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Does Obama Have a Foreign Policy Edge?

It is a fact of political life that the 2012 presidential election will not turn on foreign policy. Unless something terrible happens between now and November, the focus of most voters will remain on the country’s failing economy. That’s probably okay with Mitt Romney because, unlike most Republican nominees in recent decades, prowess in foreign policy and defense issues are not among his strengths. According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, Romney’s inability to delineate strong points of disagreement with President Obama’s policies is not only a sign of the GOP standard bearer’s weakness but an indication that the incumbent can go to the people claiming to be a success on foreign policy. Though Brooks is right to characterize Romney as having done an inadequate job of articulating his foreign policy vision, his praise for the president is undeserved.

Brooks likes the fact that, for all of his hope and change rhetoric when first running for re-election, President Obama has proved to be no bold visionary on foreign affairs. The columnist believes ours is a time when nuance and a grasp of the complexities of a changing world are paramount. But contrary to Brooks’ belief, most of what we’ve gotten out of Washington since January 2009 is not smart power but muddled policies that are the product of indecisive thinking and a lack of principle. Though the president’s record is not without his successes (as you may have heard, he killed Osama bin Laden), on the big issues of dealing with the nuclear threat from Iran, a resurgent and authoritarian Russia, China and the Middle East peace process, Obama must be judged a thorough failure.

Brooks seems enamored of the ambivalence at the heart of many of the president’s foreign policy stands, but that says more about his own confusion about the issues than it does about the administration’s genius. In particular, he seems to think that Obama’s attempt to kick the can down the road on Iran is wise. Brooks deserves credit for stating that this is the president’s clear intention, as the administration and most of its apologists and cheerleaders have bitterly disputed that this is the case despite the overwhelming proof that the White House’s goal is simply to prevaricate on the issue until after the November election. But the Times columnist’s belief that “the delicate dance” that is the president’s excuse for a policy is “useful,” is hard to defend.

Having wasted most of his term on feckless attempts to engage the Iranians and futile diplomacy, all he has appeared to accomplish is to convince Tehran that he isn’t really interested in taking action and is just hoping that something will turn up that will relieve him of the obligation to do something or, as is more likely, to excuse his continued inaction.

Far from “moving aggressively to defeat enemies and to champion democracy,” he has done neither. Even Brooks concedes that his decision to stay and fight in Afghanistan, a stand that deserved praise, was fatally undermined by his setting a date for the withdrawal of American troops that made it clear to the Taliban that all they had to do was to survive until the bug out commenced. As for democracy promotion, this is a point on which the president’s intent to differentiate himself from his predecessor has been heard louder than anything else. It has been decades since we have had a president who was less interested in human rights than Obama, as his disgraceful refusal to back dissidents in Iran showed. Rather than the Arab Spring highlighting the president’s skill, his characteristic ambivalence has resulted in the United States getting the worst of both worlds. Traditional authoritarian allies have fallen without Obama getting the credit while anti-democratic Islamists who hate America and present a profound threat have achieved power. While Libya may be credited as a success (at least for now) for Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy, in Syria it has been a disaster as a far more dangerous country appears on the brink of civil war. The fact that the president touts a destructive force such as Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as his favorite foreign leader tells you everything you need to know about Obama’s misguided approach.

The Middle East peace process is another area where again Brooks must admit that Obama took a difficult problem and made it far worse. By distancing himself from Israel, he encouraged Palestinian intransigence and alienated America’s ally, leaving the region in worse shape than before.

As for Russia, where Brooks sees wisdom, observers who are less enamored of the president can only see appeasement and indecision that, again, alienated our allies and emboldened the Putin regime to believe it can thwart American interests with impunity.

This is a record that seems to speak more of failure than success. One can applaud the president’s willingness to use drones to kill terrorists while still understanding that this is no substitute for a coherent vision of how to deal with threats. Mitt Romney needs to speak out more on foreign policy and give us a better idea of what he will do differently other than not bashing Israel (though this is not a minor point). If there are votes to be won on foreign policy, President Obama does not deserve them.


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