Throughout the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, President Obama acted as if he knew he was behind in the race. Indeed, listening to the two men throughout the 90 minutes, it often sounded as if he was the challenger trying to chivvy the incumbent into a brawl rather than the man asking the country for four more years in office. His goal was to try and brand Romney as a reckless extremist. But try as he might, he failed to do so. Despite interruptions and attempts to turn even the points they agreed upon into disagreements, Obama wasn’t able to throw Romney off his game or embarrass him. By contrast, it was Romney that looked and sounded presidential, avoiding issues that work to the Democrats’ advantage like Afghanistan and refusing to be ruffled.
Romney stated differences with the president on the Middle East and faulted the president for being late on Syria and Iran and for apologizing for America. But on the whole his goal seemed to be to appear as a credible president rather than a fiery Obama critic. Where Obama sought to have another night of nasty scuffles like those that dominated the second debate, Romney had another goal entirely. His point was to sound knowledgeable about the issues, to talk about ideas and principles and to strike a reasonable tone even where he had strong criticisms of the president. While the Democrats keep insisting the president is ahead, he acted as if he is losing and in desperate need of a knockout punch. The absence of such a blow mixed in with a few strong moments for Romney made for a frustrating night for the president and an outcome that would have to be scored a draw on points. Judging by the president’s demeanor, it looked as if he knew that wouldn’t be enough.
The most effective argument for President Obama in tonight’s foreign policy debate is consistent with the one the Democrats have been using as their all-purpose cudgel against Republicans this year: George W. Bush. Bush has been the president’s alibi on the economy as he continues to blame his predecessor for the country’s troubles on his watch. But on foreign policy, naming Bush is an offensive rather than a defensive stance since it allows the president to label his challenger as someone who would repeat the mistakes made by the 43rd president. To a country that is weary of 11 years of conflict in Afghanistan and shudders at the memory of the conflict America left in Iraq, calling Romney another Bush and calling his advisors “neocons” who are his “puppet masters” may be an effective, if somewhat unfair and misleading argument. But the real question on foreign policy is not whether the United States will invade any countries in the next four years, since neither man is likely to do that. Rather, it is whether they can learn from the mistakes made in the last decade made by both of the last two administrations.
Romney’s inherent caution makes him unlikely to be trigger-happy when it comes to foreign interventions that are now seen in retrospect as unfortunate. But invading countries is not the only sort of mistake a president can make. While Romney will be careful not to fall into the traps that undid Bush, it remains to be seen whether President Obama is capable of learning from the mistakes he has made in office, especially in the Middle East.
Much of the country will be watching tonight’s presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida. Both sides are playing, as they have before each of the previous two encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney as well as the vice presidential tangle, the expectations game. And on an evening that will be devoted to foreign policy, both the president and his challenger are primed to exploit each other’s weaknesses and will hope to be proclaimed the victor by the spinners and the media. But if the polls are any judge, the odds are not much will be altered by the debate no matter which man comes off better.
Last week’s second debate was scored a clear victory for the president due to his livelier performance and Romney’s mistakes in the town hall format. But unless you believe the one outlier poll (Investors Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll), there doesn’t seem to have been any bounce for the president as a result of his getting the better of Romney. That means that even if Obama can repeat the same trick tonight, with Romney continuing to blunder, it probably won’t make a difference. That leaves us with the question as to why the first debate earlier this month in Denver proved so decisive. Was it that it was really more one-sided for Romney than Obama’s win at Hofstra University? Though it was, that doesn’t seem to be the answer, since if it was just a question of a margin of victory then Obama would have gotten more out of the second debate than he received.
The flood of opinion polls that are being published this week continues to provide a confusing picture of the presidential election. But there is one thing about them on which most people agree: President Obama does not appear to have gotten a bounce in the wake of the second presidential debate. Even the most optimistic of liberal pundits, such as the New York Times’ Nate Silver, whose “Five Thirty Eight Forecast” is still sticking with the president to win in November, concedes that it’s “hard to make the case that the polls have moved much toward Mr. Obama since Tuesday night’s debate in New York.” While he is hopeful that even a slight nudge toward the president could alter the race this late in the game, there’s little reason to believe this is the case. Nor is there any doubt that the only game-changing event in the last six weeks was Mitt Romney’s performance in the first debate in Denver. It was at that point that the polls started shifting in the Republican’s direction. Though Romney made a number of mistakes in the second debate and Obama put on a better show after a drowsy performance in Denver, the electorate was largely unmoved.
