So Mitt Romney went ahead and decided to hit Barack Obama in the one area everyone knows is his weakest point, the one area where the public might still turn him out of office. You know, the economy jobs the deficit bailouts foreign policy (really?):
“The president characterized as bumps in the road — the developments of the Middle East, we just had an ambassador assassinated. Egypt has elected a Muslim Brotherhood or person as president. Iran is on the cusp of having nuclear capability,” Romney said in an interview with NBC News. “We have tumult in Syria and also Pakistan, and I don’t consider these bumps in the road. I think this is a time for American leadership domestically; the president’s policies are a continuation of the past four years. We can’t afford four more years like the last four years.”
Which is well-timed for this survey to come out:
Americans trust the federal government to handle international affairs more than at almost any point in nearly a decade, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday. The poll, conducted from Sept. 6-9 as part of Gallup’s annual Governance survey, showed that 66 percent of the 1,017 polled have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the federal government’s ability to handle international problems, higher than at any point since mid-2003. Only 33 percent claimed that their faith in Washington’s ability to handle foreign affairs was “not very much” or “none.”
Thirty-three percent–that’s really just the hard partisans there. Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy is decidedly lower than 66%, but the poll nonetheless shows no public dissatisfaction at all with the direction of foreign policy, at least none that is exploitable by Romney since he presumably has all the people who have a problem with it locked up. And yet he continues to waste his precious time trying to bust down a door that might as well be made of neutronium.
I suppose I should discuss why it makes sense he wouldn’t abandon this critique. Campaign strategy is set and executed based on assumptions. You start with polls and focus groups to give you an approximation of what Joe Sixpack is thinking, and since that’s not perfect you use intuition and political acuity to try to fill in the gaps. For Romney to change his strategy on foreign policy would involve changing his assumptions (since he’s clearly not going based on what the data tell), which is something that he and his staff are probably not all that willing to do. They’re invested in these assumptions, professionally and personally. One of those assumptions is that the public is deeply offended by the way Barack Obama comports himself on the international stage, a “flaw” they press relentlessly. Part of this theme’s premise is no doubt the influence of Dan Senor, who in addition to being one of the most notorious screw-ups of the Bush years is apparently one of Romney’s closest aides, even advising him on non-FP subjects like his vice presidential choice. Something tells me this guy isn’t going to shrug and pivot to a platform of pure realism, or even studied vagueness. He’s the very definition of a stand-patter when it comes to hawkery.
And the results have been disastrous. Assuming that Senor is the one pushing Romney to take these stands so frequently and aggressively, he’s managed to put Romney at a far weaker position relative to Obama on foreign affairs than his domestic people have, where it’s more or less even (which is still pretty bad under the circumstances, mind you). His campaign in the latter case has been heavily evasive and abstract, likely by design. But the results have been nothing like foreign affairs, where muddling along has apparently never been an option. It’s impossible to know how many votes Romney has lost with this shtick, but it’s not impossible to gauge how much time has been lost because Romney feels the need to continually go on the attack on an issue stacked heavily against him, rather than on one where Obama is shaky. Refocusing his campaign on economic issues at this point would seem to be imperative, but it appears that Romney could not care less about those issues. Instead, the “No Apologies!” act gets another engagement, rolling forward mostly due to bureaucratic inertia like the Bay of Pigs invasion. This is merely the latest bad decision dictated by a bad strategy developed by tone-deaf political dummies, and in the highly likely event Romney loses in six weeks, one will have to wonder whether the apparent strategy of seizing on any statement that could possibly be construed as a foreign policy misstep absent context and howling about it was really a smart decision in a country where only 1/3 of the public has a problem with the status quo.
Thank goodness he’s a far worse politician than any of us could have imagined.
I just don’t think this is going to happen:
“Bottom line, I think Netanyahu is frightened and scared, and feels that the fate of Israel rests on his shoulders. This is not all a show. In addition, I think he feels he is helping Romney by whipping up Israeli-US tensions. He understands Romney is in bad shape and thinks he is making things uncomfortable for Obama this way.”
Of course, Liel says, this is a high stakes game of risk. For now it appears Obama is likely to win the election, “and then there will be the price to pay. Not on Iran. Those differences will disappear after the elections, but on every other issue, Obama will exact his revenge.”
For example, “Obama will not lift a finger to support Israel when the Palestinians request to be recognized as a sovereign state at the UN, and we will lose 150 to 15.”
