Obama’s Decidedly Unclear Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama came out swinging at last night’s debate, repeatedly calling Governor Mitt Romney “reckless and wrong” on a range of foreign policy issues. But to extend the over-used boxing metaphor, Romney deflected many of Obama’s attacks, didn’t get caught in the corners, counterpunched often enough and relentlessly pivoted to the economy. Indeed, Romney acted, looked and sounded more measured and reserved overall. But let’s look at some of those punches and counterpunches, hits and misses.

Romney began the evening by noting that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess”—an implicit critique of Obama’s drone war, which is a tactic dressed up as a strategy—and that “al Qaeda is not on the run”—an implicit critique of Obama’s post-bin Laden narrative. Romney pointed to Mali and Libya. We can add to Iraq to this list. Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq (AQI) had been decimated and effectively destroyed before Obama’s abrupt withdrawal of American forces. But a year later, AQI numbers some 2,500 fighters and “is carrying out an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq,” AP reports. “The Iraqi efforts to combat terrorist groups have been negatively affected by the U.S. pullout,” said an Iraqi military spokesman.

Obama brandished his “leadership in organizing an international coalition” in Libya. In truth, he famously “led from behind” (which is not leadership). As Britain and France strained to try to do what the United States used to do effortlessly, the White House talked about a “time-limited, scope-limited” mission; the president promised that America’s military would play a “supporting role”; and incredibly—laughably, if it were not a matter of life and death—when NATO asked Washington to extend air operations at one critical point in the mission, a NATO official took pains to emphasize that the extension of U.S. air power “expires on Monday.” Now that’s leadership.

On pure debating points, Obama “scored” when he mocked Romney’s concerns about Putin’s Russia by saying, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” But it probably came across as smart-aleck to many voters. And the more thoughtful ones—the ones who have read about Putin’s massive nuclear war games, his recent decision to end the Nunn-Lugar threat reduction program, his plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes, 400 new ICBMs and 28 new subs in the next 10 years, his grim vision for military expansion into the Arctic—may conclude that Romney has a point.

Romney counterpunched effectively by turning to Obama and saying he would never ask for—or promise—Putin more “flexibility.”

Obama repeatedly talked about his steadiness and clarity in an attempt to paint Romney as unsteady and “all over the map.”  “As commander-in-chief,” he intoned, seemingly reassuring himself with the practiced words, “I’ve learned you’ve got to be clear.”

Well, where to begin?

Was Obama clear when he initially defended Hosni Mubarak—as some in his administration openly called Mubarak America’s friend—and then tossed Mubarak aside when the crowds got too loud in Cairo? What kind of message did that form of clarity send to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and America’s other Arab allies?

Was he clear with America’s NATO allies on Libya (see above)?

Was he clear on Syria? Recall that in announcing his decision to attack Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in Libya, Obama declared, “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy…where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.” That sounds like a fairly accurate description of what has transpired in Syria. And yet Libya’s rebels got Obama’s help, albeit halfhearted, while Syria’s rebels got the back of Obama’s hand. “Imagine if we had pulled out of Libya,” Obama said during the debate, referencing Romney’s reticence about toppling Gadhafi. We don’t have to imagine that, because we can see what staying out of Syria has yielded.

Was he clear in Iran? As the Iranian people rose up against a sham election and as Ahmadinejad’s henchmen crushed the popular revolt in 2009, Obama sat silent. “When the students took to the streets in Tehran and the people there protested,” Romney recalled, “for the president to be silent I thought was an enormous mistake.” The sad irony of the president’s silence as democracy died in Tehran in 2009 was that it answered his own rhetorical question of a year before, albeit in a manner his supporters would never have imagined. “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked during his 2008 rock-concert speech in Berlin. Now we know the answer—and so do the friendless Iranians. They expected more from America.

Was he clear on China? In 2009, Obama envisioned “spheres of cooperation” between China and America, and insisted that “the United States does not seek to contain China.” By 2011, he was proudly unveiling his “Pacific pivot” aimed at, well, containing China. Whether China should be contained (it should) is not the point here; it’s whether Obama’s message “as commander-in-chief” has been clear (it has not).

Was he clear about America standing up for freedom and democracy? In 2009 Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced, “The foreign policy of the United States is built on the three Ds: defense, diplomacy and development.” Noticeably, strikingly, jarringly absent was something every administration since Woodrow Wilson has, at least rhetorically, promoted: democracy.

Was he clear about America’s mission in Afghanistan? Obama famously concluded in 2009 that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” Setting aside the bizarre notion that “our vital national interest” has an expiration date, his tacit message to Hamid Karzai and the ever-dwindling number of Afghan troops willing to fight the Taliban was: Don’t count on us for the long haul. Doubtless, that message was amplified by the president’s hasty pullout from Iraq.

