What would I like to ask Obama and Romney at tonight's debate? Before I get to that question, let's start with the rather revealing list of selected topics. They are:
1. America's role in the world
2. Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan?*
3. Red lines -- Israel and Iran?*
4. The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism
5. The rise of China and tomorrow's world
Well, if I were European or Latin American I'd be feeling mighty dissed. No discussion of the Euro crisis? Europe was the focus of U.S. strategy for most of our history, and now it doesn't even rate a mention in the presidential debates? NATO or Greece might make a cameo appearance here and there, but what's striking is how the Greater Middle East and Asia dominate the list of issues.
Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa aren't going to get much attention either, unless someone brings up Sudan or the "new face of terrorism" includes the drug war. Maybe Brazil will come up as a "rising power," but I'll bet it doesn't rate more than a sentence or two. Instead, Obama and Romney will be trading sound-bites over some very well-trodden ground. There's no shortage of vexing problems to discuss, however, because the debate will center around the region that we've been busily screwing up ever since World War II. In a sense, it's not really fair to ask either candidate how they would fix problems that are the work of multiple administrations and both political parties. When Marx wrote "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," he might have been describing the situation Obama inherited in 2009, or the problems that one of these two men will face in 2013. But since candidates always promise to be miracle workers, the intractability of these problems is not reason not to spent 90 minutes explaining how each will (not) solve them.
In any case, my crystal ball tells me this last debate will be the most rancorous and the least edifying of the three. Obama has run a rather hawkish foreign policy: intensifying the drone war against Al Qaeda and its allies, getting the United States and other key nations to tighten sanctions on Iran, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and giving Israel even more military aid and diplomatic support than his predecessors did. He even let Benjamin Netanyahu humiliate him repeatedly on the settlement issue, and just about the only thing he didn't do was promise to attack Iran on Israel's behalf. So Romney doesn't have much he can really criticize, unless he just starts making things up again (which he will).
Indeed, when it comes to substance, what's Romney going to argue? That he would have fought longer in Iraq, bombed Iran already, or killed Bin Laden deader? Hardly. The left in America might be genuinely disappointed in Obama (and with good reason), but it's hard to attack Obama from the right without without sounding like you want to take the country into a few more wars. And that is not what most of the electorate wants to hear these days.
Given that he doesn't have many tangible things to complain about, Romney is left trying to portray Obama either as 1) someone who doesn't love America as much as he (Romney) does); or 2) as someone who has been too tough on U.S. allies and too soft on U.S. adversaries. But when asked to spell out specifics, Romney's actual policy positions turn out to be close to carbon-copies of Obama's. And the one genuine difference -- Romney's pledge to ramp up defense spending -- can't be squared with his pledge to cut taxes and balance the budget too. So instead of a wonkish discussion of real issues, we'll got a lot of rhetorical posturing at tonight's debate, complete with pious references to America's special role, its glorious past, its bright future, its noble spirit, etc., etc. But if we're lucky, neither of them will try to sing.
Second, it won't be an edifying debate because neither candidate is going to say what they might really think about the key issues shaping policy in the Greater Middle East. Like almost all American politicians, they will try to outdo each other in affirming their "unshakeable" support for Israel (yawn), but they aren't going to be any more candid about the other issues currently afflicting that troubled region. Will Romney argue that Obama should have tried to keep Ghaddafi and Mubarak in power, against the wishes of their people? Of course not. Can Obama explain that he supported the democracy movement in Egypt but not in Bahrain because he didn't want to tick off Saudi Arabia? Will either candidate openly discuss the bipartisan debacle in Afghanistan, and point out that our military leaders gave very bad advice when they recommended a "surge" in 2009? I don't think so.
Be prepared for some pretty silly conversations on China, too. According to the latest survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. citizens think the most important foreign policy issue facing the country is "protecting the jobs of American workers." Indeed, 84 percent of respondents in both parties identified this issue as important. So Romney will talk a lot about getting tough with China on trade, currency, and intellectual property, even though there's not a snowball's chance that he'd really launch a trade war once in office. Obama, for his part, will talk about his "pivot" to Asia, and try to convince listeners that he can somehow be China's best friend and China's main rival at the same time.
