires. It’s important to understand that when the Joint Chiefs testify before Congress, they’re required to give their honest assessment, regardless of whether it conflicts with the president’s policy… That has not happened with the fiscal 2013 budget request.” [Peggy Noonan, 4/13/12. Phil Ewing, 4/10/12. James Shinn and Mitt Romney via NY Times, 4/18/12. Mitchell Reiss via Washington Post, 1/17/12. Carlos Gutierrez via POLITICO, 3/14/12. Kevin Baron, 4/16/12]

What We’re Reading

North Korea announced it is abandoning an agreement with the United States, in which it promised to suspend uranium enrichment, nuclear tests and long-range missile tests.

The Los Angeles Times published photos of American soldiers posing with bodies of insurgents, eliciting shock and intense condemnation from U.S. military officials.

Aung San Suu Kyi will make her first foreign trip since 1988, visiting Norway and Britain.

The European financial crisis has become the subject of a heated debate, dividing those who advocate austerity and those who encourage more expansionary policies to facilitate growth.

British authorities have arrested Abu Qatada, a man alleged to have inspired terrorists including one of the 9/11 hijackers.

Egypt’s presidential election commission confirmed the disqualification of three presidential candidates.

Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority sent a letter to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, emphasizing that in order for peace talks to resume, Israel must stop settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and accept the 1967 borders.

China claims that the Philippines is violating maritime law in the contested South China Sea.

The United States has warned its citizens living in Nigeria that the Islamist sect Boko Haram may be planning attacks on the capital Abuja.

French citizens prepare to vote on April 22 in the first round of presidential elections, with a second expected to be necessary to decide between incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande.

Commentary of the Day

Tom Perry claims that Egypt’s transition from military to civilian rule has devolved into a contentious power struggle that is leading to worries that the shift to democratic rule could be in jeopardy.

Barry Eichengreen examines whether the era of Chinese ascendency and U.S. decline may be over.

Greg Thielmann urges serious discussion about what the U.S. nuclear arsenal can and should deter, grounded in the reality that the post-Cold War U.S.-Russia relationship is no longer a zero-sum game.

Paul Pillar contends that a failure to attempt negotiations with North Korea would have been a missed opportunity to test the new leader’s intentions.

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