Foreign policy in the U.S. presidential elections

By Jonathan Power

The US presidential election, if it goes according to Mitt Romney’s script, will not centre on foreign policy, although he is happy to suggest a tougher attitude to Iran, Russia, Palestine and China. But President Barack Obama will make it a key item in his script.

He will focus on his successful decision to kill Obama bin Laden and decapitate much of Al Qaeda’s leadership. He will make much of the US withdrawal from Iraq and his plan to be out of Afghanistan by the year after next. By election time he hopes to have an agreement with Iran on nuclear enrichment so as to head off the Iranians’ ability to make a nuclear bomb and an Israeli strike. He will emphasise the US’s good relationship with China, his substantial nuclear arms’ deal with Russia and his other work towards non-proliferation. Both countries have joined with the US effort to persuade nuclear North Korea to disarm and to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Not least, he will welcome the Arab Spring pointing out that the US policy of quietly (although belatedly) supporting regime change in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and, most important, Egypt has paid off. On Israel and Palestine he will try to dilute the fact that he has failed to make progress while making it clear that the US is right behind Israel, a viewpoint that goes down well with many voters.

Adding that up produces a formidable list that will make Romney’s foreign policy message look thin.

But looking at the electoral calculation is to miss much of the point. Obama has a very mixed bag of results even though after the presidency of George W. Bush he has significantly changed the attitude of US policy.

Further nuclear arms’ cuts with Russia are on hold although Obama did tell President Dmitri Medvedev that if he is re-elected he will work towards another round of cuts. He has made little progress with North Korea. At the moment negotiations with Iran are seemingly running into the sand.

His policy towards Israel seems to have been naïve, allowing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to checkmate him on the crucial issue of stalling more settlements. A deal between Palestine and Israel seems light years away. The most that can be hoped for is that Palestine with European Union aid will continue with its fast economic growth.

In Afghanistan Obama clearly failed to turn the tide in the central government’s favour despite his misconceived “surge” of troops. US negotiations with the Taliban seem to be stuck, even though it is pretty clear that it won’t take the Taliban long to take over once US and Nato troops leave. It is fair to ask what does the US think it is doing when the initial target because of 9/11 was Al Qaeda. The policy of trying to bring democracy and social change to Afghanistan was not on the agenda and it has not had great success even after eleven years of war. That agenda should not have been changed.

By switching much of the war to Pakistan, despite his success in killing Al Qaeda terrorists hiding out there, he has alienated many, furious at the killing of civilians by drone attacks and charged the batteries of the country’s Islamist militants who now set the pace in Pakistani politics despite only winning 5% or less at the polls. The corrupt, inefficient and self-serving government has effectively been destabilised which could well lead to yet another military coup.

This is a big part of the reason why the polls in the Arab world have shown a rapid fall in support since their high at the time of Obama’s great speech in Cairo near the beginning of his presidency which appeared to promise a lot. With the Arab Spring it is difficult to claim a role since it has been self-generated and, in the case of Libya, the one direct military intervention (with the UK and France taking the lead) was ill thought out since the opposition to Mohammar Gadhaffi seems to be at each other’s throats.

It has certainly been counterproductive with China and Russia who felt that in supporting the West in the UN Security Council they were deceived- Nato went far beyond its UN mandate in its use of force. This is one important reason why China and Russia are being cautious about Syria now (not that Obama to his credit wants to use force).

Finally, the closing Guantanamo. Obama has broken his promise although he has been able to forbid the use of torture. But for this he can rightly blame Congress which made it impossible for him to close the prison and bring those accused of terrorism to trial on the mainland.

Better than Romney for sure, but if he was being considered for the Nobel Prize today he probably would not have been awarded it.

© Jonathan Power 2012

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