Bottom line: This is a debate that will tell you more about the warped nature of American politics than it will tell you about the true foreign policy challenges facing the nation.
So if I were moderator Bob Schieffer, what questions might I ask? Here's my top-ten list of questions that I don't expect to hear tomorrow night.
Mr. President, Governor Romney:
1. You have both pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. But the Taliban has not been defeated, there are no peace negotiations underway, the Afghan army remains unreliable, attacks on U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan soldiers have been increasing, and the Karzai government is still corrupt and ineffective. Given these realities, was the decision to send nearly 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009 a mistake? What could we have done instead, to avoid the current situation?
2. Gentlemen: Neither of you ever served in the U.S. military. Governor Romney, you have five grown sons, and none of them has ever served either. President Obama, you have two daughters, one of whom will be eligible to enlist in four years. Have either of you ever encouraged your children to serve our nation by enlisting in the armed forces? If not, why not?
3. Both of you claim to support a "two-state" solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But since the last election, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased by more than 25,000 and now exceeds half-million people. If continued settlement growth makes a two-state solution impossible, what should United States do? Would you encourage Israel to allow "one-person, one-vote" without regard to religion or ethnicity -- as we do here in the United States -- or would you support denying Palestinians under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank full political rights?
4. Gentlemen: Is the United States doing enough, too little, or too much to address the threat of climate change? If you are the next president, what specific actions will you take to deal with this problem?
(Follow up: Both of you favor increased domestic energy production through new technologies such as hydraulic fracking. But won't lower energy prices just encourage greater reliance on fossil fuels and make the climate change problem worse?)
5. Governor Romney, President Obama: Do you agree with former president George W. Bush's claim that terrorists want to attack America because they "hate our values?" Do you think some terrorists hate us because they angered by what they see as illegitimate U.S. interference in their own countries?
6. Do you believe Japan has a valid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? If the current dispute between China and Japan leads to a military confrontation, what would you do?
7. Both of you are men of faith, and your religions both teach that all humans are fallible. If so, then U.S. leaders must have made mistakes in their handling of foreign policy, and maybe even committed acts that were unjustifiable and wrong. Are there any other societies who have valid reason to be angry about what we have done to them? If so, how should we try to make amends?
8. The United States has the world's strongest conventional forces and no powerful enemies near its shores. It has allies all over the world, and military bases on every continent. Yet the United States also keeps thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready to deter hostile attack.
Iran is much weaker than we are, and it has many rivals near its borders. Many U.S. politicians have called for the overthrow of its government. Three close neighbors have nuclear weapons: Pakistan, India, and Israel. If having nuclear weapons makes sense for the United States, doesn't it make sense for Iran too? And won't threatening Iran with an attack just make them want a deterrent even more?
(Follow up: You both believe all options should be "on the table" with Iran, including the use of military force. Would you order an attack on Iran without U.N. Security Council authorization? How would this decision to launch an unprovoked attack be different from Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941?
And finally, an individual question for each candidate:
9. Governor Romney, when you visited Great Britain last summer, you were criticized for saying that there were a number of "disconcerting things" about Britain's management of the Games. Yet the Games turned out to be a splendid success. How did you get this one so wrong?
10. President Obama: if you could go back to 2009 and begin your term over, what one foreign policy decision would you like to take back?
I think a few questions like that would liven things up considerably, don't you?
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Wednesday night's presidential debate is about domestic policy, but that doesn't mean the candidates can't be asked questions that use foreign policy to raise an important point about domestic issues. Pivoting off this recent column by the Boston Globe's Derrick Jackson, here's the question I'd like moderator Jim Lehrer to ask President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney on Wednesday.
"Since 9/11 the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars protecting Americans from "global terrorism." Yet the number of U.S. citizens killed by terrorists is very low. Since 9/11, in fact, the United States has lost on average fewer than 32 citizens per year to terrorist violence. Even if you include the 2,689 lives lost on 9/11, the annual average over the past 11 years is less than 275. And 9/11 was clearly an anomaly.