Agreed on Iran. There’s no reason to believe he won’t follow his stated course there, stupid as it might be, though I agree with Emily that Iran isn’t about Iran. As for the last point, anything’s possible, but I find this extremely unlikely. Obama ordering Susan Rice (or whoever replaces Rice should she ascend to become Secretary of State) to abstain from a veto on a Palestinian sovereignty resolution would not only mark a dramatic U-Turn, it would be an optimal mixture of bad politics and bad policy. Ultimately, a UN Resolution is merely a piece of paper–Palestine’s future as a nation is contingent upon Israel granting it, and there’s no reason to think the UN would make the Netanyahu government more likely to enter negotiations. The Resolution would be interpreted as a slight and an insult domestically, which would benefit Netanyahu politically, a man well versed in exploiting such situations because he learned how to do so from the best (i.e. Republicans). It would, in fact, most likely be counterproductive, strengthening the hand of settlers and colonists by making Israel even more internationally isolated. So Obama would have to take on a shitstorm of political controversy (including much of his own party’s Congressional wing) for something that would bring literally no benefit. Nothing Obama has done suggests he would take such an action merely out of pique, he’s not that petty or stupid.
In fact, while it’s hard to deny that Netanyahu is trying (and largely failing) to play a role in the presidential election, doing so will not have many direct consequences for him. Even if Democrats retake the House, there’s no way foreign aid to Israel gets cut or eliminated. While a second-term Obama would not have to face the voters again, both left- and right-wingers forget that he would still face constraints, including his own party’s Congressional Wing, which is far more AIPAC-friendly than its base (though there are, to be sure, some AIPAC supporters there too). I suppose it’s possible that Obama could order his UN Ambassador to abstain from vetoing some Israel-related resolutions, but even that might not happen. Antagonizing the pro-Israel types without really gaining anything elsewhere strikes me as bad politics, and again, while Obama’s thinking on many areas has been fuzzy, he’s given no indication that he even disagrees with the AIPAC contingent on this stuff.
No, the most likely scenario going forward is the status quo, only one in which Netanyahu’s complaints and suggestions are ignored by John Kerry’s State Department. Considering Netanyahu’s actions currently and for the past three years, the Obama Administration will have to conclude that they cannot trust the PM and that it will be impossible for them to have any kind of relationship with him, which is likely correct. Considering that Netanyahu is probably going to continue as PM after he faces the voters next year, it means a few more years of wariness and mistrust between the two leaders until one or the other leaves office. This will probably be worse for Israel than the U.S., but it won’t make all that much of a difference. I suppose it’s possible that Netanyahu’s actions in America will weaken his reputation in Israel as an effective politician, as the article suggests, but I wouldn’t expect much more to come of all this.
Via TPM: “Romney managed to insult his British hosts, knocking their management of the Summer Olympics in comparison to his run with the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.” Prime Minister Cameron is none too pleased.
I have no doubt we’re getting a glimpse of Mitt’s foreign policy in advance. Romney has taken some heat both for what he’s said and what he hasn’t on the subject, but there has been some debate about whether he’s just saying it to please the base or whether he believes it. After this incident, it seems pretty clear that Romney just doesn’t have much interest in diplomacy at all. Romney has committed a number of gaffes in this campaign, but typically they’re gaffes where he goes overboard trying to ingratiate himself with whatever target he’s aiming for. Saying that you ran the Olympics better than the current team furthers his campaign’s bizarre belief that his running of the Olympics matters to voters, and insults a long-time ally that he’s supposedly trying to befriend, but there’s no pandering element to it that I’m aware of. My instinct would be to say that Romney’s “credential-burnishing” tour is probably intended to give Mitt plenty of opportunities to be rude to foreign leaders that conservatives don’t like as some sort of weird nationalist play for their affections (which would be sort of a natural follow-through after Romney’s silly VFW speech), except conservatives don’t hate Britain or Cameron. So I don’t make this as pandering to them. Then what? Romney’s gaffe here is one of burnishing his own ego, not of pandering to the group he’s in front of. Which leaves only the interpretation that he doesn’t care about handling foreign policy, outside of the red meat nationalistic parts that he can use to make conservative voters happy. It wouldn’t have taken much effort for Romney not to say this, but he did.
