Foreign Policy Issues In US Presidential Campaign 2012: An Assessment


By Monish Tourangbam

As President Barack Obama reaches the twilight of his first term, he has to enter the grind yet again, go all out to try and convince the voters that he deserves another term. And like every other time, the perennial electoral question arises: do foreign policy issues matter at all in US Presidential elections? Do US voters really think of Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, China, etc. or of issues like climate change, nuclear proliferation or democracy promotion, etc. before casting their votes? Polls after polls conducted by reputed organizations in the US continue to prove that domestic issues matter much more. This year, the fate of the US economy and its impact on the day-to-day lives of Americans reigns supreme in the minds of the voters. Foreign policy matters, according to various polls, do not determine voting patterns significantly.

US President Barack Obama. White House Photo, Chuck Kennedy.
US President Barack Obama. White House Photo, Chuck Kennedy.

Having said that, for a country like the United States of America, that has significantly influenced the international system in the 20th century, foreign policy issues have more visibility and role in election campaigns compared to any other country in the world. The US has prime stakes in a host of foreign policy issue areas that includes among others the democratic churning in the Arab world, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, managing China’s rise, the endgame in Afghanistan, the post Kim Jong Il North Korea and the economic crisis gripping the European Union. And, for several countries around the world that maintain active engagement with the US, are active or aspiring allies, or a country like India that wants to sustain a ‘strategic partnership’ short of a formal alliance, US foreign policy does matter. Moreover, the presence of a large Diaspora population there and their active lobbying at the US Congress and beyond certainly makes US approach to international issues a matter of prime importance.

Foreign countries certainly want to know what Presidential candidates are talking about in their campaign tours. The policy projections from both sides will centre on how one intends to protect American interests at home and abroad. And, the attacks and counter-attacks during campaign tours usually revolve around the difference in approach and just how one intends to do it better than the other. The incumbent President Barack Obama would try to emphasize the merits of his foreign policy decisions (particularly the Navy Seals operations that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden), presenting himself as a credible supreme commander who deserves another term at the office. Republican candidate Mitt Romney, on the other hand, would either term Obama’s policies a complete failure or say that they could have been done much better and that he deserves a shot at the presidency to prove that America can do a lot better.

Iran continues to be a major factor in US foreign policy and as the Presidential election nears, more heat will be built up on this issue. Obama came to the White House, pledging to invest in a dialogue with the Iranians sans conditions. But, continued differences regarding Iran’s nuclear programme and human rights issues like the regime crackdown on opposition supporters in June 2009 hardened Obama’s stance, and since then, he has followed a policy to isolate Iran by imposing new sanctions and toughening the existing ones. The Obama Administration while emphasizing a diplomatic solution also says that a military option is still on the table. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has projected himself as the tougher guy, who will not tolerate a nuclear Iran at any cost and even advocated giving covert support to dissidents in Iran. He wants the US to flex its muscles more in the Persian Gulf region. Displaying electoral rhetoric to the hilt, Romney, said that military option was “not just on the table” but “in our hand.”

US response to Iran has an elevated position in American electoral politics because of the Israel factor. Israel, US closest ally in the Middle East sees the Iranian regime as a nemesis, and cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran at any cost. Israel has regularly threatened to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations, and these threats continue to heighten tension in Washington policymaking circles. No US President or a candidate can ignore the influence of the Jewish lobby and US policy towards the Middle East, above all, is highly focused on the security and sustenance of a pre-eminently powerful Israel. President Obama’s first term saw some tensions between Washington and Tel Aviv, with the US President advocating a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with borders based on 1967 lines, and the Netanyahu Administration declining to renew a moratorium on the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But, at the same time, the Obama Administration objected the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, and requested $3 billion in Foreign Military Financing for Israel in FY 2011, the highest since 2003. Mitt Romney criticized the Obama Administration for distancing itself from Israel, intends to build a more robust tie with this Middle East ally, and underlines the security of Israel, with no conditions applied. During a foreign policy debate November last year, Romney had announced that his first foreign trip will be to Israel, if he became the president. Well, he has beaten himself by already announcing a planned visit to Israel as a candidate.

