Seen through the prism of a presidential-election campaign, the world appears in broad strokes and primary colors, its contours lacking complexity or nuance. In that viewfinder, there is black and white, friend and foe, and the president of the United States has the power to realign the international landscape to his liking. The campaign prism, it turns out, is not only an imperfect lens for navigating the shoals of geopolitics but also a poor predictor of the path a president will ultimately travel.
Consider how the unexpected Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 have largely overtaken Barack Obama’s carefully crafted outreach to the Muslim world. Or that as a candidate, George W. Bush promised a “humble” foreign policy and criticized nation-building by U.S. military forces, then as president unilaterally toppled regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and launched the two largest nation-building operations of modern times. Bill Clinton, after arguing that it’s “the economy, stupid” and pulling bloodied U.S. forces out of Somalia in 1994, was later drawn into the conflict in the Balkans. Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office rejecting détente with the Soviet Union’s “evil empire” and ended
up proposing a world without nuclear weapons to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. Antiwar candidate Jimmy Carter was undone by a botched military operation in the sands of Iran in 1979. Strident anticommunist Richard Nixon embarked on a landmark journey to China in 1972 to shake hands with Chairman Mao.
The picture that emerges from a campaign prism reveals more about a candidate’s instincts and worldview than about the actual world writ large, and that is probably the point. On Inauguration Day, no president can fathom what dynamic and swirling events will shape the four years to come. Few crises are beyond the interests of the “indispensable nation” that others still look to for leadership in collectively countering global threats, whether from terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, economic contagion, or a host of other scourges. At best, a rigorous campaign suggests the lodestar that a president will follow in charting an inherently unpredictable course.
Before entering the Oval Office, Obama had developed an ambitious foreign-policy vision for difficult times: He would refurbish America’s tattered image abroad, wind down two wars, reset relations with Russia as a step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons, engage adversaries and potential adversaries such as China and Iran, and make peace in the Middle East.
But first, he had to contain the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. “By his own account, the 44th president of the United States sought nothing less than to bend history’s arc in the direction of justice and a more peaceful, stable global order,” write Brookings Institution scholars Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O’Hanlon in Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy. “The image of a new global architecture and a transformed world was crucial to his ultimate success as a candidate. Just how well it would set him up to assume the reins of power once elected was, however, a different matter.”
The Obama administration’s blueprint for that transformation was the 2010 national-security strategy, which looked toward a time when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were no longer dragging down the economy and casting a militaristic shadow over U.S. foreign policy. The strategy describes an era of increased globalization and a more transnational world in which all countries are interconnected, with a greater dispersal of power and increasingly collective responses to global problems.
“Russia is ... our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors.” —Mitt Romney
Guided by that vision, the administration sought to reclaim the moral high ground by banning what it considered excessive counterterrorism practices; reforming venerable international institutions, such as the United Nations and the Group of Eight major economies to meet fast-evolving challenges; and continuing to underwrite global security through engagement with allies and adversaries alike. The guiding vision was a revitalized international architecture that would reflect such values as democracy and free markets, and would benefit nations that play by the rules. Outlier regimes that rejected the compact, including Iran and North Korea, would face sanctions and isolation from the global commons.
In implementing that strategy with specific policies, Obama achieved signature successes and suffered significant setbacks. The administration banned Bush-era “enhanced-interrogation” techniques that many observers equate with torture, but bipartisan majorities in Congress blocked the White House from closing the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Obama also looked beyond the traditional and exclusive G-8 club of the world’s larger economies to address the financial crisis, turning more frequently to a nascent G-20 coalition that included fast-growing economies in Brazil, China, India, and elsewhere.
The administration “reset” with Russia reconfigured a planned American missile-defense shield in Europe to a profile less threatening to Moscow. In turn, Russia backed a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a key nonproliferation goal for Obama. Moscow also eventually acceded to the toughest sanctions to date on Iran to counter its nuclear ambitions. The reset did little to change the Kremlin’s authoritarian ways at home, however, and since hard-liner Vladimir Putin’s return to Russia’s presidency, he has embraced some of the most bellicose anti-Western rhetoric heard from Moscow in years. Russia has also stubbornly blocked tougher sanctions on Syria, despite Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown that has killed more than 10,000 Syrians.