By contrast, every year more than 30,000 Americans are killed by guns here in the United States, a rate higher than any other advanced industrial country. Given that extraordinary death toll, why have both of you failed to speak out about the need for more effective gun control, even after several recent mass killings? As president, what will each of you do to decrease the danger Americans face from domestic gun violence, which is far greater than the risk they face from global terrorism?"
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A recurring theme in this year's presidential election is (fear of) American decline, with both candidates seeking to convince voters that they will reverse recent trends and foster an American resurgence. President Obama portrays himself as having repaired some of the self-inflicted wounds imparted by the Bush administration, and he pledges to do still more if reelected. For his part, challenger Mitt Romney promises voters that electing him will ensure that the next 88 years will be an "American Century" just like the last one. Both pitches seek to exploit the lingering fear that America's best days are behind us.
This is hardly a new concern. Americans seem to have been fretting about losing their mojo ever since World War II. We worried that communism was on the march in the 1950s, saw Sputnik as a grave challenge in the 1950s, and feared becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant" (to use Richard Nixon's phrase) in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Americans grew anxious about "Japan as #1" and thought we might succumb to "imperial overstretch" that same way Britain had. There was a brief burst of triumphalism following the collapse of the USSR, but it barely lasted a decade. Since 2000, the combination of 9/11, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lingering effects of the financial collapse have reanimated the perennial fear that we are in an irreversible descent.
How seriously should we take this issue? Let's start by acknowledging that measuring the power of different countries is a very imprecise business, even among professional IR scholars. We don't have a clear consensus on how to define or measure national power, so we end up using various crude approximations like GNP or more complicated indices that combine GNP, population, military strength, technological capacity, etc. But such measures ignore geography, "soft power," national cohesion, quality of life, etc., and all the other intangibles that can help states to secure their interests and provide both safety and prosperity for their citizens.
Matters get even more complicated when we shift from power to "influence." Power is most usefully conceived as capability -- no matter how it is measured -- and stronger states can generally do more things and affect others more than weaker states can. But having a lot of power doesn't translate directly into influence, which is the capacity to get others to do what you want. Sometimes very powerful states can't convince weaker states to do their bidding, because the weaker powers care more about the issue in question and are willing to make greater sacrifices to get their way. And sometimes even very powerful states lack the capacity to dictate or shape events because the tools they have available aren't up to the task. Having a lot of power doesn't enable a country to defy the laws of physics, for example, or guarantee that it can successfully engage in large-scale social engineering in a distant foreign land. Among other things, this is why it is pretty silly to criticize the Obama administration for failing to "control" the Arab spring, as if any U.S. president has the capacity to control a vast and fast-moving social upheaval involving hundreds of millions of people.)
When we think about power, there's an inevitable tendency to look at trends over time. The question we tend to ask is whether Country X is getting stronger or weaker. Here in America, this approach is usually accompanied by a nostalgic yearning for some by-gone era where the United States was supposedly near-supreme and could do whatever it wanted. Leaving aside the obvious point that things were never really like this, the history of the past century does tend to make Americans more worried than they ought to be.
Why? Because there have in fact been a couple of historical moments when a combination of good fortune and skillful policy put the United States in a highly unusual position of primacy. The United States produced about 50 percent of gross world product in 1945 and had unmatched military power, mostly because the other major economies were mostly in ruins. This was a decidedly unnatural condition, however, and there was nowhere to go but down once the rest of the world recovered from the war. Similarly, the breakup of the USSR and the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s briefly put the U.S. back on top by a significant margin, and all the more so because other potentially powerful countries (e.g., Japan and the EU) had been free-riding on the US and were punching below their weight.
The point is that relative decline from these two lofty perches was essentially unavoidable, and especially because some less-developed countries like China, India, or Brazil were ideally positioned for rapid growth after 1990. America's relative decline was accelerated by Bush's blunders and the financial crisis, but it would have happened anyway regardless of who had been in the Oval office.