US response to democracy movements in the Arab world is important in terms of developments to the heated discourse on the ‘responsibility to protect’ and the extent to which an external player can go to bring changes in another country. In the ongoing Syrian crisis, western countries, including the US, seem stuck in some major differences with the Russia-China combine. President Obama has largely supported the democratic upheaval in the Middle East but he has also been criticized for overlooking the heavy handed regime response to demonstrations in Bahrain, a regional ally (home of the US 5th fleet). In what is popularly described as Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy, he supported and joined the NATO coalition that titled the scales in favour of the rebels in Libya against then dictator Muammar Al Qaddafi. He supported the campaign but led the Europeans take the plunge without committing American boots on ground. In Syria, he has endorsed tough economic measures and wants the Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad to step down, but has stop short of arming the Syrian opposition. On the other hand, Romney wants to project Obama as a leader who lacks the guts to stand firm on strong foreign policy commitments; as someone who accepts America’s decline. He wants a more muscular American approach to developments in the Arab world and criticized the Obama Administration of allowing the Assad regime to buy time and carry out its military crackdown on the opposition. He has advocated that “the United States should work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so that they can defend themselves.” The Syrian situation has special bearing on how the US manages its differences with two other veto wielding members of the UN Security Council: Russia and China. Further, the rise of Islamist parties and relatively unknown political players in Egypt and Tunisia will add more importance to the changing political landscape there and US response to the same.

China policy is one of the hot button issues in foreign policy because of the competition that Chinese economy and its increasing influence around the globe offer to the US. The rise of China and its seismic impact on global security architecture makes it cynosure of major campaign speeches. Strategic concerns apart, economic linkages between the US and China and the challenges therein are something that is demanding much concern from the candidates. Moreover, America’s newly emphasized rebalancing strategy towards the Asia-Pacific with an eye on managing China’s rise also necessitates the candidates’ attention on this country. As the campaign progresses, increasing criticism of China has become a major feature of both the candidates. President Obama has publicly criticized China’s trade policy, human rights violations (the case of the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng almost became a diplomatic battle between the two) and China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. Romney has sought to project his default muscular stance on China policy too, advocating a strong military capability in the Pacific, deepening cooperation with India and other regional allies, a strong defence of human rights including support to dissidents and objecting China’s one-child policy, and asserting the need to “directly counter abusive Chinese practices in the areas of trade, intellectual property, and currency valuation.” He promised to designate China as a currency manipulator on his first day of presidency unless China changed its ways. And last but not the least; China’s impending leadership change necessitates a closer watch of the country.

US defence budget is a matter of rigorous debate domestically at a time when America is reeling through an economic crisis. There is a general feeling that American foreign policy commitments around the world are overstretched and, hugely unpopular wars like Iraq and Afghanistan have made the issue of defence cuts a prime policy debate. President Obama highly focused on winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and emphasizing the strategy to rebalance towards Asia-Pacific, and shared security commitments with major partners. Speaking at the Pentagon early this year, Obama said, “the size and the structure of our military and defense budgets have to be driven by a strategy, and not the other way around.” He has been critical of the rapid growth of defence budget over the last decade and proposes slowing its growth, without decreasing its overall size. Romney plans to further modernize the forces and proposed increased defence spending that would return the military to a budget baseline established in 2010 that aims to set core defence funding at a minimum of 4 percent of the GDP. “It is absolutely wrong to balance our budget on the backs of our military. We need a strong military, so strong no one in the world would ever think of testing it,” Romney asserted.

