January 9, 2013

Obama Puts the World at Risk

The perils of a leadership deficit in foreign policy.

The conventional wisdom after the election, especially after the last debate, is that there was little light between President Obama and Mitt Romney on foreign policy. Maybe Romney wanted to arm the Syrians and declare the Chinese currency manipulators, but he and Obama hugged each other on policy toward Iran and—because Romney never raised the issue—the administration’s response to the Benghazi attack.

But that conclusion would be incorrect. The foreign policies of Obama and Romney, or what is now the loyal opposition, could not be wider apart. Obama’s foreign policy is inordinately piecemeal, even picayune. It lacks a vision that draws connections between specific issues, such as terrorism, and the broader American interest to protect and promote freedom. The loyal opposition, by contrast, connects the dots between terrorism and authoritarian challenges to American and global freedom. 

  the moral case for romneycare 2.0 by scott atlas  
  Photo credit: Matt Ortega

A Clash of Visions

The foreign policies of Obama and the loyal opposition diverge in three areas.

First, they differ in vision. Obama likes to say that his approach is pragmatic. And it is. But pragmatism is reactive, not proactive. Obama addresses problems as they come up, simultaneously and separately. He articulates few priorities and no overall vision of where he is taking the United States or the world. He wants to end America’s involvement in wars and expects other countries to step up as America steps back.  But if China steps up and Europe doesn’t, what then?

Obama disconnects and downsizes threats. In Iraq he declared “mission accomplished” and left, even though Iran, which is right next door and presumably the biggest threat in the region, has now moved into Iraq to solidify support for the Shiite regime and to supply arms to jihadists in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. In Afghanistan, Obama incrementally downsized America’s goal from defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban, to weakening the Taliban, to negotiating with the Taliban to rejoin the government—which is how 9/11 started, right?

He targeted and killed specific terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden—immunizing his otherwise feckless foreign policy—but in the process created a bigger problem, a destabilized Pakistan.  In Iran, he seeks to stop the development of nuclear weapons but is negotiating secretly with Tehran to stop simply the public announcement of nuclear weapons. He is ready to accommodate an Iranian nuclear capability as long as Iran doesn’t declare it has nuclear weapons.

By contrast, Romney had an overall vision. He did not flesh it out fully, for fear of frightening a world-weary American public. But he instinctively understood that while Al Qaeda and Iran are serious threats, they will not become existential threats unless Russia and China use them to undermine U.S. influence and interests around the world. He identified Russia as America’s biggest problem. And he was right, especially in Europe and the Middle East. Russia pocketed Obama’s concessions on NATO missile defenses and on a New START agreement that cut U.S., but not Russian warheads, and then stiffed Obama on Iran and Syria. Russia said no to crippling oil and financial sanctions on Iran and is helping arm the Syrian government. Romney, at least, wanted to push back by arming the Syrian rebels.

In Asia, Romney identified China as a currency manipulator. He sensed that, while China’s currency behavior is not the heart of the matter, China is. Beijing backs North Korea and, with no provocation from U.S. policy over the past four years, threatens neighbors throughout the region with militant claims to islands and resources in the South and East China Seas. Reactively, Obama has “pivoted” to Asia but the loyal opposition knows that this is too little too late.

Force and Diplomacy

Second, the foreign policies of Obama and the loyal opposition differ in means.  Obama’s foreign policy is long on diplomatic ambitions and short on force to back up those ambitions. The president addresses every diplomatic hot-spot on the planet, sending special envoys to the Middle East, Iran, Afpak, Sudan, and North Korea, among others. Meanwhile, he cuts defense spending, which might be needed to implement such initiatives.

In fairness, defense cuts were coming, as were troop withdrawals. But Obama makes the cuts with no apparent regret or planning. He did not visit the Pentagon until January 2012, three years into office, and then he announced new strategic defense guidance that ended the two-war doctrine of having capabilities adequate to fight simultaneous wars in two regions. That this guidance undercut both Obama’s policy toward Iran as well as his new pivot to Asia did not seem to be noticed. Where are the forces coming from to reassure Asian allies? And if forces are drawn from the Middle East, where is the threat to back up sanctions on Iran or support for Israel if Iran gets nuclear weapons?

Romney worried about defense cuts and sensibly proposed ship and manpower increases that could potentially cover simultaneous conflicts in two separate regions. He seemed much more aware that successful negotiations require military back up, not just as a last resort after negotiations fail, but as a way to cut off options for adversaries outside of the negotiations and provide fuel for bargains inside of the negotiations.

For example, why give Russia concessions before negotiations start, by scaling back NATO missile defense plans, and then give it concessions again during the negotiations, by agreeing to warhead levels that do not require them to cut? It would have been much better to threaten to go ahead with NATO missile defenses until Russia agreed to deeper cuts or included tactical nuclear warheads. Now Russia demands another round of rescissions in NATO missile plans before it agrees to include tactical nuclear warheads. What exactly is Obama offering Russia, given that the elections are over and, as he promised Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, he has more flexibility?

Domestic Policy vs. Foreign Policy

A third area in which Obama and loyal opposition foreign policies diverge is the link between the domestic economy and foreign policy. Not only has Obama reduced existing resources to back up his ambitious diplomacy, he has failed to revive the American economy and generate new resources for the future. Here is the biggest difference between the foreign policies of Obama and the loyal opposition.  Obama has no credible policy to spur growth. His strategy of massive spending increases, higher taxes, compounding regulations, indefinitely loose monetary policy, and testier trade policies has not worked to produce prosperity. And without growth and new resources, you can forget any expectations for foreign policy initiatives, ambitious or reactive.

Romney had a strategy that would have quickly revived investment and growth. He offered tax and regulatory relief along with tax and entitlement reforms. Eager for such certainty, businesses were ready to unload the enormous cash reserves they hoard on their balance sheets; but now that Obama has won, we are back to the class warfare and fat-cat bashing that defined the past four years. Obama’s rant about balance and fairness was neither balanced nor fair.  He never offered entitlement cuts; indeed he created a new entitlement—Obamacare.  And his idea of fairness is to demonize business success.

The major differences in foreign policy between Obama and the loyal opposition boil down to one word—leadership. Leadership offers vision, connects means and ends, and rises above politics. Obama has demonstrated no capacity to do any of those things, either in Congress or in the world community. The optimistic view is that he will do so now because he no longer faces reelection. But that seems unlikely. If you have won two elections as a state senator, one as a U.S. senator, and two as president, and you still have no significant accomplishments to show for it, it’s doubtful that your leadership skills will suddenly emerge in what is presumably your last four years in office.

Maybe I am wrong, and I hope so. And even if I am not, our country will certainly survive. But the world is at risk. I doubt that other countries will step up to stop Russia and China from exploiting the advantages they hold outside of negotiations while they talk endlessly inside negotiations. Russia is expanding its influence in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, Iran, and, as the United States leaves, central Asia. China is doing the same in North Korea, the Taiwan Strait, Pakistan, and along the first island chain in the Pacific. Someone has to be there to limit their options.

Meanwhile, American allies are restless, especially Israel and Japan. They know that if America retreats, it will be a game changer in their respective regions. Yet Obama appears to be doing just that. He is playing it fast and loose on the diplomatic scene as the U.S. economy idles and military resources are withdrawn from around the world. The little light that pundits saw between Obama’s foreign policy and that of his opposition in the recent election is about to become a glaring gap, as America drifts and instability around the world increases. 


Henry R. Nau was a national fellow for 2011–2012 at the Hoover Institution.


Letters to the editor may be sent to definingideas@stanford.edu. Editors reserve the right to reject or publish (and edit) letters.