Thursday, June 07, 2007

Foreign Policy Agendas - Obama vs. Romney

Presidential candidates Barak Obama and Mitt Romney published articles in Foreign Policy this month outlining their foreign policy agendas. I was planning on a comparative post anyway, and then I read an editorial by Fred Hiatt in the Washington Post. My first reaction was, did Fred Haitt read the same articles that I did? His column “analyzing” the two articles states that:

“(1) The two candidates' programs are strikingly similar to each other.

(2) Both are strikingly similar to Bush administration policy.

(3) And both, far from retreating to isolationism in the face of Iraq and other challenges, set forth their own wildly ambitious calls for American leadership and the promotion of American values. "Boldness" is an operative word for both of them.”

He then proceeds to highlight the similarities that he found including: neither candidate wants to return to isolationism (a false choice by both candidates, isolationism isn’t leering around the corner), both want a bigger military, both want to increase foreign assistance, both see radical Islam as the fundamental challenge of the 21st Century, both want to improve the various foreign policy bureaucracies, both want to “reinvigorate” multilateral alliances, and both think that Bush’s error was in accomplishing too little, not in taking on too much (which I think Obama would vehemently disagree with).

You know, from the Washington Post, I expected something a bit more nuanced.

First, the differences between Obama and Romney are vast. Romney essentially has no detailed plan for Iraq. He speaks of the challenge and of the importance of fighting radical Islam where it is found which implies his desire to continue the fight in Iraq. But he doesn’t offer a plan for Iraq or even comment on what the US commitment would be under his presidency. On the other hand, Obama explicitly outlines a plan for establishing a regional, diplomatic initiative to create a lasting peace in Iraq. This plan would be coordinated with a phase out of US troops and assurances that the US would not keep permanent bases in the country.

Moreover, Obama identifies the Israel/Palestinian conflict as the crux or root of conflict in the Middle East and establishes working toward a lasting peace (a two state solution) would be among his top goals. He also argues that diplomacy and negotiation are crucial to dealing with Syria and Iran, meaning that he would end the “shunning” policy of the current administration and return to a policy of carrots and sticks to attempt to reduce the risks of nuclear proliferation and include those nations in the global community. Romney is noticeably silent on these issues.

Hiatt is correct when he states that both candidates want to revitalize the military. The differences on the aspect are minimal at best. However, the second point of Romney’s plan is entirely different from Obama. Romney establishes energy independence as a central pillar of his foreign policy strategy and his plan would include more oil mining in Alaska (stupidly wasteful) and the Gulf of Mexico, nuclear power development, energy efficiency, coal exploitation, wind and solar power usage, and technology development. This is clearly different from Obama, who mentions energy in the global warming context. Romney sees energy independence as important because of high prices and vulnerability to price shocks. Obama sees energy as important because of its relationship to global climate change and the host of problems that will bring down the road. In fact, Obama speaks extensively of all the current challenges greatly worsening in a world of rising sea levels and human displacement.

Additionally, Romney´s third foreign policy pillar is coordination of civilian agencies, specifically those that distribute foreign aid and other types of activities. Hiatt expresses that this is another similarity with Obama, which is correct in some sense, Obama does want to implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations to strengthen interagency communication and coordination. Unfortunately, Romney’s opus skips that point. This is another example of where Hiatt sees “coordination” as meaning that the two are similar, but misses the nuance of what is being coordinated and how. It also bears mentioning that Romney’s third pillar is to tinker with the foreign policy administration as if Bush’s policies weren’t wrong; it was a failure of implementation.

Romney’s last pillar is strengthening alliances. He speaks of UN Reform, re-orientating NATO to fight against radical Islam, calling a summit of nations to unify our response to the threat, establishing a so-called “Partnership for Prosperity and Progress” that would support civil society and infrastructure development across the globe, and finally, free trade.

Obama speaks of some of those things as well, in particular, doubling foreign aid. However, Obama´s approach is substantively different. He believes that “fixing” those alliances starts at home with ending torture, illegal rendition, Guantanamo Bay, etc. Once American values have been revitalized here, then, according to Obama, we can reestablish and strengthen our international partnerships in Europe and around the globe.

More than that, however, Obama goes much farther than Romney. He states that addressing the root causes of terrorism and radical Islam are critical to effectively winning the war against terror. He identifies Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Kashmir, the Palestinian conflict, poverty, and a lack of education around the Arab world as key challenges that US foreign policy must address to alleviate the causes of terrorism.

In this way, Obama’s approach is substantively and qualitatively different than Romney’s. Whereas Romney has essentially a foreign policy grid which he believes can be applied to the globe, Obama has a much more subtle and sophisticated approach to these problems. On the one hand, Obama wants to build up the military to fight the challenges that exist today, strengthen homeland security to make America safer, and fight nuclear proliferation in Russia, Iran, and North Korea to reduce that danger and the risk that terrorists get their hands on nuclear material, while on the other, he wants to find long-term solutions by addressing the root causes.

Romney’s approach is essentially the same as the Bush administration. He pays lip service to UN reform and alliances will identifying a strong military, energy independence, and inter-agency coordination as 75% of his foreign policy platform. He is silent on the origin of Islamic fundamentalism while stating that “Many still fail to comprehend the extent of the threat.” From reading Romney’s opus, one gets the sense that the desire of radical Islam “to replace all modern Islamic states with a worldwide caliphate while destroying the United States and converting all nonbelievers, forcibly if necessary, to Islam” stems directly from the religion and not from a confluence of factors that create radicalism. That type of analysis, one that refuses to identify the causes of radicalism, necessitates a military-only approach to the problem, an approach that has been proven to fail.

I know that Obama’s platform is not flawless. There are certain things I think need further development (it is only a blueprint after all). But what is clear from his essay is that he gets it. I can’t say the same about Romney. In fact, Romney’s platform is chock full of vague generalities, doesn’t highlight the importance American values (freedom is the cornerstone of Western civilization), has strange priorities, and completely ignores some of the greatest and most important challenges (Israel/Palestine, North Korea).

All of which explains why I was shocked to read such poor scholarship from the Post’s Fred Hiatt. But then again, my guess is he’s just positioning himself to be the next Robert Novak.

*Update: I do not want to present Obama´s foreign policy platform as flawless or as a recipe for success. My point is only that he´s at least got the right ideas. Time will tell how those ideas are implemented (if he becomes President) but as of now, his methodological approach is vastly superior to Romney and the rest of the GOP who basically said, Bush´s mistakes were in implementation, not in strategy. Anyone who thinks it wasn´t a huge mistake to go into Iraq shouldn´t be president in my book (and that includes you Hillary).



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