As the US prepares to withdraw from active combat role in Afghanistan by 2014 and transfer responsibilities to the Afghan forces, the issue becomes a foreign policy highlight this election. In fact, the Afghan war has, over the years, become a barometer of Obama’s popularity. President Obama came into office, as one of the most popular presidents, but the war in Afghanistan along with economic problems at home sucked the energy out of him, and Afghanistan-his “war of necessity” has become a headache, especially in an election year, when he is running for the second term. Neither the Af-Pak strategy, nor the drone attacks (President Obama went public defending the precision and goal of the controversial drone attacks), has changed the fortunes of the Afghan war, and with a duplicitous ally like Pakistan, that seems to be playing both sides, the American dilemma in this region is not waning. Despite optimistic projections and official claims, it is common knowledge that the Taliban cannot entirely be defeated militarily, and some form of reconciliation is inevitable with this force, if a semblance of stability is to be brought back to Afghanistan before the western forces pull out. And, Pakistan is at the very core of the insurgency problem in the country, and no solutions can be arrived sans Pakistani hands, howsoever dirty they might be. Through its porous and lawless borders to Afghanistan, and through its long-held contacts with fundamental elements finding safe havens inside its soil, Pakistan has an undeniable ability to create instability and insecurity in this region. At present, neither Afghanistan, nor the US is at very good terms with this country, due to a host of reasons, and efforts are on to improve relations, before it snaps beyond a point. Romney has nothing much different to offer in Afghanistan apart from the general criticism that Obama’s policy of setting a withdrawal date provides too much information to the enemy and that he prefers a gradual transition based on advice from generals on the ground.

President Obama early in his first term earned a rock star image in Europe injecting fresh optimism into trans-Atlantic relations post the hugely unpopular Bush era. Europe at large appreciated Obama’s Prague speech advocating a world sans nuclear weapons, and has welcomed his decision to withdraw from Iraq and eventually from Afghanistan. But, at the same time, the Eurozone crisis that threatens to undermine the EU financial system has made the future of trans-Atlantic relations more uncertain. Worsening crisis in the EU will severely hit US exports, hampering Obama’s reelection prospects. The Obama Administration criticized Europe for over-depending on the US for sustaining NATO and of not committing fully towards burden sharing on security. But, even if Obama’s popularity has decreased in Europe, Romney is a lot more unpopular and Europeans are more likely to consider his win a bad news. Romney has been harshly critical of Europe’s handling of the Euro crisis and unlike the Europeans, is vehemently opposed to welfare state system. Moreover, in view of America’s increasing emphasis on being a Pacific nation that looks at Asia-Pacific as the theatre of future, US-Europe relations are in for a fundamental reassessment. But, a recent US State Department note to Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, titled “Enhancing U.S.-E.U. Dialogue and Engagement in Asia-Pacific Issues” proposed a US-Europe partnership approach towards Asia-Pacific region. Hence, there are lingering issues across a broad spectrum of US-Europe relations that calls for attention in the days to come.

The leadership change in North Korea and the accession of Kim Jong-un has increased uncertainty. As the world tries to assess the new young leader in one of the most opaque countries in the world, Washington’s North Korea policy assumes more importance. President Obama started his tenure by espousing a policy of direct diplomatic engagement with North Korea but as Pyongyang continued to use its nuclear weapon status as a bargaining tool and showed no signs of decreasing its belligerence towards South Korea, Obama became more hardline in his approach. He canceled the promise of a new food aid shipment to North Korea, after Pyongyang’s failed satellite launch in April apparently showed that it had no plans to change course. Romney wants to toughen America’s response to North Korea, and wants stronger sanctions against the country and increased efforts to prevent transfer of nuclear and missile technology from the country. He has criticized Obama for being soft on North Korea and said, “instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived.”

As predicted, foreign policy issues may not; after all, significantly affect election results majorly, but for foreign countries, including India with which the US engages across a broad spectrum, the candidates’ policy projections does matter. Besides, in a globalized world, many of the issues like economy or immigration that are primarily considered as domestic in nature have equally potent foreign policy dimensions. Moreover, foreign policy is one of the areas which allow the US President to use his prerogative powers. For all the polls that prove that foreign policy matters least, many US Presidents during their tenure have had to grapple with foreign policy issues that to a large extent defined their place in history. For instance, Roosevelt and World War II, Truman and Eisenhower who were equally concerned with furthering the containment strategy around the globe, Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis, Johnson and the Vietnam War, Carter and Iran, Reagan who oversaw a number of foreign policy markers like escalation of the Cold War in Afghanistan, the Iran-Contra Affair and the Cold War coming to an end, H.W.Bush and the Gulf War, Clinton and the Balkan Crisis, W. Bush and the Afghan and Iraq Wars.

Monish Tourangbam is Associate Fellow, ORF

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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