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Obama: Foreign Policy President?

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Elections are decided by economics. Voters respond to pocketbook issues and are swayed by the huge sums that candidates lavish on advertising. Foreign policy issues, by contrast, are what the British call “noises off,” those sounds from off-stage that you hear occasionally to punctuate the main actions, sounds like exploding bombs and the distant cries of suffering people. According to recent polling, global issues barely register at all with Americans right now. Far below the economy, jobs, health care, the budget deficit, and gas prices, you’ll find Afghanistan at 6 percent (CNN), terrorism at 1 percent (Bloomberg), and, most distressingly, no global issue at all (CBS/New York Times). 

President Obama, according to conventional wisdom, has effectively removed foreign policy as a campaign issue by knocking off Osama bin Laden, drawing down the war in Iraq, escalating drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere, talking tough with Iran, executing a Pacific pivot, winning a Nobel Peace Prize, pushing the reset button with Russia, and so on. Progressives have much to complain about – and I’ve criticized Obama’s foreign policy ad nauseum – but it’s not a record that the Republicans can easily challenge.

Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie beg to differ. Rove, of course, is the Republican hatchet man and former deputy chief of staff in the George W. Bush administration. He has an outsized role in politics these days through his American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS PACs, which spent nearly $40 million in the 2010 mid-term elections and expect to spend as much as $240 million in this election cycle. Ed Gillespie is a former head of the Republican National Committee. Neither of them has any particular insight into foreign affairs, not to mention experience or knowledge. But since when does the lack of these qualifications stand between pundits and their soapbox?

In Foreign Policy magazine, Rove and Gillespie argue that the Republicans can beat Obama on foreign policy. Their case boils down to the following: Obama is weak, traitorous, and aloof. At the same time, they write, “Obama has left his Republican predecessor’s policies largely intact.” They don’t quite explain how the president can be both praised and criticized for policies that simultaneously represent a reassuring continuity with and a disastrous departure from George W. Bush’s reign. But Rove and Gillespie don’t care about logic. They care only about vulnerability. They are take-down artists.

So far, Rove and Gillespie have not had much impact on the Republican frontrunner. Mitt Romney seems to be consulting his old college textbooks rather than the current Republican brain trust. Recently, he declared to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Russia is the number one geopolitical foe of the United States. Blitzer was taken aback – Russia, not Iran or China? That’s right, Romney insisted, having failed to check the expiration date on his briefing notes.

Rove and Gillespie barely mention Russia in their article. These political operatives know that Russia was last generation’s red meat issue. Today, the base salivates over jihad and sharia. Accordingly, Rove and Gillespie identify “radical Islamic terrorism” as the primary focus of any successful Republican foreign policy attack. Number two is the drawdown in Afghanistan, and number three is the danger of “rogue states” like Iran. In other words, what might seem to be a diverse list of threats is in fact one threat that comes in a couple different flavors. That threat is Islam.

“Barack Obama, the right wing has discovered, does not have to be Muslim to convince American voters that he has a suspect, even foreign, agenda,” I write in the TomDispatch piece Creating the Muslim Manchurian Candidate. “They have instead established a much lower evidentiary standard: he only has to act Muslim. For this, they don’t need a birth certificate. All they need are allegations, however spurious, that the president is in league with Iran’s Ahmadinejad, Arab Spring jihadists, and anti-Israel forces at home. This more subtle but no less ugly Islamophobia has already insinuated itself into the 2012 elections in a potentially more damaging way than did the overt disparagement of Obama’s religious bona fides back in 2008.”

The problem with the right wing’s argument, of course, is that President Obama has covered his flank on the “Muslim question.” The promised reset of relations with the Islamic world has amounted to a surge in Afghanistan, an expansion of drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere, the assassination of top al-Qaeda leaders, the non-closure of Guantanamo, continued support of autocratic leaders in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other countries, a virtual love embrace of Netanyahu, and an escalation in hostility toward Iran just short of military intervention.

As Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O’Hanlon write in the Washington Post, “despite his Cairo speech, despite his time growing up in Indonesia, despite his effort to pressure Israel to freeze settlements and despite his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Obama enters his reelection campaign with his own popularity (and that of the United States) in the broader Islamic world mired at levels similar to those of the late George W. Bush presidency.” Obama, in other words, has demonstrated his re-electability by running against Islam, not for it.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the United States is a different country where foreign policy indeed matters to the electorate. Let’s make another, perhaps more far-fetched assumption that Obama will bill himself in 2012 as a successful, globally minded progressive candidate. Here are the five things Obama could say to confound his right-wing critics and his liberal debunkers to prove that he has effectively promoted progressive causes at a global level.

