The slow collapse of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is good news for supporters of President Obama, but it is, nonetheless, at least on the surface, strange. In a period of about a week, Romney has made two statements, one regarding attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Libyaand the other regarding his views of people who receive government benefits that between them paint a picture of somebody who is deeply out of touch with the country he seeks to govern and, more significantly, suggest that he does not have even a basic understanding of how foreign policy or domestic programs work.
The air of invulnerability which surrounded the Putin regime during most of its first decade in power has been replaced by uncertainty. Putin may, indeed, remain in power after the election, but he will have to use means other than personal popularity and a growing economy to buttress his repressive regime. Without these assets, it would seem that Putin is faced with several options: liberalize and allow the opposition to win something, do nothing and hope for the best, or crackdown more to ensure that the regime stays in place for the short term.
The problem the Obama administration faces, both politically and substantively, is that while it has numerous foreign policy accomplishments to which it can point, the whole to which they add up remains less than the sum of its parts. For example, while the killing of Bin Laden is something about which Americans are rightfully happy, and the conclusion of the military effort in Iraq, while almost a decade late and a few trillion dollars short, is also a good thing for the U.S., the overall impact these things have on American security, stability in South Asia or the Middle East or other related issues is less clear.
Every image of a New York City or Oakland policeman abusing his position, every story about how a veteran or senior citizen was injured by one of these policeman, every image of a university police officer casually pepper spraying a few college students doing nothing more than sitting quietly at a demonstration damages the ability of the U.S. to influence people and governments around the world and provides fodder for those authoritarian leaders who would like to ignore American entreaties before killing or beating up demonstrators in their own countries.
Herman Cain's recent inability to demonstrate a command of even the most basic facts and debates around recent events in Libya made Rick Perry's failure to recall which three federal agencies he wanted to abolish during a recent debate seem positively statesmanlike by comparison. Cain, however, is not the first presidential candidate, or occupant of one of the country's highest offices to make the kind of mistake that would embarrass an above average high school student. Vice President Dan Quayle famously advised a young schoolboy to add the letter "e" to the end of the word "potato" during a spelling exercise. Similarly, poor command of the facts and garbled pronunciation were almost a defining characteristic of George W. Bush during his campaign for the presidency.
To a significant extent, the more interesting foreign policy developments in the election do not have much to do with either of the two men who are likely to be there party’s nominees. These developments may also have more bearing on 2016 than 2012. Nonetheless, at least three Republican candidates, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Herman Cain have made statements, or taken positions on foreign policy that could prove important harbingers of the future of the foreign policy debate in the U.S.
U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, and in many regards since end of World War II has rested on several assumptions not about the nature of the world or of the threats facing the U.S., but about the U.S. and America’s perception of itself. Several key components of American foreign policy in its internationalist form including democracy promotion, foreign assistance generally, the unique role the U.S. seeks to play in global security issues, the U.S. military presence in almost every corner of the world, and the emphasis on human rights all are based upon the U.S. viewing itself as both able to make an impact and affluent enough to afford trying.
Defining and assessing the mission in Libya has never been easy because the underlying notion that the role of NATO was to prevent a genocide from occurring cannot easily be determined to have been successful or not. Although genocide has not happened in Libya, there is no way of knowing with any certainty whether one would have happened had there not been an intervention. It is the military equivalent of proving a negative.
In foreign policy, however, Obama has been far less able to manage expectations. Obama has done little to dampen expectations that he needs to to make progress in bringing peace to the Middle East, peacefully remove autocrats from power in Syria, Libya and Belarus, even quicken the pace of democratization in Egypt since the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak. Obama is also expected to resolve problems he inherited, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are still going on with, at best, mixed signs of progress. These expectations are obviously stressed more by critics of the President, but it remains true that Obama is expected to achieve very broad array of foreign policy outcomes.
While Gaddafi’s departure would be a welcomed by policy makers and others in the U.S. and Europe, the question of what the U.S. role in Libya after Gaddafi, and what type of commitment the U.S. is prepared to make there is critical. It is sufficiently important that this should have been one of the major issues informing the decision of whether or not to intervene in Libya in the first place. Recent history has shown us that U.S. and NATO military powers are usually strong enough to oust nasty authoritarian leaders, but that helping those countries develop new and better political institutions, bringing stability and peace is often considerably more difficult. This has clearly been the case in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and could soon be the challenge facing Libya as well.
