How To Beat Obama: An Opposing Viewpoint

by George Kennedy on March 16, 2012


How To Beat Obama:  An Opposing Viewpoint
Encouraged by John Franklin Campbell, a founder and editor of Foreign Policy, I am a charter subscriber to this publication.   Foreign Policy offered insights and analyses that served me well throughout a lengthy Foreign Service career.  When I saw the piece by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie in the current issue, I felt the need for the first time to offer a counter opinion.

Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie coauthored an article (How To Beat Obama) in the current March/April 2012 issue of Foreign Policy Magazine in which they assert, “In an American Election focused on a lousy economy…conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy is one of Barack Obama’s few strong suits.  But the president is strikingly vulnerable in this area.”  Rove and Gillespie then continue to offer a four-point plan “to beat him.”

Rove and Gillespie are credible political strategists to the extent they helped to engineer the flawed election of G.W. Bush in 2000 and his re-election four years later.    Many now rightly view Bush as perhaps the worst president in American history.  The foreign policy failures of the Bush presidency reverberate throughout the Middle East and South Asia.  For example, the “splendid little war” Bush launched against Iraq wrecked that country and the region remains unstable as a direct consequence.   Therefore, it is essential to frame the authors’ critique in the context of their probable involvement.

A strong suit of this president is foreign policy and he may not be as vulnerable as Rove and Gillespie might wish.  They may harbor the delusion that attacking President Obama on foreign policy will produce a similar result as attacking Vietnam War veteran, Senator John Kerry.  There is room for serious doubt.  President Obama is a strategic thinker and, apparently, not given to launching wars to burnish his foreign policy credentials.

Under President Obama’s adroit leadership, we no longer project the ineffectual image of the gun-slinging neophyte besotted by power he did not understand declaring to friends, foes, and allies “Either you are with us or you’re against us.”  Again, let’s look at the source of this critique.  Under the watchful eye of Rove, the Bush Administration lost the respect of allies and emboldened enemies:  Al Qaeda worldwide and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Also on their watch, North Korea continued its policy of nuclear development and Iran maintained its quest for a nuclear capability.  (Remember the “Axis of Evil?”)  The purpose of the Iranian’s quest is in dispute.  Israel and her neighbors are justifiably concerned that a nuclear Iran could destabilize the region and, more worrisome, that it poses a threat on a global scale.  We will return to this.

Meanwhile, on this administration’s watch, Libya’s Khadafy has been removed at the hands of Libyans without the U.S. having to introduce American “boots on the ground” as prominent Senate hawks advocated.

Discontinuing the Bush policy of containment and isolation, President Obama adopted a “Return to Normalcy” approach.  On February 29, 2012, in exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid, North Korea agreed to halt uranium enrichment at its nuclear facility in Yongbyon, suspend nuclear weapons tests as well as long-range missile tests, and allow the IAEA inspectors to monitor the moratorium.

We should extend our gratitude to the brilliance of the Rice-Rove-Cheney axis for alienating Russia by advocating the positioning of NATO missiles on their borders.  A more hardline Prime Minister Putin has assumed the reins of Russian affairs and his government now thwarts our efforts to mobilize more punitive UN sanctions against Syria.  Moreover, the Russians announced they would continue to honor existing arms contracts with Syrian authorities.

The bloodshed in that embattled country continues already having consumed some 7,500 Syrian lives.  Some estimates range as high as 10,000.  Perhaps this troika would have this administration start the next war, or two, by unilaterally bombing both Syria and Iran.  Why not?  They’re in the same general neighborhood.

Rove and Gillespie assert that because the President failed to “meet with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela ‘without precondition’” we suffered “a serious blow to the image of the United States as a reliable ally.”  Where is the proof of that assertion?

Portions of their article resemble a laundry list of the casual, but unfounded, assertions commonly heard from the current Republican presidential candidates:  “Mismanagement of U.S. relationship with Pakistan, politicized timetables for withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and neglect of important traditional allies such as NATO, Canada, and Mexico, as well as key rising powers like India.”   Secretary of State Clinton might be amused enough to respond to these woolly comments.

Rove has been away from the action for quite some time and can only speculate on the relationship between this president and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  He fails to mention the number of visits to Afghanistan and that region by Vice President Biden and senior Pentagon officials.

In my view, Rove has little to no standing with regard to our relationship with Pakistan.  Under the previous administration, we were their paymasters as long as we had liberal passage to transport war materials to prosecute the war in Afghanistan.

