Obama: Foreign Policy President?

John Feffer – Co-director, Foreign Policy In Focus; Posted: 04/ 3/2012 7:30 pm


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 will