No debate bounce means it is even more unlikely that the third debate to be held on Monday in Boca Raton, Florida will move the needle much no matter what happens. Though each camp hopes for a rout for their man, Obama’s failure to gain ground after the encounter on Long Island means a bounce of any size for the president or Romney after the third debate is not in the cards. That’s bad news for Democrats who are still looking for something that will alter the direction of a campaign that has been steadily looking worse for them this month.
Both parties agreed upon the terms and rules for the presidential debates. But right now, the Obama campaign has to be kicking itself for going along with a schedule that devoted the last of the three encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney to foreign policy. The Democrats have acted as if security and defense issues were a strength for them throughout the year, but it’s doubtful that the president thinks a foreign policy pitch is his best closing argument for the American people with only a couple of weeks left before the election.
That’s not just because the Benghazi terror attack has compromised the president’s stance as the man with an impeccable security record, but also because a debate that doesn’t allow him to deploy his class warfare and “war on women” themes is one that isn’t likely to help him pick up the votes he needs to secure re-election. Even worse, it gives Romney an opportunity to recoup his losses from the last debate in which he flubbed a question on Libya that he should have been able to use to hammer the president. While Democrats may hope the president repeats his aggressive performance from the second debate rather than his lackluster first debate, Monday night’s topic is a handicap that comes at just the moment when he needs a game changing victory to reverse Romney’s momentum.
This Pew Research Center poll was conducted the weekend after the first debate, but the overview was just released today. It found that Mitt Romney has significantly cut into President Obama’s 15-point lead on foreign policy, and now trails by just four points:
The national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Oct. 4-7, 2012 among 1,511 adults, including 1,201 registered voters, finds that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney run about even on most foreign policy issues. On the question of who can do a better job making wise decisions about foreign policy, 47% of voters favor Obama and 43% Romney. This represents a substantial gain for Romney, who trailed Obama by 15 points on foreign policy issues in September.
Some of Obama’s slide may have to do with the Benghazi attack. While respondents were split how the administration handled the attack, a plurality of independents disapproved. The more closely respondents followed the news, the more likely they were to disagree with the administration’s response:
Twenty years ago, when still a young college student reconsidering early plans to become a research biologist (a C- in organic chemistry helped that decision along considerably), I interned at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. In an age before Google and when Internet resources were few and far between, one of my jobs was to go to the University of Pennsylvania’s library and read through the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) and the Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS).
For five decades beginning in 1946, FBIS would translate important newspaper articles and television and radio broadcasts from around the globe. Its corollary, JPRS, would translate journal and magazine articles. The U.S. government would recoup some of the cost of the operation by selling subscriptions to think tanks and universities. On an almost daily basis, FBIS and JPRS would mail out booklets sorted by region. The subscriptions were priceless for anyone who for research purposes wanted to read what the Soviet, Chinese, North Korean, Pakistani, or Cuban media was saying.
Anyone who worried Mitt Romney would be overly cautious or avoid taking strong stances during his foreign policy speech today was proved wrong. Romney delivered a substantive critique of Obama’s Middle-East policy, and outlined his own strategy, including some bold positions on Syria and Afghanistan. The best soundbite of the speech, “hope is not a strategy,” will surely be a theme the campaign hammers home between now and the election. This is more than a catchy line; it’s an encapsulation of Obama’s Middle-East policy. In the Arab-Spring countries, democracy needs to be guided, supported, and encouraged. And yet Obama has seemed reluctant to use U.S. influence on this front.