What is deliciously ironic about this is that Romney frequently talks about how President Obama has insulted American allies, which isn’t true of him, but now is true of Romney. Nobody outside the wingularity cared about returning Churchill’s bust or whatever, but to my knowledge no UK leader has never slammed Obama in this kind of way. All the more proof that we ought to expect a Romney Administration to have a foreign policy similar to the one he’s outlined, perhaps combined with some of the fictitious criticisms he’s made of Obama. No wonder he wants to increase military spending!
John Cole turned me onto this:
A small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.
The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.
It’s difficult to know from the article exactly what’s going on here, but it sure looks as though we’re again putting our hands where they don’t belong.
I think the interesting part of Obama’s Middle Eastern policy is how it’s more a refactoring, than a rebooting, of Bush’s. Refactoring, in case you don’t know, is a software term meaning that you change the code to something else that does basically the same thing. For example, maybe you change something in favor of a more elegant design, but you want to preserve the functionality. Obama ended the U.S. War in Iraq, and he says he intends to end the U.S. War in Afghanistan next year. I believe him. But he has shown no intention of ending the U.S. War in the Middle East, and I suspect that Republicans were relatively silent about the former two developments because Obama has substantially increased the level of militarism outside of these specific theaters. I suspect that the medium-range liberal freakout over the Times’s Kill List story a few weeks back had a lot to do with this–the idea that Obama will end the specific, declared, Congressionally-approved wars we stupidly decided to fight, while continuing the non-approved, shadier, morally-ambiguous activities that have become so prevalent in the past three years. And that if soldiers aren’t dying, nobody will pay much attention. Refactoring, simply put.
Obama’s tactics are quite different from Bush’s, as are some of his assumptions. Bush blithely sent troops in harms way based on hunches, while Obama seems deeply resistant to doing so. Of course, doing this is also politically much more perilous. So drones, starting private little wars, and relying on air power have become more prevalent weapons in accomplishing the big strategy here. But the strategy is unchanged–some combination of regime change where possible/applicable, blowback-inducing violence to try to take out the bad guys, all of which seems geared toward transmitting some sort of ideal that simply won’t take if helped along by foreign intervention. Of all the Arab Spring uprisings, the most successful has been Tunisia, in which America had no role. The least successful was Libya, in which America had the most significant role. The jury is still out on Egypt, though it seems unlikely that they’ll blaze a new, liberal trail in the Middle East at this point. Obama seems to have surrendered the realpolitik that he initially offered, in exchange for the same failed redraw-the-map schemes that the Bush Administration failed to implement. I have no idea why this occurred, perhaps the impulse to just do something is irresistible to a domestically-stymied chief executive, especially if all these grand visions seem so achievable.
I’d like to answer this question:
The perception of Bush as inexperienced and unprepared on this front was not wrong. This is arguably more worrisome in Romney’s case because he appears to have no firm principles, which makes him more vulnerable to influence from his advisers, and because he usually has a reputation for being very detail-oriented in his understanding of other subjects. Bush was poorly informed about foreign affairs, but that was a function of his lack of intellectual curiosity. What accounts for Romney’s apparent lack of interest in a subject that he still can’t seem to stop bringing up? I don’t know, but I submit that it’s not a good sign.
I propose that this can be entirely explained by what we already know about Romney. We know already that Romney switched from being pro-choice to being pro-life due to a political need, but that process (as this Slate piece I’ve linked to before suggested) wasn’t one where Romney just decided one day that he wanted to be president and that he was changing his position to win votes. The piece makes it clear that ambition was the driving factor in the change, but not on a conscious level–it’s almost as though Romney supplied the goal and delegated the job of getting there to his brain, while still being able to maintain a consistent throughline.
Why couldn’t he have done the same with foreign policy? Daniel frequently notes that Romney’s complaints against Obama are all from 2009, but doesn’t this make sense if Romney was keyed into FOX News in 2009–a fair assumption–and heard over and over again that Obama was the worst foreign policy president ever and was using rapidly-forgotten detritus like, who knows, the Churchill’s bust incident, and that that was the goal he set his brain to get to? Obama’s foreign policy has hardly been perfect, but it has been perfectly bipartisan, and it’s hard to come up with a single action Obama took on foreign policy that ought to infuriate Republicans on general principle. The only thing that comes to mind are Obama’s intermittent attempts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which do deserve credit from us liberals as they count as one of those points where Obama was willing to swim upstream to accomplish a key progressive goal. But those efforts have not been entirely successful, and thus are of limited propaganda value. What else are you going to bash Obama about? His bipartisan Afghanistan policy? Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Ending the Iraq War? Hell, there aren’t even very many obvious ways to hit Obama on not intervening in other nations’ affairs. He went into Libya, after all. He didn’t go into Iran or Syria (thank God!), so Romney has attacked him on those, of course. But after that, the pickings get thin.