U.S. intelligence officials suggested Pakistan was harboring Osama Bin Laden.  Bush professed not to know where he was nor was he interested.  Was there an arrangement with the Pakistan government?  Just asking.

It was under this president’s leadership that we accorded a higher priority to taking out the architect of “9-1-1” than preserving a contentious relationship with the Pakistani leadership.

Rove and Gillespie well understand that presidents don’t lead military missions, just as Bush did not lead a mission into Iraq or Afghanistan.   Presidents like Obama do, however, exercise the command authority to eliminate America’s enemies and bring wars to an end.  Any idiot can start a war but it takes the courage of conviction and leadership to end one.  On that note, the current president inherited two ongoing wars.

This president apparently recognized that Americans, including the military, wanted an end to our military involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The president kept his promise and, by December 31st of last year, brought the last American combat troops out of Iraq.  With the support of the U.K., our principal European ally in the fight, Afghanistan is scheduled to follow suit by mid-2014.  Again, that is what the people want.

Our veterans do not view President Obama skeptically as Rove and Gillespie assert.  Multiple deployments have inflicted serious hardship on military families and they, too, want an end to combat operations in Afghanistan.

Back to Iran:  The President has stated to the world, including to Iran’s leadership, that all options are on the table with regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Punitive sanctions are in place and could ultimately bring them to the negotiating table.  As always, the situation is more complex than Rove and Gillespie suggest.  The object, however, is to prevent a Middle East arms race, avoid an Iranian nuclear detonation, and impresses upon the Iranians the need to avoid doing harm in the region.  They would be the ultimate loser.

To this end, it would appear the President is prepared to engage diplomatically to achieve a satisfactory outcome.  To casually assert that we should park a massive naval fleet in the Straits of Hormuz and bomb Iran into the Stone Age is cheap.  What then?  Our own military is opposed to that.

The authors argue, “The most important struggle that will define this century’s arc…is radical Islamic terrorism.”  Victory must be “America’s national goal, not merely seeking to ‘delegitimize’ the use of terrorism and to isolate those who carry it out” as the president’s May 2010 National Security Strategy put it.

The President and the country know that this nation’s longest war – the war against terrorism – against a “tactic” produced no positive outcome that justified its cost.  The trillion-dollar drain on the national treasury was too high.  Thousands of young American lives were lost.  Then, there were the 200,000 Iraqi’s killed and more wounded or traumatized.

What is the “victory” they suggest we must achieve?  Are we to hunt down and eliminate every anti-American whoever on the face of the globe?  Tell us how that is accomplished!

It was good intelligence and bold leadership that set in motion the plan to take down Osama Bin Laden and most of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership.  Diplomacy is ongoing.  Are the authors arguing that we wage open-ended war for another decade at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and further damage to our international standing?

And, now, for the economy:  None of the four Republican presidential candidates has put forth a plan to create jobs or restore our economy.  More tax cuts for the rich combined with more draconian austerity measures for the rest of society are the preferred solutions thus far.  Mitt Romney says he will reveal the details of his plan once in the White House.

The President continues to speak in detail about how we can restore the economy and create more job growth.  Meanwhile, the recovery is gaining traction.  With the exception of gas prices, for which there is very little a president can actually do about them, public confidence in the economy is on the upswing.

As an aside, the Wall Street Journal and the Koch-fuelled Cato Institute note, “U.S. gasoline prices, like prices throughout the advanced economies, are determined by global market forces.  It is hard to see how Mr. Obama’s policies can be blamed.”  Of course, Republicans now disagree.  This caught them off guard.

Under this president, we have had 23 months of positive growth with 3.7 million new jobs.  Moreover, over 400,000 manufacturing jobs were created.

Finally, the authors refer to a November 2011 survey that suggested America’s standing in the world is worse under Obama.  Really!  It is now mid-March 2012.  A new Pew poll released on March 14 found Obama’s approval at 50 percent.  An Ipsos Reuters poll released the evening of March 13 found 50 percent of respondents approving the president’s performance.  And, a Bloomberg survey released the same evening found Obama’s approval at 48 percent.  In each poll, the president’s disapproval rating was below his approval rating.

Polls are snapshots in time and subject to the unforeseen and events over which a president has no control e.g., gas prices.  Meanwhile, it would appear the president has earned the public’s trust as a capable steward of an economy on the rebound.

In fairness to Rove and Gillespie, the observations they shared last fall were questionable at best.  Perhaps they were attempting to seize the narrative for the Republican primaries.  Maybe they would write a different article today.  If not, only a weak candidate, or the political contortionist Mitt Romney, would be guided by the advice they proffer.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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