Speaking of Iraq, Romney tried to remind viewers that Obama at least pretended to support keeping a residual force of several thousand troops in Iraq. In a not-so-clever sleight of hand, Obama kept repeating Romney’s call to keep troops in Iraq (which was accurate) without conceding the point Romney was making (which was also accurate). In fact, Obama’s commanders and Obama’s own vice president—“ I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” Vice President Joe Biden said in 2011, referring to a status of forces of agreement to cover a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq—as well Iraqi military commanders and State Department officials, counted on a force of perhaps 20,000 to help provide security and training. As Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained, “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” But Obama, no doubt with an eye on the U.S. political calendar, offered a residual force of just 3,000 troops—a force not even large enough to protect itself. When Baghdad balked, as Kagan reports, “The White House then dropped the matter entirely and decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year, despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.” That’s worth repeating: “no military commander supported” a complete withdrawal.

When asked about America’s role in the world, Romney talked about defending freedom, leading, standing by our allies (noting Obama’s sad record in Poland and Israel) and standing by our principles (noting the missed opportunity in Iran).

Obama answered by retreating into a litany of poll-tested talking points for his inward-looking base, mentioning “nation-building here at home,” declaring that “our alliances have never been stronger” and promising to “hire more teachers.” (Even Bob Bob Schieffer had to interject, “Let me get back to foreign policy.”)

But Obama would not be deterred. He said he would “put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges.” What a patronizing, small thing to say. There is no dishonor in building bridges or roads or doing any kind of work that is ethical. But to say that his plan for veterans—the avengers of 9/11, the liberators of Iraq and Afghanistan, the hunters of bin Laden and Zarqawi, the defenders of our homeland, the protectors of the global commons—is to have them build bridges reveals what he thinks of these men and women. They have done everything their country has asked of them. They are the strongest, smartest, most lethal and yet most restrained military in history. And their commander-in-chief wants them to fill potholes.

When asked about defense spending and defense cuts, Romney answered with a thoughtful statement of the federal government’s main responsibility, explaining that he would “get rid” of programs “we don’t absolutely have to have” so that we can put resources into programs that we absolutely need—namely, national defense. After all, the Constitution calls on the government to “provide for the common defense” in the very first sentence; then grants Congress the power to declare war, “raise and support armies…provide and maintain a navy…make rules for calling forth the militia…provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the militia”; authorizes the president to serve as commander-in-chief; and discusses war, treason and America’s enemies in Article III. On the other hand, the Constitution says nothing about retirement pensions, social safety nets, stimulus programs, health care or education.

Romney expressed concerns about the Navy shrinking down to its smallest size since 1917, the Air Force growing older and smaller, the two-war strategy being jettisoned by Obama—and was right to do so: According to Air Force Magazine, the average age of the active-duty air fleet is 20.4 years; the average age of the bomber fleet is 30.3 years. Right now, the Navy is trying to stretch a 10-carrier fleet to do the work of 12 carriers. And as The New York Times reports, rather than being able to fight and win two wars in different regions, Obama’s plan for a military with fewer resources and a smaller reach calls on the Pentagon only to be capable of “denying the objectives of—or imposing unacceptable costs on—an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” That’s not an insignificant difference.

What Obama fails to understand is that the two-war strategy gave the military resources to carry out other important missions—missions that are less intensive than full-blown conflicts against nation-state rivals: counterterrorism ops in the Philippines and Abbottabad and Somalia, air wars in Libya and Kosovo, counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa, freedom-of-navigation maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz and South China Sea, humanitarian rescues in Japan and Haiti. In other words, the two-war strategy gave the Pentagon and the commander-in-chief a tool box full of resources that could be used in several ways. As the number of tools in the toolbox diminishes, the number of missions the Pentagon can perform will as well.

Revealing the worldview of poli-sci professor, Obama explained that “We spend more on the military than the next 10 countries combined.” Of course, the next 10 countries don’t ask their militaries to do what ours does. But Obama didn’t stop there. He offered a pedantic, petty comment about the military having fewer “horses and bayonets” than in 1917. “We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them,” he sneered. “We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities?”

Again, his smart-aleck comment is better suited for a college debate class than a commander-in-chief. By the way, numbers do matter. Just ask CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis, who requested an extra aircraft carrier to send a deterrent message after Tehran had threatened to attack U.S. ships in the Strait of Hormuz. That request was denied because the extra carrier was needed in the Pacific. There weren’t enough ships.