As an increasingly self-confident China ramped up military spending and began aggressively staking territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Obama administration responded with a strategic pivot toward Asia that will bolster the U.S. military presence and forge closer military ties to Asian nations such as Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. This decision builds upon a venerable strategy, followed by successive administrations, of both engaging the rising Chinese giant and hedging against Beijing’s becoming a more belligerent power.
The administration’s record in the Middle East is decidedly more mixed. Obama traveled to Cairo in June 2009 and gave a “New Beginning” speech reaching out to the Muslim world, promising in part to pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that remains a constant irritant in U.S.-Arab relations. He called on the Palestinians to renounce violence, and on Israel to halt settlement activity in the occupied territories that is viewed as illegitimate under international law. But when Israel refused to freeze all of its settlement-building and pushed back against U.S. pressure, the administration’s Muslim outreach bogged down.
The Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 then put the Obama administration in reactive mode. The president called on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step aside, let allies France and Great Britain take the lead in a NATO air operation that ousted Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, and refused to intervene militarily to stop Assad from waging war on his people.
The Obama administration balanced its “soft power” diplomacy by surging tens of thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan (after fulfilling a pledge to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq), and greatly increased its targeting of terrorist leaders. Last year a Navy SEAL team killed al-Qaida’s chief, Osama bin Laden, in his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (See “Tone Poem” p. 33.)
Vice President Joe Biden previewed the administration’s closing argument on its first-term foreign policy, in a speech at New York University earlier this year: “Three and a half years ago, when President Obama and I took office, and stepped into that Oval Office, our nation had been engaged in two wars for the better part of a decade. Al-Qaida was resurgent, and Osama bin Laden was at large. Our alliances were dangerously frayed. And our economy—the foundation of our national security—was on the precipice of a new depression.” In response, Biden said, Obama initiated strategies for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stepped up targeted killings that decimated al-Qaida’s leadership, and stabilized the economy with tough decisions such as the bailout of Detroit. “If you’re looking for a bumper sticker to sum up how President Obama has handled what we inherited, it’s pretty simple: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
Bumper stickers aside, the Obama doctrine that has emerged after nearly four years—multilateral and mindful of international institutions such as the United Nations, consensus-building and engaging of allies and adversaries alike, occasionally tough-minded in the use of force—places the administration in the mainstream “liberal internationalist” tradition in world affairs, or what the authors of Bending History call “progressive pragmatism.” That essentially realist worldview explains why a number of Obama’s top foreign-policy initiatives have drawn support from notable moderate Republicans, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates; former Sen. Chuck Hagel; Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana; and former Secretaries of State Colin Powell, George Shultz, and Henry Kissinger. It has also produced a Democratic president who polls better on foreign than domestic policy, and better on national security than his GOP rival.
“Obama came into office at the very height of a nearly unprecedented financial crisis, which accelerated the rise of China and other developing countries and meant that the global distribution of power was going to be less tilted in America’s favor than in the past,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, one of the authors of Bending History. “Whether you call him a ‘progressive pragmatist’ or a ‘liberal realist,’ I think Obama generally fashioned a foreign policy that made reasonable adjustments to the reality that the United States’ leverage, while still greater than anyone else’s, is somewhat reduced in this era.”
THE ROMNEY CRITIQUE
One year after the bin Laden killing, Obama embarked on Air Force One for a showy trip to Afghanistan to mark the occasion. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney delivered pizzas to firefighters in Lower Manhattan, near 9/11’s Ground Zero.
Even as Romney advisers accused Obama of politicizing the bin Laden raid, the contrast pointed to a major challenge for the Republican nominee. Any critique of the president’s foreign policy has to overcome the fact that the target controls all the tools of statecraft and national security, not to mention the bully pulpit. The occupant of the Oval Office personifies power.
Having vanquished primary opponents whose worldviews reflected the isolationist (most notably Rep. Ron Paul of Texas) and liberal internationalist (former Ambassador Jon Huntsman) wings of the Republican Party, Romney has embraced a Reaganesque foreign-policy philosophy of “peace through strength.” He has called for significant increases in defense spending and the size of the military,
and he has consistently attacked Obama from the right as weak and overly conciliatory toward adversaries.