I promised to engage willing authoritarian regimes. The government of Burma was willing, we engaged them, and now opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will soon take her place in the Burmese parliament.

The biggest attack item that Hillary Clinton used as a candidate back in 2008 was that a naïve Obama would jeopardize U.S. security by reaching out the hand of friendship to dictatorial adversaries. Rove and Gillespie – and all the Republican candidates – have repeated this tired fallacy. But unless you’re talking about allies like Honduras and Uzbekistan, Obama has done very little of this purported autocrat-appeasing. The one major exception has been Burma, where former general Thein Sein has ushered in a series of small but cumulatively important reforms. In the most recent by-elections, opposition candidates competed for 45 empty seats – out of 664 total seats in parliament – and won 43 of them, including a rural constituency for Aung San Suu Kyi. Skeptics might point out that the victory represents less than 10 percent of the parliament. But remember, Poland’s transformation in 1989, also begun by a former general, opened up only a portion of the parliament to competitive elections. Solidarity won by an overwhelming margin that June, and Poland never looked back.

I promised global abolition and, now that my arch-enemy Jon Kyl is retiring, we will finally be able to make some concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament.

To win a new START agreement with Russia, Obama had to make a devil’s compromise with his Senate opponent Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who insisted on an $85-billion nuclear modernization package. Then, even though the Obama administration went along with this nonsensical requirement to modernize the very weapons we were pledging to dismantle, Kyl voted against the deal. But Kyl is retiring. And the Obama administration is now considering much deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals to levels far below the New START ceilings. Good riddance to Jon Kyl and a hearty thanks to Edward Markey (D-MA) and his recent plan to cut $100 billion over 10 years from the nuclear program!

I promised to steer clear of dangerous military interventions, and I have pushed hard for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria.

Obama only reluctantly backed military intervention in Libya. He is even less enthusiastic about getting involved militarily in Syria. Moral and geopolitical considerations aside, the president certainly doesn’t want to get into another Mideast quagmire in an election year. And Syria, with an entrenched government and military plus a fractured set of political and religious loyalties, promises to be much more challenging than Libya. So far, the Obama administration has backed the efforts of Kofi Annan to come up with a durable peace plan. It has also lobbied hard for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to step down and pledged some financial and technical support for the Syrian opposition. At the same time, the president has forcefully rejected the option of a unilateral military strike and quite sensibly argued against “the notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military.”

I inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have completed the U.S. troop withdrawal from the former and pursued the negotiations necessary to remove U.S. forces from the latter.

Candidate Obama promised to end the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, and he has more or less fulfilled that promise. He made the ill-advised move to “surge” in Afghanistan, and the United States is still waist-deep in the big muddy. Obama has laid out a timeline for U.S. withdrawal, but more importantly has pushed hard behind the scenes to turn the Taliban into a credible negotiating partner. The Taliban is soon to open an office in Qatar, and the Pentagon is willing to transfer five Guantanamo detainees to that country as part of a prisoner swap that can kick-start negotiations. It will take some time to negotiate any enduring deal, so don’t expect “mission accomplished” rhetoric in this election year. But if the negotiations take hold and the United States follows the timeline (and, preferably, accelerates it), the Obama administration could indeed extricate U.S. military forces from the two biggest foreign policy fiascos of the 21st century.

The global economy was in a sinkhole when I entered office, and now it has stabilized, in large part through the stimulus policies that I supported along with my counterparts in other major countries.

The U.S. economy is tied to the global economy. Neither is in particularly great shape at the moment, but they’re both doing better than when Obama took office. The stimulus package that Obama pushed through Congress helped stop the slide. Of course he should have pushed for more, and he did, with last year’s $447 billion job bill, which the Republicans effectively axed (and replaced with their own stimulus package for the 1 percent). Still, it would be useful for Obama to hold up his stimulus spending – and that of his global counterparts – as one of his chief successes. By coming out strong, the president could prepare the ground for another attempt in 2013 at reviving and reorienting the economy at home and globally.

None of these efforts has been a clear political win. None could be called an unmitigated progressive victory. But the administration’s policies on Burma, nuclear weapons, negotiated settlements, and the global economy should go a long way toward refuting the canards of Rove and Gillespie and injecting foreign policy in a positive way into the 2012 presidential campaign. It’s not exactly the agenda of the Progressive Caucus. But it’s a far cry from RomneyWorld.

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