In his offensive against defense spending, Obama even declared, “We need to be thinking about space.” This is the same man who canceled the space shuttle’s successor program—a program that was endorsed by bipartisan majorities in Congress and presidents from both parties—and flat-lined NASA spending.

That takes a lot of chutzpah, but Obama had plenty last night. In his priceless closing statement, Obama criticized the “record deficits” of the previous administration and promised to reduce the deficit, pursue energy independence and cut spending. Again, this is the same man who added $5.3 trillion to the national debt in less than four years, regulated coal to death, blocked oil drilling permits and the Keystone XL pipeline, and ballooned federal outlays with $1.8 trillion in new stimulus and ObamaCare spending.

On Iran, Obama boasted about his success in building an international sanctions coalition. “We made sure all countries participated,” he intoned, applauding himself for “painstaking” work. In fact, “all countries” are not participating. Japan, South Korea, China and India—some fairly important countries—are all still receiving oil from Iran.

Obama suggested that his intelligence agencies would “give us a sense of when [Iran] would get breakout capacity.” So, the same intelligence community he is scapegoating for Benghazi, the same intelligence community that failed on North Korea’s nuclear detonation and the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein’s WMDs is going to be able to tell us when the mullahs are on the verge of nuclear capability?

During his flurry on Iran, Obama also hit hard—and low—on Romney’s visit to Israel, wrapping himself in the Holocaust and declaring, “I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers” while touring Israel.

If Romney wanted to score a cheap point, he would have hit back at Obama with something like, “No, Mr. President you only attend fundraisers after deadly attacks on our diplomats.” But Romney wasn’t out to score cheap points. He wanted to show the center of the country that he was up to the task of being commander-in-chief. We will soon see if he succeeded in this goal.

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  • pierce

    If this does not prove to the American people that we don't need 4 more years of an Obama administration, then I don't know what does. Romney was very clear and decisive as to his objectives are, and to that end, very Presidential.
    If this is not a case for a land-slide victory, then I don't know what is. Congratulations on great article Alan Dowd.

  • ross1948

    By all means focus on the Middle East, but South East Asia remains important, tho not to Obama! http://rossrightangle.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/sh

  • Schlomotion

    I think that Mr. Dowd is just indignant that the Republicans have not cornered the market on tough military talk in this round of debates. In long term history, the Republicans would pose as being tougher on defense, and in recent history the Neocon/Likudniks would try to out-ape that with recycled Cold War rhetoric. In this election we have a President and a Vice-President who are savvy about military issues, and they called Romney's weak bluff. I am not saying they are better candidates. I am simply speaking to the tone of this article which is that Mr. Dowd thinks that he has a superior political and military education and that this leads to the "obvious" choice of Mitt Romney. Frankly, Mr. Dowd is guided by motivations entirely separate from the national interest, including his allegiance to a foreign power.

    • EVAbeliever

      Schlopoke: you can't write a single comment without a hint of your anti-Semitic feelings! It colors everything you write and reveals you to be a pathetic excuse for a human being.

      • Schlomotion

        Fortunately, American politics and Americans feelings don't concern you. I was speaking about a nice little political problem in my own country. When I need help from abroad to choose my own Presidential candidate and give my demeanor a make-up job, I'll call ya.

        • Galveston

          DON'T call any of us you sick loser, we'll call you

          • Schlomotion

            Some of you have already.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

            Schlo, you are so shallow.

            Do you think you know how we 'really' think about you?

        • Omar

          American politics to concern us. The Muslim Brotherhood's memorandum of trying to infiltrate America also concerns us, but it doesn't concern you. Flipside, you happen to support leftist/Islamist propaganda. Do us a favor and keep your ignorance to yourself.

          • Schlomotion

            I think I know better what's happening in America than some kooky people from the UK who flip out every time somebody calls England England. We managed to keep England out of the US just fine. I think we can keep Saudi Arabia out.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

            Schlo, you don't have a clue.

            The crowd in Denver for Romney is a better indicator of our complete rejection to Obama's kneeling and bowing to islamic values and leaders.

          • Omar

            First of all, I don't live in the United Kingdom. I live here in the United States. Second, yes, the UK should be called the UK because that is the proper name for that country. We can also call it Britain, but we should not be calling the UK "England" because England is an internal division of the UK, not the whole country. England is not a country. Calling the UK "England" is offensive to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the other three internal divisions of the UK. It is like calling the U.S. "Maryland or "Texas", or calling Canada "Ontario" or "Alberta". What makes the UK's internal divisions different from U.S. states and Canadian provinces? In fact, check this link from Matt Rosenberg's About.com geography guide to learn more about the difference between England and the UK: http://geography.about.com/library/faq/blqzuk.htm , http://geography.about.com/od/politicalgeography/… and http://geography.about.com/od/politicalgeography/… . Also, check out this link about the Acts of Union that formed the UK: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Act_of_Union_1707

    • puca

      ‘Savvy about military issues’…seriously? Mr. Biden isn’t savvy about anything. The only thing he knows about the military is his son is a reservist. He is a buffoon and plays the part of court jester well. As for Mr. Obama, it is clear to all of us who have served that he has little real concern for us, as demonstrated early on with his reaction to the massacre at Ft. Hood. If you handed him a weapon, I’m not sure he would know which end the round comes out! His ever-present patronizing speech when talking about the military demonstrates it’s all about the means to an end baby, means to an end.