There is another way to think about America's power position, and it ought to give comfort to those who worry that the country is slowly sliding into a position of vulnerability. Just compare the U.S. to other countries today, and ask yourself which states are in the best position to defend their true vital interests (as opposed to all those optional objectives that great powers habitually take on). Which states are masters of their own fates to a considerable extent, instead of having to worry constantly that others might threaten their independence or territorial integrity? Put differently: If you were going to be put in charge of any country's foreign policy, which country would you pick?
From this perspective things still look pretty good for the United States. It still has the world's largest and most diverse economy, and its per capita income is much higher than China's, which means there is more wealth available to mobilize for shared national purposes. It has no serious enemies nearby. It has thousands of nuclear weapons, which means that no state could attack us directly without risking its own destruction. U.S. conventional military forces are far larger than needed to defend American soil, and that remarkable level of territorial security allows U.S. leaders to take on lots of discretionary projects in places like Afghanistan or Yemen or the Phillipines or Africa or Colombia or Libya and to have endless debates about whether we ought to be taking on even more.
The U.S. economy isn't doing great, of course, but it is performing better than most of the other industrial powers. And despite the current level of partisan rancor and a level of government dysfunction that ought to embarrass us all, there's virtually no risk of major political upheaval here.
If all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy. The main reason American foreign policy looks difficult is because Washington keeps taking on really difficult objectives, like occupying Iraq, trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style state, attempting to coerce Iran into giving up all nuclear enrichment in exchange for precisely nothing from us. And that's just for starters. No matter how strong you are, you can make your job more difficult if you consistently try to do things that are both very, very hard and not necessarily all that important.
Now consider how the world looks to some other countries. If you were a member of China's leadership, you'd be deeply fearful of an economic slowdown that might trigger a major challenge to communist party rule. You have border disputes with many of your neighbors (some of them close allies of the mighty United States), and there's a least some risk that some of them might turn hot. You're dependent on trade that flows through a variety of maritime choke points. You have more power and more influence than your Maoist predecessors did, but you don't have any powerful allies and you don't have an attractive ideological model to offer the rest of the world. From a geopolitical perspective, you'd be thrilled to switch places with the United States, which has no serious rivals, no border disputes with anyone, and still has lots of allies around the world.
And if you were Japanese, Spanish, Iraqi, Iranian, Bahraini, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, Vietnamese, or Indian, you'd have even more to fret about. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning American "decline," tell them to get a grip and be grateful for the country's good fortune. And while you're at it, remind them that most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary: They result from projects we've chosen to take on rather than ones that have been forced upon us by necessity. That's another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do (though it seems to be mostly the former).
In short, Bismarck may have been right when he said God had a "special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States." Which is not to say we can't make it harder for Him.
It's been a remarkable month for viral videos, hasn't it? There's hardly anything I could add to the blizzard of criticism provoked by the video of Mitt Romney's candid and callous remarks to a group of fat cat Republic donors, so I won't pile on. Well....not very much.
Here's what struck me about this latest incident. Romney is not a stupid man, whatever one might think of his political views or his awkward public persona. He is also a man who has been running for president for more than five years. He has done nothing else in that entire period: He was already wealthy and didn't have to work, and his children were grown. He could spend most of his time mastering the issues, and he could have invited virtually anyone he wished to come in and brief him on any topic he thought was important for a future president to understand. He's had more than enough time to learn the ins and outs of our economic situation, to study the pros and cons of alternative approaches to health care, infrastructure development, and the like, and to bone up on tricky foreign policy issues like relations with China and Russia, counter-terrorism, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this point, there is simply no excuse for his not having clear and defensible positions on these vital issues, and more. It's called doing one's homework.
There's also no excuse for Romney not knowing how to talk about these issues in a way that conveys a sophisticated awareness of where the minefields are. Somebody who really understands our tax system and the nature of government entitlements doesn't tell donors that 47 percent of Americans don't pay taxes and imply they are just mooching off of everyone else. Someone with a halfway decent grasp of what foreign policy involves doesn't land in London and insult a long-standing ally, and then fly off to Israel and offer ignorant remarks about the supposed deficiencies of Arab culture. And even if he truly believes that a two-state solution is no longer possible -- a view that may well be correct -- he would know that presidential aspirants can't say that and then suggest that we just cross our fingers and hope for a miracle down the road. Finally, if Romney is such a great manager and judge of talent, why-oh-why has he saddled his campaign with all those neoconservative retreads? Given their track record, that's like hiring Charlie Sheen to handle outreach to women or putting Bernie Madoff in charge of campaign finances.
