Monday’s foreign policy debate made clear that no single international issue is dominating the campaign. Rather, voters are formulating an overall sense of the respective abilities of President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney as effective statesmen amid the threats and opportunities of the 21st century.
While not always articulated in these terms, big-picture assessments are taking shape around three core issues: American power, American leadership and the domestic foundations of America’s global role. As Monday’s match-up revealed, Obama’s approach to foreign policy bests Romney’s on all three counts.
American Power: Americans don’t want a president who is too gun-shy. Obama has amply demonstrated that he is not. But after over a decade of wars in the Middle East, and guided by their own sense of the scope and limits of military power, Americans also don’t want a president who is too trigger happy – which, debate posturing notwithstanding, Romney appears to be.
Obama has repeatedly demonstrated that he knows when and how to use American military power: the operation to take out Osama bin Laden; targeted attacks on al-Qaida and other terrorist leaders across numerous countries; the key U.S. role in preventing Moammar Gadhafi from inflicting mass atrocities on the Libyan people in 2011; rescue operations saving Americans held hostage in Somalia.
Obama also understands the limits of military power. He withdrew from Iraq on schedule. Having effectively eliminated al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the primary U.S. objective there, Obama is handing over to Afghans responsibility for managing their country. On Iran, he has been clear about his commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, keeping the military option on the table while intensifying pressure through biting economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and reported efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear progress.
Meanwhile, even as Romney used the debate on Monday to tack to the center and tone down his usual chest-thumping, his record remains more bluster than strategy. On Afghanistan his support for more open-ended U.S. military commitments belies realistic objectives on the ground. On Iran he seems so ready to use military force that one worries whether he understands the risks associated with military action and another potential Middle East war. On defense spending he proposes funding additional programs without explaining how he will pay for them and which the Joint Chiefs of Staff themselves have recommended against.
Romney’s understanding of American power reveals none of the judicious judgment that has made Obama’s statecraft so effective. Indeed, he evinces the same recklessness that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and surrounds himself with many of the people responsible for that errant war.
American Leadership: Obama’s formula for exercising American leadership strikes a balance between U.S. power and international partnership. In contrast to the ideological excess of Republicans, Obama’s principled pragmatism has put the United States in the position to exert leadership based on engagement and persuasion instead of coercion and bravado.
America’s alliances around the globe have been strengthened. Allies again feel like partners that matter, not objects of American power. The transatlantic link has been refurbished. Across Asia, the U.S. has been deepening its strategic presence as a force for regional stability. Obama has also been actively pursuing commercial opportunities that tap into the region’s economic dynamism. With China, Washington seeks to deepen trust and cooperate on shared interests while also being firm in deterring Chinese adventurism.
On Israel, Obama has been more than a stalwart ally – contrary to the charges of the Romney campaign. Israeli leaders regularly affirm that the Obama administration has been providing Israel with unprecedented military assistance, intelligence cooperation and coordination on Iran. And Washington stands ready to help advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks when the time is ripe.
The Arab Spring continues to follow an unpredictable and uncertain path, with risks as well as opportunities. The murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and other Americans in Benghazi was a tragic loss, and Obama is intent on bringing the perpetrators to justice and preventing future attacks on U.S. targets. Despite the setback in Benghazi, Obama has been working with new Arab governments, including with Islamist political forces when interests are shared.
Strength Starts at Home: Finally, Obama is acting on the reality that nation-building at home is the indispensable foundation for strength abroad. Fiscal solvency, a world-class education system, industrial capacity, and technological prowess are essential ingredients of military primacy. So too is the well-being of America’s middle class a precondition for political health. Romney’s focus on the affluence of America’s richest will not cut it. The bipartisan consensus that guided U.S. foreign policy during the second half of the 20th century rested on the ability of broadly shared prosperity to ameliorate partisan cleavages.
In a second term Obama is well set to rebuild the economic base on which national power rests, revive the political consensus needed to anchor U.S. statecraft and build on the groundwork already laid for advancing American interests and values going forward.
Bruce W. Jentleson, a Duke professor of public policy, and Charles A. Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow, also are informal advisers to the Obama campaign. This commentary was first published in The News & Observer.