Romney’s Critique of Obama’s Foreign Policy Record Is Incredibly Weak
Virtually from the day he took office, the Republicans have been pushing the meme that President Obama is weak on foreign policy. He wanted to talk to the Iranians they say, while ignoring the fact that he made initial overtures to the Iranians that, when rebuffed, led him to double down on the sanctions regime that had been established by the Bush Administration. He apologizes for America everywhere he goes, they claim, even though there’s absolutely no evidence to support that assertion. He has abandoned our alliance with Israel, they assert, even though Israeli officials have consistently said that the strategic and military partnership between the U.S. and Israel has never been better. He’s weak, they argue, even though he has presided over SEAL raids to take out Somalian pirates and kill Osama bin Laden, and has dramatically expanded the anti-terrorist drone program from the levels it was at in the final years of the Bush Administration. On some level, it’s kind of bizarre that they continue pushing this meme despite the evidence against it.
In his column this weekend, Steve Chapman explores this Republican delusion about the President’s foreign policy weakness further:
They are employing a narrative that has worked for them at least since the Carter era: Weakness breeds aggression, and strength deters it. Democrats are weak, and Republicans are strong. When anything goes wrong overseas under a Democratic president, it’s because no one respects or fears him. Otherwise it wouldn’t happen.
Of course, Democrats used to have great success depicting Republicans as the party of Herbert Hoover, whom they blamed for the Great Depression. But they had to give that up after Reagan presided over an economic boom. Reality no longer supported the narrative. Voters knew better.
That’s the GOP’s problem with Obama. He expanded the war in Afghanistan, used U.S. air power to topple Moammar Gadhafi, and rained drone missiles on terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Hmm. Was there something else? Oh, right! He killed Osama bin Laden.
Americans seem to have noticed. In the latest CNN/ORC International poll, Americans trust Obama more than Mitt Romney on foreign policy by a margin of 54 percent to 42 percent.
But in the aftermath of the violent protests this past week, Romney’s campaign reverted to type. “It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values,” he said. His chief foreign policy adviser, Richard Williamson, insisted the demonstrations erupted because “the respect for America has gone down, there’s not a sense of American resolve.”
Really? So why was there a wave of fierce anti-American protests across the Middle East in 2003, as President George W. Bush was preparing to invade Iraq? The State Department was so alarmed it advised Americans to avoid 17 different countries across the region and beyond.
Our diplomats have nothing to fear when we’re strong? Under Bush, there were violent attacks on American embassies in Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India and Turkey. A U.S. diplomat was assassinated in Sudan. Another was murdered in Pakistan.
Those are not proof that Bush was weak or even wrong in his foreign policy. They are proof that the president of the United States is not the Lord of the Universe. Even if he does everything right, nasty developments will ensue.
Chapman also points out that the conservative critique of Obama’s foreign policy, as flawed as it is when it comes to the facts, would also seem to apply to the great advocate of “Peace Through Strength,” Ronald Reagan:
On Aug. 31, 1983, a South Korean airliner flying from New York to Seoul drifted off course and entered Soviet airspace. After tracking the civilian plane for more than two hours, Soviet fighter pilots were told to shoot it down. They did, killing 269 people, including 60 Americans. It was one of the most shocking atrocities of the Cold War.
It occurred during the first term of perhaps the most staunchly anti-Communist president America has ever had, Ronald Reagan, an advocate of robust military power. And how did Reagan respond? He called it a “crime against humanity,” and then, um, postponed some cultural exchanges with the Soviets.
Some of his admirers were aghast at this display, as Steven Hayward notes in his 2009 book, “The Age of Reagan.” New York Times columnist William Safire said Reagan “has acted more pusillanimously than Jimmy Carter.” Polls showed most Americans thought he had done too little, prompting the president to ask, “Short of going to war, what would they have us do?”
Conservatives invariably claim that any show of weakness emboldens aggressors and endangers peace. But just six years later, the Soviet empire collapsed. By 1991, the Soviet Union was gone. Maybe in his restraint, which looked disgraceful at the time, Reagan was acting wisely.
I was a teenager at the time that KAL 007 was shot down, and I remember well the shock and anger that reverberated through the nation when word came out that Soviet fighter jets had shot down a passenger jet filled with hundreds of passengers. It seemed to confirm all of the worst stereotypes about the Soviet Union that the most hard-right anti-Communists had been preaching for decades. Chapman is correct that Reagan’s response to the incident infuriated many people, and not just hard line conservatives. It seemed at the time like an incredibly weak response to a case of outright murder. Reagan was right in his muted response, though. Escalating tensions with the Soviet Union at a time when they were undergoing a leadership crisis — at the time, Yuri Andropov was in poor health and would be dead just five months later — would have been unwise, and it would have likely upset Reagan’s goal of getting the Soviets back to the negotiating table for a new arms control treaty. That didn’t stop many on the right from calling him weak at the time, and they renewed those calls in the late 80s when he and Mikhail Gorbachev worked together to bring the Cold War to an end and reduce the threat of nuclear war. Those critics were wrong, and Reagan was right. Talking to your adversaries doesn’t make you an appeaser, and refraining from chest thumping jingoism in the face of an international crisis doesn’t make you weak.
What’s odder about all of this is that Republicans actually think that trying to portray President Obama as weak will actually work electorally. Poll after poll has shown that the President far outpaces Mitt Romney on the question of who voters trust with regard to foreign policy, and the President’s job approval on foreign policy matters is positive. There’s little indication that the public disapproves of anything that the President has done in the foreign policy realm, and absolutely no indication that they support the more aggressive foreign policy positions advocated by Mitt Romney and the Republicans. More importantly, the argument that the Obama White House has been weak on foreign policy doesn’t strike me as one that voters are going to find all that plausible, especially given the fact that Romney himself has been rather vague about what he would do differently beyond slogans and talking points. More importantly, when it comes to a foreign policy debate with the President, it appears as though Mitt Romney is bringing a pocket knife to a gunfight.