Today’s speech indicated that this would be very different under a Romney administration:
America can take pride in the blows that our military and intelligence professionals have inflicted on Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the killing of Osama bin Laden. These are real achievements won at a high cost. But Al-Qaeda remains a strong force in Yemen and Somalia, in Libya and other parts of North Africa, in Iraq, and now in Syria. And other extremists have gained ground across the region. Drones and the modern instruments of war are important tools in our fight, but they are no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East.
At the New York Times, Danielle Pletka writes that Mitt Romney needs to do more than simply criticize President Obama’s mistakes during his foreign policy speech today. He needs to provide an alternative vision, which he’s been reluctant to do so far:
Mr. Romney can make the case that when people fight for their freedom, they will find support — sometimes political, sometimes economic and sometimes military — from the American president. When Russians and Chinese demand accountability from their governments, we can stand with them and work with their governments to further common interests. When terrorists target us, we will not simply eliminate them with drones while ignoring the environment that breeds them. And when our allies look to us for support, we will help them fight for themselves.
Criticisms of Mr. Obama’s national security policies have degenerated into a set of clichés about apologies, Israel, Iran and military spending. To be sure, there is more than a germ of truth in many of these accusations. But these are complaints, not alternatives. Worse yet, they betray the same robotic antipathy that animated Bush-haters. “I will not apologize for America” is no more a clarion call than “let’s nation-build at home.”
The Romney campaign has been oddly mute on the questions surrounding the Benghazi attacks, giving the political media yet another excuse to ignore the story altogether. But now that the Obama administration’s narrative on Libya has collapsed and the drumbeat of questions has started getting louder, the Romney campaign seems finally to be picking up the issue. The candidate penned an op-ed on Middle East policy for the Wall Street Journal today, and his campaign is slamming the White House over its conflicting story on Libya:
Ryan Williams, Romney campaign spokesman, said in a statement: “The Obama White House and the Obama campaign can’t seem to get their stories straight on the attack on our consulate in Libya. This morning, they offered conflicting stories on if and when the President thought the attack in Benghazi was a terrorist act.”
“These inconsistencies raise even more questions about the confusion and mixed messages that have marked the White House’s response from the very beginning,” Williams added.
With the presidential debates coming up and foreign policy emerging as an issue in the election, CNN’s Global Public Square blog has asked a panel of historians and writers to weigh in on the following question: “Who was the best foreign policy president?” There are not many surprises–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush appear prominently. (Realists love Herbert Walker, and their votes for him can best be understood as a begrudging acceptance of the success of the Reagan administration he served without having to actually grit their teeth and name him.)
FDR and Reagan are fairly obvious choices, and not bad ones: Nazism and Communism are generally considered the twin evils of the 20th century, and each presided over the defeat of those ideologies. But there is someone else who deserves at least honorable mention, if not a nomination for the top spot himself. For although FDR and Reagan served decades apart, one president played a significant role in the achievements of both men, and whose foreign policy outlook eventually became the consensus: Harry Truman. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the Truman Doctrine, and it’s worth taking a stroll through his presidency and its legacy.
Such is the nature of the 24/7 news cycle that you might think last week’s attack on the U.S. embassies in Libya, Egypt and Yemen had occurred sometime during the Eisenhower administration. The overwhelming attention devoted to Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” video story in the mainstream media has seemed to relegate the impact of the unraveling of American foreign policy in the Middle East to sidebar status. The disproportionate attention the liberal media has given Romney’s video may damage his campaign, but let’s not be deceived into thinking that this week’s story trumps last week’s or at least consigns it to be merely dropped down the memory hole.
The widespread attacks on American outposts in the region are a sign of what had already been obvious to serious observers: President Obama’s four-year effort to ingratiate the Arab and Muslim world has been a dismal failure. It’s not just that the president’s hubristic belief that his personal iconic status could change views about the United States have proven to be so much more self-delusion. It’s also that the White House’s unwillingness to accept that al-Qaeda is alive and well and planning terror attacks on vital U.S. targets — warnings about which have been ignored — in countries like Libya illustrates that the “Bin Laden is dead” mantra asserting the triumph of Obama’s foreign and defense policies is largely fiction. Last week’s attacks were emblematic of a catastrophic chapter in the history of American foreign policy. By comparison, Romney’s gaffe is a mere footnote to the story of this year’s presidential campaign.