Like all of us, politicians sometimes utter ill-chosen phrases or get surprised by an unexpected question. But given how much uninterrupted time he has had to get ready for this election, the frequency of Romney's gaffes is revealing. They don't just expose the ignorance of a man who's spent his entire adult life protected in the bubble wrap of wealth, privilege, and intellectual conformity. What they reveal is either 1) enormous and inexplicable ignorance, 2) a smug and cynical willingness to say whatever he thinks each audience wants to hear, or 3) the iron grip of a world-view that is impervious to evidence.
I'm not sure which possibility scares me more, but it does seem less likely that we're going to find out which one it really is. There's some consolation in that. And for foreign policy wonks, there may even be a bigger silver lining in the death spiral that Romney's campaign may now be entering. The GOP used to be pretty good at foreign policy, back when realists ran the show. If Romney goes down to defeat despite all the factors in his favor, perhaps the GOP will come to its senses and abandon the extremist positions (and the extremists) that have dominated its ranks since the early 1990s. A development like that might even make former Republicans like me think about returning to the fold.
Mitt Romney gave a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention yesterday. To no one's surprise, he accused President Obama of leaking secrets, betraying U.S. allies, coddling dictators, and generally endangering America. The speech was long on rhetoric and innuendo but rather short on policy specifics, and it left me with a bunch of questions that I'd love to ask the GOP candidate. Because I doubt the campaign is going to offer me a one-on-one interview, I thought I'd serve up my top ten questions for Candidate Romney here.
#1. How dangerous is the modern world? Governor Romney: at the beginning of your speech, you said that "the world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic." But an impressive array of social science research shows that the overall level of global violence has been declining steadily. Moreover, the United States spends more on national security than the next twenty countries combined, and most of those states are close U.S. allies. What are the dangers that you are so worried about, and how do they threaten vital American interests?
#2. How will you pay for increased defense spending? In your speech, you said "we are just months away from an arbitrary, across the board reduction [in defense spending]." You referred to this possibility as "the president's radical cuts," but surely you know that it is the result of the sequestration deal that Congress passed last year, in which the GOP was fully complicit. More importantly, you have previously stated that you would increase U.S. defense spending, keep all the Bush-era tax cuts, and simultaneously reduce the federal budget deficit. Can you explain how you will perform this magic, without invoking discredited concepts like the "Laffer Curve"?
#3. In your opinion, why is President Obama still so popular overseas, including most American allies? In your speech, you said the United States must "nurture our alliances," and you asserted that "the president has moved in the opposite direction." To illustrate this, you accused him of the "sudden abandonment of friends in Poland and the Czech republic," based on Obama's decision to deploy missile defenses in a different configuration. Yet sixty percent of the Polish population opposed having missile defenses on their territory, and the percentage of Poles with a "favorable" view of the United States is higher in 2012 than it was in 2008 (under Bush) or in 2009 (right after Obama's election). For that matter, Obama remains a remarkably popular leader around the world. How do you explain this?
#4. Are there any circumstances when you would criticize Israel's actions or use U.S. influence to persuade it to change its policies? You claimed that President Obama has undermined Israel, even though the administration's first U.N. Security Council veto was cast on Israel's behalf and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says "he can hardly remember a better period" of U.S. support. More importantly, do you believe that American presidents should support Israel no matter what it does, including when it expands settlements and evicts Palestinians from more and more territory in the West Bank? Do you think that policies such as these make a two-state solution less likely, and is that outcome in Israel's long-term interest?
