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.
That apparent incapacity to learn from mistakes was on display this past weekend when the New York Times broke its story about an agreement between the administration and Iran for direct talks following the election. Both sides have now denied it, but the Times isn’t exactly backing down and I can’t entirely blame them for that. The administration’s ambivalence — the sources were all reportedly senior Obama officials — seems based on a justified concern that they were being caught showing some post-election “flexibility” that might undermine the president’s electoral hopes. But no matter how many denials are issued — and the Iranians can always be counted on to talk out of both sides of their mouth on such things — does anyone really doubt that the administration has been begging Tehran for such talks for years and is eager to strike some sort of unsatisfactory compromise with them that would allow the president to claim victory and then move on while the Iranians prepared to emulate North Korea?
This points out the president’s inability to understand that four years of comical “engagement” with Iran followed by years of half-hearted sanctions and futile efforts to persuade them to give up their nuclear ambitions have not worked. Even worse, they have convinced the ayatollahs that the president isn’t serious about stopping their nuclear program and can be counted on to go on allowing them to buy time with pointless negotiations until the day when they can announce they have achieved their goal.
Issuing “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear development would have showed that the president had learned from his mistakes, but his stubborn refusal to do so and his pretense that everything he has done has only strengthened his weak hand with Tehran doubles down on his errors. Though Romney is called a neocon for calling for a tough line on Iran, establishing America’s credibility on the issue is exactly what is needed after four years of weakness.
The Middle East peace process is another example of how the president seems to have no awareness of how his errors in which he undermined Israel helped encourage Palestinian intransigence and make a resolution of the conflict even more unlikely. The president’s inept response to the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist governments in the region also betrays no willingness to reassess a muddled record. As the Libya fiasco showed, merely killing Osama bin Laden is not only a poor substitute for a foreign policy, it also tells us nothing about the administration’s faltering response to a revived al-Qaeda.
Elsewhere, the president’s passionate pursuit of favor with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China yielded nothing but more contempt from these regimes. The president’s hot mic moment in which he promised to be more flexible with Russia stands as a clear warning of what a second Obama administration will do.
Romney is right to assert that America’s military pre-eminence must be maintained and that strength is the best way to avoid conflict, but it is also fair for to ask whether he has learned from Bush’s mistakes. An even better question is whether Obama has learned from his. Based on everything we have seen and heard in the last year, the answer seems to be no.