Governor Mitt Romney has a real opportunity to win Monday night’s foreign-policy debate with President Barack Obama. But to prevail, he will need to disregard the suggestions of some of his neoconservative foreign-policy advisers, who are out of touch not only with international realities but also with the realities of American politics.
Accusing the man who is justly credited with ordering Osama bin Laden’s killing and with ousting the Qaddafi regime in Libya of being a weakling who is constantly apologizing for the United States has little traction with most voters, including independents and many Republicans. Similarly, criticizing Obama for “throwing Israel under the bus” and promising to avoid an inch of daylight between Washington and Tel Aviv does not convey tough-minded American patriotism. A commitment to outsource decisions on war and peace to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu may appeal to a small segment of Jewish and evangelical voters, but it is bound to alienate many others in the process.
Instead, Governor Romney should be himself—a pragmatic, results-oriented leader—and tell the real story of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. The truth isn’t pretty. Americans are not only worse off economically after the last four years but worse of internationally as well. And President Obama has failed to fulfill his key foreign-policy promises.
Take Iran. While the Iranian people are suffering from punitive sanctions and the mullahs may feel less secure, Iran’s uranium enrichment has if anything accelerated, and Tehran is closer to having nuclear weapons. And the president’s decision to pursue regime change in Libya, after the Bush administration persuaded Muammar Qaddafi to give up his WMD programs with a “live and let live” understanding, has made war with Iran more likely. Undermining a deal is not a way to build confidence.
At the same time, relations with China and Russia, where Mr. Obama promised new beginnings, are deteriorating. The administration has failed to define clear priorities in either relationship, leaving Moscow and Beijing confused and angry, suspecting that the Obama administration does not take them seriously as important global players and is trying to undermine their domestic legitimacy and stability. As a result, for the first time since Stalin, China and Russia have better relations with one another than with the United States.
In the Middle East, President Obama gave false hope to the Palestinians with a dramatic speech in Cairo, but he failed to follow through. The administration now has a credibility problem on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Once Obama demanded an end to new Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority could settle for no less. Peace talks collapsed as a result.
If the Obama administration threw anyone under a bus, it was not Israel but the friendly Mubarak government in Egypt. Mubarak was an imperfect ally and an even more imperfect democrat. But in the context of regional politics, he was trying hard to maintain ties with the United States and keep the peace treaty with Israel. In fact, his commitment to the treaty and his security policies contributed to the popular backlash that triggered his repressive response. Let me be clear: The Obama administration did not just let Egypt’s less-than-peaceful revolution run its course. It put severe pressure on Mubarak and the Egyptian military not to fight back. America should not side with oppressors, but neither should it casually abandon its allies when the going gets rough.
President Obama has withdrawn American troops from Iraq and is in the process of drawing down troops in Afghanistan, as promised. What he glosses over is that he leaves an Iraq that is neither truly democratic nor truly friendly with the United States. Baghdad not only refuses to prevent Iran from supplying Syria through its territory; it also cannot even be counted on for support if America decides to attack Iran. In Afghanistan, the administration’s surge did not bring military or political advances analogous to the Bush administration’s surge in Iraq. Once American troops are out, the corrupt and inept Kabul government will either collapse or be forced to settle with the Taliban. Alternatively, there may be a protracted chaos with multiple opportunities for international terrorists.
Mr. Obama’s record might best be described using President Jimmy Carter’s immortal characterization of his failed raid to free Americans in Tehran. That raid, said Mr. Carter, was an “incomplete success.” But at least President Carter was embarrassed by his failures; with typical bravado, President Obama portrays his own as successes. Governor Romney should help the American people to understand that the Obama administration’s foreign policy is the same as its domestic policy—a long list of unfulfilled promises—and that it has been implemented in the same highly partisan fashion. If Governor Romney did so, and simultaneously showed the same principled pragmatism on foreign policy that has animated his recent approach to domestic issues, he could deprive President Obama of his pretense of global leadership.
Dimitri K. Simes is president of the Center for the National Interest and publisher of The National Interest.
Image: Gage Skidmore