#5. What would you do differently about Iran? You said there is "no greater danger in the world today than the prospect of the Ayatollahs in Tehran possessing nuclear weapons capability." As you undoubtedly know, the Obama administration has implemented stiffer sanctions than the Bush administration did, gotten more countries to go along with this effort, and continued to insist that Iran give up its enrichment capability. Obama and his aides have repeatedly declared that "all options were on the table," and the administration conducted a successful covert action program that damaged Iran's enrichment efforts significantly. To repeat: what would you do differently? In particular, at what point, if any, would you order a military strike against Iran?
#6. Will you impose trade sanctions on China? You told the VFW that "we face another continuing challenge in a rising China," and you accused Beijing of permitting "flagrant patent and copyright violations" and manipulating its currency to our detriment. You said President Obama hasn't stopped them, but you will. How will you get China to change its policies? Wouldn't a trade war just damage the fragile U.S. economy?
#7. Is there any real difference between you and President Obama on Afghanistan? President Obama has pledged to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In your speech to the VFW, you said "my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces in 2014." Maybe I'm missing something, but that sounds identical to Obama's plan. You also said you would "evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders." What conditions would lead you to keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014?
#8. Is American power always a force for good in the world? According to your speech, you believe "our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known," and you said that "you are not ashamed of American power." Neither am I, but all humans make mistakes and no country has a blameless record. So I'm wondering if you think there are any moments in American history where our power was misused. For example, do you think the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a good idea? What about the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953? Was it a good idea for Lyndon Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam in 1965? Or do you think our track record is perfect?
#9. What specific steps would you take to prevent leaks from the Romney White House? Your VFW speech says that leaks of classified information are a "national security crisis," and you said that your White House would not do such things. Given how secretive you are about your tax returns and your on-again off-again status as CEO of Bain Capital, I'm inclined to believe that you mean this. But leaks have been a common practice of every White House in modern memory, and Obama has been far more aggressive about prosecuting leakers than all of his predecessors. Will you pledge today to prosecute any member of your administration-including your closest aides in the White House, if they are suspected leaking classified information?
#10. Now I'd like to ask you a hypothetical question. Suppose your good friend John McCain had been elected in 2008, and that he had followed the same foreign and defense policy that President Obama has pursued. Would you still be so critical? To be a bit more specific, imagine that McCain had expanded the use of drone strikes in several places, increased U.S. military strength in the Far East to balance China, located and killed Osama bin Laden, increased military cooperation with Israel and protected it from international censure after Operation Cast Lead and the raid on the Mavi Marmara, orchestrated the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi, ended the war in Iraq according to the terms negotiated by President Bush, tightened global sanctions against Iran, and launched an accelerated global effort to improve nuclear security. If McCain had done all that, wouldn't you be defending his actions, and boasting about how it showed that the GOP was much better on national security issues?
(Oh, never mind.... I don't really expect you to answer that one.)
Like I said, I doubt Romney will agree sit down for an interview with me, and if his campaign to date is any indication, he's going to try dodge tough foreign policy questions for as long as he can. But if he really aspires to lead the country, he's going to have to tell us more about what he would actually do as president. Or as he told the VFW, "the time for stonewalling is over."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Today's jobs report has got to be a real downer for the White House, because it gives Mitt Romney more ammo to make the case that he would be a better steward of the U.S. economy than Obama. I don't think that view is correct, by the way, but winning elections isn't really about who's right or wrong.
If Obama does lose in November, will it be because he made too sharp a departure from the policies of his predecessor, governed the country like some sort of 1960s radical, and in so doing lost the broad support of the American middle? Hardly. If he loses, a good case could be made that his mistake was to act too much like George W. Bush and not enough like Barack Obama the candidate.
To be more specific, he spent too much time and money on Afghanistan, too much time sanctioning Iran (thereby driving up oil prices), too much time picking drone targets, and too much time on a Middle East peace effort that he abandoned as soon as AIPAC & Co. howled. Getting bin Laden was an achievement, but as I noted at the time, it wasn't going to win him any more votes than Bush 41 got for liberating Kuwait in 1991. He got a Nobel Prize because people liked his speeches, but his actual behavior was not that different from Bush's second term. At the same time, he did too little to stimulate the U.S. economy, and too little to constrain an unapologetic financial industry. And I'd argue he spent too much time and political capital getting a modest health care reform bill passed, one that will neither fix the U.S. health care system nor win him many votes in November. (I applaud the ambition, but I'd have gotten the economy rolling first and then done health care). Some of this clearly isn't his fault (i.e., Europe's economic doldrums are not his responsibility), but voters aren't likely to make distinctions like that if economic growth remains sluggish.