It was fascinating to watch the Democratic Party try to seize the upper hand on national security last night, a predictable strategy that the Romney campaign brought on itself. By mainly treating foreign policy as an afterthought, Mitt Romney is ceding this ground.
For many Republicans, the most surreal moment of the night had to be when Obama chided his opponents as “new…[pause for audience laughter]…to foreign policy.” If that rankled conservatives — who probably recalled that just the other day Obama was a freshman Senator running for president with almost zero foreign policy experience under his belt — that was the entire point. The Democratic base could probably care less how many terrorists the Obama administration has killed, but the Obama campaign is looking to knock the GOP off its game, forcing it to compete on territory it usually commands.
What’s been missing from the Republican National Convention? On Tuesday, nine hours worth of speechifying brought hardly a mention of the primary responsibility of any president: foreign policy. That was corrected on Wednesday night with a brief bout of isolationist sentiment from Kentucky Senator Rand Paul who gave a skim milk version of his father Ron’s extremist philosophy. That was quickly followed by an address by 2008 GOP nominee John McCain who gave an impassioned defense of the importance of American leadership in the world. That McCain spoke for the overwhelming majority of Republicans was not in doubt but other than a brief film after that which highlighted Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel (which had to drive the Israel-hating Paulbots present crazy), that was it for foreign policy. The next speakers returned to familiar themes bashing ObamaCare and we heard no more about defense spending or the president’s abandonment of America’s freedom agenda and our allies. No doubt, Condoleezza Rice will say more about it later but the low priority accorded the topic is not in question.
There’s no doubt that fiscal issues will decide the 2012 election. Given the dismal state of the economy that’s understandable. But no matter what they say before they are elected, all presidents soon learn that their ability to deal with domestic issues largely depends on their ability to manage Congress. Foreign policy is the president’s prime responsibility. And despite the claims of some of his apologists, it is a topic on which the incumbent has done very poorly. Other than killing Osama bin Laden, President Obama has presided over a record of failure abroad in which he has alienated our allies like Israel and unsuccessful sought to appease foes like Russia and Iran.
The Republicans may be just following the polls in ignoring foreign policy, but the nation will be ill served by a campaign where this crucial category is pushed to the margins.
Bret Stephens’ stellar column in the Wall Street Journal today succinctly summarizes President Obama’s record of foreign failures:
His failed personal effort to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago. His failed personal effort to negotiate a climate-change deal at Copenhagen in 2009. His failed efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran that year and this year. His failed effort to improve America’s public standing in the Muslim world with the now-forgotten Cairo speech. His failed reset with Russia. His failed effort to strong-arm Israel into a permanent settlement freeze. His failed (if half-hearted) effort to maintain a residual U.S. military force in Iraq. His failed efforts to cut deals with the Taliban and reach out to North Korea. His failed effort to win over China and Russia for even a symbolic U.N. condemnation of Syria’s Bashar Assad. His failed efforts to intercede in Europe’s economic crisis.
Stephens credits Obama with success in Libya (although the kinetic military operation was conducted in “a reluctant, last-minute, half-embarrassed fashion”), eliminating Osama bin Laden and expanding drone strikes (although the “tawdry efforts to publicize them for political gain will forever diminish the achievement”).
Western analysts and political scientists will be learning lessons from the Arab Spring for a long time. But among the most important and immediate was the revelation that the cynical core assumptions of realist foreign policy were disastrous for the region and the West. The mirage of stability lured president after president, all the while helping to stifle democracy, education, and women’s rights. The inevitable and violent end of that “stability”–which of course was anything but–has finally reset the Western outlook on dealing with the newly emerging regional power brokers.
Or has it? Freedom House’s David Kramer and Charles Dunne aren’t so sure the West isn’t about to relapse. Egypt’s foreign policy, under its new Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, is adapting to new realities—and so should Washington’s, they write in the American Interest:
First, bedrock principles should guide U.S. policy, and we need to be clear in public and in private what those principles are, stressing the importance of institutions versus personalities. The United States must stand firmly on the side of basic human rights, especially those of the most vulnerable, including women and religious minorities, and uphold freedom of the press, expression and association. It is particularly important that the United States press the Egyptian government to liberalize the environment for civil society and end its prosecution of international non-government organizations for their efforts to help Egyptians as they work toward democracy; investigations into domestic NGOs should also be ended. There must be rewards for advancing the political transition and real consequences for pushing it back.