During the Cold War, the U.S. viewed, and referred to itself, as the “leader of the free world.” This formulation was far more empowering than simply being one of two superpowers vying for world domination. The U.S. sought to present its leadership role as being in the name of freedom, rather than just the U.S. Since the Cold War, this frame has been a problem for the U.S. because rather than being empowering, it forced the U.S. to take on more responsibilities around the world.
The criticism of the intervention in NATO on the grounds that if the west intervenes to stop mass killings in Libya, they should do it everywhere else as well, is troubling because the corollary is that if the west cannot stop mass killing somewhere, it shouldn’t try to do it anywhere. Nonetheless, the intervention in Libya sets a precedent and creates expectations in the region that can create problems for the U.S. and its European allies.
American politics in the post-Bush era have again entered a period where there is, for the most part, a foreign policy consensus between the two major parties. This consensus, however, is not held throughout the electorate creating an opening for a clever White House aspirant who is willing not just to take on President Obama, but the leadership of the Republican Party as well. If this candidate does not emerge, it is likely that foreign policy will remain in the background throughout the 2012 campaign.
The Obama administration’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya has been largely justified on the grounds that the U.S. and its allies were compelled to do this because if left on his own Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi would have killed many innocent Libyans guilty of nothing more than wanting a better life and more freedom. The general outline of this explanation is almost certainly true, but it is not entirely sufficient and leaves too many questions unanswered. Answering these questions is essential for winning enduring public support for this action, developing a strategy for winding down this intervention and for ensuring that it sets a positive precedent for the future.
Although the situation is Libya in 2011 is quite different than that in Iraq in 2003, the way Bush went to war in Iraq still partially framed the decision and options facing the Obama administration in recent weeks. The decision to establish a no fly zone over parts of Libya may or may not have been the right thing to do, but the process for arriving at this decision is different. This time, for example, the administration secured support from key European allies in a collaborative way. Although much of the heavy military lifting will be done by the U.S., the perception that this is truly an allied effort is extremely important.
This tsunami is also illustrative of the unique position in which the U.S. still finds itself in this increasingly multi-polar world, and a reminder that in some important ways the U.S. remains the world’s only true superpower. One way to see this is that the U.S. is the only country that is going to be heavily involved, financially and otherwise, in addressing the two biggest global developments this year, the tsunami and the rapidly changing the Middle East. China, for example, may play a role in helping Japan, but will not be investing any resources in trying to make a smooth transition in the new Middle East. Several European countries will come to Japan’s assistance, but not to the extent that the U.S. will.
Unfortunately, the question of whether or not the U.S. should intervene may not be the most relevant question they face with regards to Libya. The more relevant, and considerably more difficult, question is whether the U.S. can intervene in Libya. More specifically, can the U.S. afford to make a commitment in Libya that is unlikely to be brief or cheap? The question of can rather than should is going to be an increasingly important frame through which to approach foreign policy decisions as we move towards a multi-polar world, one in which the U.S. has far fewer financial and other resources at their disposal.
The first few months of 2011 have been a good reminder of the role of uncertainty in international politics and foreign policy. The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, possible ouster of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya as well as widespread demonstrations in Bahrain, Tunisia, where this all started, Moroccoand elsewhere in the Middle East will likely be among the biggest issues and challenges facing American policy makers for quite a while, and will almost certainly dominate foreign policy questions for the duration of Barack Obama’s time as president.
These developments could have a dramatic effect on global politics, changing political alliances, alignments and regimes throughout the Middle East. A democratic wave, anti-American backlash, strengthened Islamist movement presence, consolidation by new secular authoritarian governments or numerous different combinations of these possibilities are all potential outcomes in Tunisia, Egypt and perhaps elsewhere. At any time, these developments would raise an extraordinary challenge for U.S. policy makers eager to ensure American interests are defended and that human rights and democracy are expanded. The U.S. would also be preparing to become involved in the evolution of new political systems and structures in each of these countries offering money, resources, and expertise. Not surprisingly, these sentiments have been reflected, almost implicit, in much of what the Obama administration has said about these events thus far.
The NATO involvement in Libya continues characterized by an anticipated ambiguity about next steps, overall goals and methods of reaching those goals as well as the real possibility that this timely intervention may, in fact, have saved thousands of lives. The decision to intervene in Libya, while first resisted by the Obama administration has been generally accepted by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington who have disagreed about the timing and methods, but less about the decision itself. While there has been some dissent and criticism of the Obama administration for this decision, most of that has come from the ideological extremes or from ordinary citizens.