As readers here probably know, I'm among those who were genuinely excited by Obama's election and hoped that he would succeed in guiding America onto a different path. Nor have I forgotten what a difficult situation he faced when he took office, and it's unrealistic to expect politicians to be perfect. I'll almost certainly vote for him in November, if only because some of Romney's foreign policy advisors have track records that should worry all of us. And he may still pull it out, because he's a lot more likeable and a lot less gaffe-prone than his GOP rival. But it's going to be close, and a bit more bad news on the economic front will make Barack a one-term president.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
If you are someone who is inclined to favor hawkish responses to foreign policy problems, then your choice for president should be Barack Obama. Not because Obama is especially hawkish himself, or interested in prolonging costly and failed commitments in Iraq or Afghanistan. For that matter, his administration is making a modest and fiscally necessary effort to slow the steady rise in Pentagon spending, and they seem to understand that war with Iran is a Very Bad Idea. (It is of course no accident that military action there is being promoted by the same folks who thought invading Iraq was a Very Good Idea. But I digress.)
So why should hawks vote for Obama? As Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent have argued most forcefully, it's because Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It's the flipside of the old "Nixon Goes to China" meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don't have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government's permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.
The key to making this work, as Andrew Bacevich suggests here, is to insulate the vast majority of the American population from the effects of this effort. Obama understands that there's no stomach for big, costly, and inconclusive wars like Iraq and Afghanistan (he's right, and there's also little to be gained from them). But he and his advisors are betting that the American people will tolerate active efforts to hunt down and kill perceived bad guys, provided that the costs are low and occur far away and mostly out-of-sight. And it is in this context that one has to view recent proposals to give U.S. Special Forces greater presence, autonomy, and capability, an idea that remains controversial within military circles.
In other words, we are engaged in a grand strategic experiment: can the United States make itself more secure by dispatching troops and drones to various corners of the world, with the explicit mission of killing anyone we think might be a "terrorist?" At first glance, this approach certainly looks better than the debacle in Iraq, and it consistent with the "laser-like focus on Al Qaeda" that some of us recommended way back in 2001. But it is not without its own dangers, of which the following strike me as especially paramount.
The first danger lies in the secrecy with which these activities are now shrouded. We don't really know who is being targeted for attack, or what the error rates are. Is it really true that U.S. forces have targeted not just suspected terrorist but also the people who seek to provide medical or rescue assistance after an attack, on the assumption that the rescuers are in cahoots with original targets? How often do we make honest mistakes? How reliable is the information on which targeting is being conducted?
The second danger -- "blowback" -- follows from the first. What if we end up creating more new terrorists than we kill? What if aggressive efforts to hunt down Al Qaeda in Pakistan ends up destabilizing the nuclear-armed Pakistani state and convinces lots of people there that the United States is inherently hostile? Are we going to understand that such hostility didn't emerge solely because these people "hate our values," but rather because a cousin, brother, or fellow countrymen was targeted by an American drone, and maybe in error? The less we know about what U.S. forces are doing, the harder it will be for us to understand why some people don't like us that much.
A third danger is imitation. There is every reason to assume that other states, as well as some non-state actors, will decide to follow us down this particular path. The United States used to say that it opposed "targeted assassinations," but now we we are legimitizing this practice and others are bound to get into the act too. Similarly, by paying less and less attention to the old norm of sovereignty, we are making it more difficult to object when other states start interfering in each other's internal affairs. If we can send drones and/or special forces into any country we choose, why can't other states violate national borders in order to advance some policy objective of their own? What are we going to say then?