In Romney’s view, Obama’s outreach to the Islamic world and his admission of past U.S. mistakes—such as supporting autocrats in Muslim countries and adopting counterterrorism policies that the president said ran “contrary to our ideals”—smacks of apologizing for the nation’s inherent greatness. “Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined,” Romney wrote in his 2011 book, No Apologies: The Case for American Greatness. “It is his way of signaling to foreign countries and foreign leaders that their dislike for America is something he understands and that is, at least in part, understandable.”
Romney has been especially critical of the White House’s pressure on Israel to end settlement expansions in the occupied West Bank as a bid to entice Palestinians back to the negotiating table, and for Obama’s declaration that the basis for a two-state solution should be the 1967 prewar borders with agreed-upon land swaps. In Romney’s view, these policies betray a venerable ally. Obama “threw Israel under the bus” by laying out guidelines for peace negotiations, Romney said, suggesting that as president he would abandon the role of impartial mediator. “President Obama is fond of lecturing Israel’s leaders.… Even at the United Nations, to the enthusiastic applause of Israel’s enemies, he spoke as if our closest ally in the Middle East was the problem,” Romney told a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in July, days before traveling to Israel on his first trip overseas as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. “The people of Israel deserve better.”
In terms of major-power relations, Romney has slammed the Obama administration’s reset in relations with Russia and its forbearance of China’s unfair trade practices. The administration has already weakened a planned missile-defense shield in Europe at Moscow’s insistence, in Romney’s view, even though Russia continues to back thugs such as Syria’s Assad. “Russia—this is, without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors,” Romney told CNN.
As for China, Romney has threatened to label Beijing a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office if the regime continues to refuse to float its currency. “If you are not willing to stand up to China, you will get run over by China, and that’s what’s happened for 20 years,” Romney said.
His camp also views Obama’s attempts to build international consensus for action at the United Nations as making concessions to multi-lateralism that too often tie America’s hands. The Romney campaign accuses the president of “leading from behind” in the NATO operation to oust Libya’s Qaddafi. It characterizes the administration’s willingness to negotiate with adversaries such as Syria and Iran as weakness and its attempts to close the Guantánamo Bay prison as misguided. Romney has instead advocated doubling the population of terrorism suspects held there.
“Like Ronald Reagan, Governor Romney believes that America and the world are better off when the United States leads from a position of unchallenged strength, and that our values should animate our foreign policy,” said former Ambassador Richard Williamson, a foreign-policy adviser to the Romney campaign who worked in the Reagan White House. “Contrast that to President Obama’s preference for ‘leading from behind,’ for engagement for engagement’s sake, and his undue deference to multilateralism that has compromised U.S. policies towards Syria, Iran, and North Korea.”
The common thread that runs through Romney’s critique is that Obama’s outreach to global constituencies and devotion to a multilateralist worldview represent a turning away from “American exceptionalism,” the notion that the United States embodies a unique set of values, principles, and attributes that make it an unequaled beacon of democracy and the natural leader of the free world. “I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world,” Romney said at the Citadel last October. “Not exceptional, as the president derisively said, in the way that the British think Great Britain is exceptional or the Greeks think Greece is exceptional. In Barack Obama’s profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States.”
America’s destiny is to lead the world, Romney said, not be one of several equally balanced global powers, and fulfilling that destiny rests on restoring the United States’ military preeminence and resolutely confronting rivals. “This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today,” Romney told the VFW audience.
Of course, the danger of such an assertive foreign policy is that it will remind American voters not of Ronald Reagan but of George W. Bush. Many of the neoconservatives and hawks who held sway in Bush’s first term and championed the Iraq war, and who continue to argue for a more assertive American leadership that confronts adversaries militarily and actively supports democratic revolutions, have signed as Romney advisers. The election campaign will help determine whether that vision of a more unilateral, values-based foreign policy and a muscular brand of U.S. leadership still sells in a country wearied by a decade of war and years of economic upheaval.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.