    • Mo Schlotion

      Recycled Cold War rhetoric is great for a green econony.

      Weak Bluff is in Arkansas.

    • Omar

      Schlomotion, why do you keep bringing up Likud into this conversation. Like I said before, Likud operates in Israel, not America. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, is trying to infiltrate American institutions in order to transform America into an Islamist country. Quit repeating leftist/Islamist propaganda.

      • Schlomotion

        You said it, but you are wrong.

        • Omar

          No, Flipside. I am right. You, on the other hand, are wrong about almost every topic.

  • Magnus

    Obama should remember that the Cold War was with the USSR, not with Russia, so I would judge his point to be just plain wrong. Russia is reawakening the spirit of the old USSR and is very much the opponent of the USA.

    • guest


      Putin just took out 50 crazed jihadi terrorist muslims. How many of them visited the white house as diplomats? Quite a few I bet. Now these lunatics are saying Russia is #1!

      Anyway, Putin was head of the KGB and understands terrorists, and how to give them what they understand. He simply sent them to Allah Akbar, like they say they wanted. Oh I forgot. they tell young kids about the virgins. They never attack themselves. Thats how they got so old.

      Obama should send Islam an apology and another 1/2 billion dollars to buy weapons. SOP. But 4 dead Americans does not mean anything to Barry. They would have to be muslim to matter. Obviously, a old crappy video that's been around forever on youtube caused Putin to do this. Americans are supposed to believe that makes muslims jihad. Sept 11 1632, Vienna, Obama. You should remember that from your Mosque training! Obama seems really quiet on sending a verbal attack on Putin. If America did this he would be arresting American racist soldiers! He also should be having Islam taken out of Russian training manuals, and getting everyone there decent welfare, halal food, foot baths and private pools. I hope America wakes up and votes for an American. I am sick of what the Democrat-Islamic party wants. Anyone follow the islamic prayer at the DNC convention?

      BTW: Obama wears a muslim ring. Someone ask him about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marvin.fox.526 Marvin Fox

    I have never thought Obama had an actual foreign policy that was laid out and followed as a plan. He seems to be more aligned to a process of reactions to incidents. What he has done during the Arab Spring certainly can not be the result of well laid plans. He didn't follow the advice of those who understood the dangers. He refused to believe the obvious when Benghazi murders blew up in his face. He alibied his actions world wide. Obama is talking about democracy rising in the Middle East long after the Muslims said it is incompatible with Islam. The Obama foreign policy in any area is as obscure as the possibility of a Muslim democracy.
    Marvin Fox

  • guest

    Big miss for Romney: All those executive orders and Eric Holder "fast and Furious executive privilege." He should have brought up Louis Gohmerts questions to Janet from another Planet and the leaks at Homeland security. He could have asked about Holder attacking a school for not wanting a muslim to go to Mecca during exams. The Mosque at ground zero, too. O is a huge Islamic oppressor!

    Reckless and wrong. Let me see. Muslim brotherhood now sets our foreign policy. It was not Romney trying to get weapons back. Thats why Stevens was over there. OOPS! I forgot. Thats an under the bus Hillary deal. Helping Muslims never works out.

    Panetta disarming soldiers in a war zone. Soldiers not being able to vote because SOMEONE changed the reporting requirements to every year and did not tell anyone there.

    This sharia pushing anti-colonialist president is using the muslim approved "blame the other guy for what you did" mien kampf method. He usually does not have to explain or defend his actions. The debates must be painful!

  • guest

    Romney should have used Congressman Louis Gohmert as his teleprompter. What a field day Gohmert would have had at Obamas' expense. Romney should have asked about the white house visitors, too.
    Obama should be in jail for his actions.

  • Goldbug36

    Phony debates! Great show! Wonderful entertainment! But when all is said and done, both of these candidates are puppets of the global elites, and they do as they are told. Otherwise, they don't get to sit in the Oval Office. In the war of words, we, the people, are the losers, because we end up with a collapsed economy and endless wars. I would never vote for either of these war mongers.

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