Fourth, is this a temporary expedient or a slippery slope? A case can be made that Obama's approach is a smart response to the dangers posed by Al Qaeda and its progeny, and that his policies reflect a temporary necessity. In this view, groups like Al Qaeda arose in a particular historical and political context, and they are gradually being attrited by an increasingly precise and effective strategy. If you believe this, then you might also believe that eventually the war on terror will be won, and that eventually we will be able to ratchet back these activities, shut down Guantanamo, rescind the Patriot Act, get rid of those demeaning scanners at airports, and cut back or quit those drone strikes. One could even argue that what we are really seeing is a last flurry of activity as we exit Iraq, prepare to exit Afghanistan, and start pivoting toward East Asia.
I'd like to believe that, but as Bacevich suggests, it is at least as likely that we have entered a new phase in American strategy from which it may be difficult to extricate ourselves. The problem is that we have these new capabilities (i.e., drones), and Obama and Bush have established the precedent of a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to warfare that keeps most of what we are doing in the dark. My fear is that future presidents are going to find those capabilities and that precedent very hard to resist. When hammers (drones?) are cheap, it's tempting to buy a lot of them and you'll tend to see a world full of nails. Drug lords in Mexico causing trouble? Let's just take 'em out. Tired of Hugo Chavez and his shenanigans? We've got an app for that. Sickened by the carnage in Syria? Let's give Assad and his underlings the same treatment we gave Ghaddafi. And so on. But most actions generate unintended consequences, and I suspect that trying to be the global policeman -- or in the minds of some, the global vigilante -- on the cheap may be a decision we'll eventually regret.
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I have a confession to make: I haven't been paying all that much attention to the presidential primary season, mostly because most what's happened so far strikes me as irrelevant to who the next president will be. I see it the same way I see the first few weeks of the baseball season: occasionally entertaining for die-hard fans but not very meaningful, because what really matters is who makes the playoffs and gets into the World Series (i.e, the "general election"). And because this year's GOP field has been filled with a number of wingnuts with no chance whatsoever of winning the nomination, I've found it even easier to bide my time and wait for things to shake out.
The recent hoopla attached to the Iowa caucuses is a case in point: because the preferences of a tiny subset of self-selected voters from a distinctly unrepresentative state aren't a bellweather of anything. Iowa got rapt attention because news organizations want to sell papers and attract listeners and because pundits can't help bombarding us with breathless narrative about What It All Means.
For these reasons, I also haven't said anything about Ron Paul's candidacy, although Andrew Sullivan has recently highlighted a series of exchanges on whether Paul's candidacy is actually harmful to broader argument for a more restrained, non-interventionist foreign policy (a topic I do think is quite important). I've never though Paul was a credible candidate, however, because his views on a host of other issues are frankly silly and because he has done a poor job responding to questions about the racist associations he's had in the past. In other words, even if Paul has some sensible things to say about foreign policy, he carries way too much baggage to win the GOP nomination, let alone the general election. And to be completely clear: I wouldn't vote for him, at least not based on what I know now.
That said, I'd make a couple of points about Paul's candidacy, and especially his take on America's addiction to global adventurism.
First, despite his bizarre views on the gold standard, climate change, social security, and the like, Paul has put his finger on a number of issues that could resonate broadly with the American people, especially if discussion were not monopolized by think tanks and insiders who are strongly committed to the status quo. Unlike most foreign policy "experts" in both parties, Paul believes the United States is an extraordinarily secure country, with a robust nuclear deterrent, no powerful enemies nearby, and at present no major power rivals of much significance. He instinctively rejects the paranoia and worst-casing that has convinced Americans that we need to roam around the world trying to remake it in our image (a task, by the way, that we're not very good at). He believes that excessive interventionism and other failed policies are a primary cause of anti-Americanism around the world, and that the United States would be more popular and safer if we focused more attention on trade and diplomacy and domestic issues instead of emphasizing military dominance and overseas meddling. He believes that a bloated national security state and a quasi-imperial foreign policy inevitably fosters greater government secrecy and erodes traditional restraints on executive power. And like former president (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower, he thinks the current military-industrial complex wields excessive influence on our politics and has become a self-perpetuating engine for counter-productive meddling abroad.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.