Responsible Leadership: “Not Just Another Applause Line”

March 7, 2012

Amid Super Tuesday-week rhetoric on national security and war with Iran, three things held constant this week: Active-duty and retired military leaders pushed back strongly on loose war talk and supported the White House approach. The public continued to give strong support to the pragmatic national security policies of the administration and oppose pre-emptive military actions. And national security commentators continued to raise the alarm about the most sensitive security topics being swallowed by meaningless election-year rhetoric.

Military leaders, active and retired, reject loose talk on Iran. As Politico reports today, “On Iran, however, the generals seem wary of the GOP’s hawkishness and more in agreement with the White House’s measured approach… On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, another top U.S. general cautioned that military action would ‘just delay’ Iran’s nuclear drive. ‘I don’t see this going in the right direction until the full effect of the sanctions can accrue,’ the head of Central Command, Gen. James Mattis, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.” Retired military leaders also reject the conservative approach. As Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton (ret) told Military.com earlier this week, “There is a national reflex on the conservative part [of the] political spectrum to reach for the military option first and others second… We feel the need to give the president and those who endorse this approach as much space as possible to let … the economic efforts guide Iranian behavior.” [Politico, 3/6/12. Paul Eaton via Military.com, 3/5/12]

By trying to make political hay out of deadly serious issues, candidates show they’re not ready to be commander in chief. As Senator John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commented in a floor statement yesterday responding to an op-ed by Mitt Romney earlier in the week: “[W]e should all remember that the nuclear issue with Iran is deadly serious business that should invite sobriety and serious-minded solutions, not sloganeering and sound bites. This can’t become just another applause line on the Republican presidential stump. Talk has consequences, and idle talk of war only helps Iran by spooking the tight oil market and increasing the price of the Iranian crude that pays for its nuclear program. And to create false differences with the President just to score political points does nothing to move Iran off a dangerous nuclear course. Worst of all, Governor Romney’s op-ed does not even do readers the courtesy of describing how a President Romney would do anything different from what the Obama administration has already done…”

On substance, as the New York Times reports, from redlines to sanctions to arms sales to allies to consultations with our military, “As it turns out, that [Romney’s plan] amounts to what President Obama is doing.” Yesterday, Obama pushed his opponents: “Now, the one thing that we have not done, is we haven’t launched a war. If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so. And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk.” [John Kerry, 3/6/12. New York Times, 3/5/12. Barack Obama via The Plum Line, 3/6/12]

The public backs a foreign policy that delivers results, not empty bluster. Pollsters Stan Greenberg and Jeremy Rosner write: “Americans may be sharply polarized on many issues, but they are relatively aligned on their confidence in Obama as commander in chief. Over 60 percent approve of the job Obama is doing handling terrorism — and this was true even before the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. According to a February ABC/Washington Post survey, voters trust Obama to handle international affairs more than the Republican Party’s likely standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, by an outsized 19-point margin. What explains these strong ratings? Historically, Americans are fairly non-ideological on foreign policy. Above all, they want results, and that is what Obama has produced.”

The Century Foundation’s Michael Cohen spells out further: “According to a recent AP/Gfk poll the president scores a negative or barely positive rating on a host of domestic issues: the economy, health care, the budget deficit, gas prices, unemployment, and taxes. But check out the foreign policy side of the ledger and it tells a very different story: handling of Iraq, 57 percent approve; Afghanistan, 54 percent; relationships with other counties, 57 percent; and finally terrorism, 63 percent. Other polls suggest that Americans see Obama as a strong leader and someone who will keep the country safe… If anything, Obama’s foreign policy advantage — rather than being vulnerability — may very well be one of the keys to his re-election.”

That’s especially true on Iran. Cohen writes, “In October 2009 (months after the crushing of the Green Movement), voters were asked if they supported or opposed direct diplomatic talks with Iran to prevent Iran from procuring a nuclear weapons — an astounding 82 percent of Americans supported this approach. Even today, most voters prefer that the U.S. exhaust all diplomatic and economic levers before considering the use of force with Iran. One can find certain similarities in these numbers with results indicating that — while Americans don’t trust North Korea either — they prefer to eschew force in containing Pyongyang.” [Stan Greenberg and Jeremy Rosner, 2/29/12. Michael Cohen, 3/2/12]

What We’re Reading

Israel cautiously welcomed the planned resumption of big-power nuclear talks with Iran.

American officials acknowledge that the absence of a stable partner following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak remains a major problem in U.S.-Egyptian relations.

A top U.S. Republican senator said he is almost ready to “pull the plug” on U.S. operations in Afghanistan if certain U.S. demands are not met.

U.S. and North Korean officials plan to meet in Beijing to finalize the details for food aid to the North.

Many Indians are increasingly questioning the effectiveness of democracy in the face of sluggish economic growth and corruption scandals.

Anti-Putin demonstrators remain divided over how to continue their protest.

Norwegian terror suspect Anders Behring Breivik was formally charged with committing acts of terror and voluntary homicide.

With elections weeks away, French President Nicolas Sarkozy claims France has too many foreigners and is not properly integrating them.

Mexican polls show Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party enjoys a comfortable lead over his nearest rival four months ahead of presidential elections.

A World Bank report reveals a widespread decline in extreme poverty despite the global economic downturn.

Commentary of the Day

Ian Bremmer and Clifford Kupchan suggest looking the other way while China and India buy discounted oil from Iran in order to ensure that sanctions work as intended: hurting Iran, and not the world economy.

Thomas Friedman argues for giving Iran diplomacy and sanctions a chance.

Allen Lynch claims that the alternative candidates to Putin are far worse for Russia.

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