The United States must also engage broader segments of Egyptian society and politics. The temptation is to pay too much attention to traditional political elites as well as President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as they seek to consolidate power, but that is a mistake. The U.S. needs to reach out consistently to young activists and liberal and secular parties; however feckless they might seem now, their ideas on democracy and governance were the ideological underpinnings of the revolution against Mubarak and have been broadly, if tacitly, accepted by wide swaths of the Egyptian body politic, including the Muslim Brotherhood. They will continue to play a significant role in Egyptian politics.
Back in May, I wrote about how President Obama had his name dropped into the official White House online biographies of other presidents going back to Calvin Coolidge, to attempt to share credit for their accomplishments. The Heritage Foundation’s Rory Cooper was the first to notice the changes when he saw the administration’s added note to Ronald Reagan’s biography in order to misrepresent Reagan’s tax plan as basically his own, which was quite far from reality.
Then a week ago, Jim Roberts, who works for Heritage and the Wall Street Journal on the jointly produced Index of Economic Freedom, noticed another oddity: the Obama State Department has been removing the comprehensive “background notes” on other countries in favor of brief, far less informative, descriptions of the countries’ relationships with the Obama administration. Roberts, who has worked for the State Department writing background notes in the past, said he was in the process of going through this latest messianic presidential prank-on-history, and has published this morning at the Wall Street Journal what he found.
Mitt Romney’s foreign policy address at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention today rehearsed some of the themes he has been trying to promote throughout the campaign. Romney got a standing ovation when he mentioned President Obama’s habit of giving apologies for America “that were not due” and also scored points on the topic of White House leaks of classified information and the administration’s “shabby” treatment of Israel. But in his survey of the country’s standing abroad, his strongest point was his highlighting of the president’s failure to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
Though President Obama continues to promise that Iran will not go nuclear on his watch, this is the one foreign policy front on which Romney’s attempt to pose the “are you better off than you were four years ago” question gives him a clear advantage. While the Republican candidate’s critique of the president’s announcement of a withdrawal date for all U.S. troops from Afghanistan is well-taken — and prompted an angry pushback from the president in his VFW speech yesterday — Obama is probably right to count on a war weary public to give him a pass on the advantage he has handed the Taliban. But the Iranian nuclear threat, which Obama has met with feckless “engagement,” futile diplomacy and belated and half-heartedly enforced sanctions, is an issue on which his position is difficult to defend. The question is, did Romney offer a coherent alternative policy? The answer is a qualified yes.
Yesterday, at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Obama did his best to defend his foreign policy record as well as to denigrate Mitt Romney’s positions despite never mentioning his name. Though much of the speech was the usual tribute to veterans delivered by public officials at such events, Obama was at pains to refute the one specific criticism that Romney has made about the administration’s conduct in Afghanistan. Obama claimed that his announcement of a withdrawal date for American troops there was necessary because, “When you’re commander in chief, you owe the troops a plan. You owe the country a plan.”
But as with much of Obama’s laundry list of alleged accomplishments, this assertion leaves out the messy details about what happens when you announce in advance when you’re going to bug out of a war: the enemy finds out along with the American people. The Taliban may have been pushed back during the surge the president ordered, but he let them know all they had to do was survive until U.S. troops pulled out in order to prevail. As is the case in Iraq where, against the advice of many of his own advisers, the president withdrew all American forces, he is confusing U.S. withdrawal with the end of the war. The timeline he defended doesn’t conclude the conflict; it gave the Islamist foes who are seeking to reverse the hard-fought victories gained by U.S. troops confidence that they would win out due to the president’s lack of staying power.
While the president covered himself with praise for his “leadership” abroad, an honest look at the situations he touted as illustrating his genius paints a different picture.
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.