So, the basic problem here for Romney is that he’s tried to perfectly mimic the Republican brand, particularly the FOX News variety. This includes a liberal amount of ignorant hawkery, and constructs a narrative of how Obama is, like, Jimmy Carter times a thousand, unable to face our enemies (USSR Iran), not being nice to our friends (The Shah Israel), and just won’t stop apologizing for America (when?). This narrative only makes sense if you ignore substantial portions of Obama’s record on foreign policy (and add a few things to them that didn’t happen), and the key themes of his record are (1) following through on winding down America’s wars, while (2) essentially continuing all of Bush’s security policies and building on them in several ways (e.g. drones, Libya), and (3) working with Republican and Democratic hawks, rather than, I don’t know, just outright saying we won’t bomb Iran. That’s a mixed bag, though it’s relatively hard for Republicans to argue with on the whole. Ultimately, I suspect Romney cares very little about this on an intuitive level because, as Larison notes, he hasn’t taken even the most basic steps to understand the situation or formulate any real vision. But he will keep shouting about it because he’s talked himself into thinking that the Honduras coup is one of the most important historical events ever, because the pundits on FOX were yammering about it right when he was forming his critiques of Obama for 2012, and he’s responsive to what his electorate wants, to say the least. Sure, Mitt Romney might not feel it matters deep down in his soul, but how could you? Honduras resolved all that years ago, it’s the deadest of horses. But Romney will shout about it for as long as he can. This is just a reminder that the idea that Mitt Romney will be some sort of sober, low-key technocrat in office is quite simply fanciful–a guy who can convince himself of the cosmic importance of such ephemeral twaddle is not someone you want anywhere near power.
You’ve probably heard the news that the Administration is negotiating with the Taliban to end the Afghan War. On the whole, I think this is a very good thing. Yeah, they’re scumbags. We all know that. But thanks to a number of reasons (read: seven years of ineptitude from the Bush Administration), they’re there and they’re not going away, and we can’t defeat them without a WWII-level deployment (and probably not even then). I truly wish Bush had been happy with his one war and had focused like a laser on wiping out the Taliban back when he could, but he didn’t and here we are. And given these parameters, the best case scenario is some kind of negotiated compromise to end the fighting. The media doesn’t seem to know what the big issues are–apparently the Administration has insisted on a few preconditions related to human rights and accepting the Afghan Constitution–and so it’s too early to tell if the ultimate agreement will be any good (or if it’s likely). Still, the prospect of ending the war quickly is tempting, and I could see it being a sleeper issue against Mitt Romney, who has argued many times that we should basically stay in Afghanistan forever. Talk about a good possible contrast for November…
This, though, is another interesting step:
Iran has said it has agreed to talks with six world powers on its controversial nuclear programme, days after the UN confirmed Tehran was producing 20% enriched uranium.
Visiting Turkey, parliament speaker Ali Larijani said he had accepted Ankara’s offer to try to restart the talks.
Negotiations have stalled since a meeting in Istanbul a year ago.
I’m absolutely certain that this will bring up another round of Republican hawks spreading alarmism, accompanied by the public roundly ignoring them and favoring negotiations 2-to-1 in the polls. Still, it’s an interesting situation, and it’s possible that Iran might actually want a deal. Now that they can produce 20% enriched uranium, they have some amount of leverage to get a deal to their liking. And they have some things they definitely want, like lifting of the embargo. Of course, if the hawks are correct and Iran really cares for nothing more than wiping out Israel, they wouldn’t trade anything for their ability to have nuclear weapons, though if that were the case why waste time on discussions? I guess we’ll find out if Iran hawks know what they’re talking about (who wants odds?). In any event, after the recent threats against the Strait of Hormuz, it’s a much better sign, and since both sides have things that they really want and have leverage over the other, who knows?
It’s too early to tell if any of this will go anywhere, but it’s something to hope for. And it’s worth remembering that nothing would come of either in a Romney Administration. I can only hope his obnoxious hawkishness wears poorly with the electorate, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it diminishes once the primary contests are over. I hope Obama makes the most of these chances, and successful diplomacy would help build on one of his strengths, and whatever risk needs to be taken is worth it.
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