About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Preview of tonight's foreign policy debate

I do plan to live blog the foreign policy debate tonight, but I want to preface my comments and reactions a little bit -- first, because there are things I think we have to keep in mind in order to fully make sense of what goes on this evening, and second, because my own views may require a fuller explanation, which I cannot provide when the clock is ticking.

First:  if you think this debate is Obama's to lose, because of his experience, his knowledge, and his successes -- I think you are mistaken.  Romney is the one with the advantages here.  A bigger man would hesitate to exploit some of those advantages, for reasons of national security.

Romney is not that man.

Second:  I think that by and large, Obama has had the most successful foreign policy of any American president in decades.  I expect everyone on the right to disagree with me on that -- but I also expect many of my allies on the left to disagree, too.

Why do I think Romney has the advantage tonight?

Because Obama is the president -- and because Obama is who he is, and Romney is who HE is.  What Obama says becomes, in effect, a statement of American policy.  As a consequence, he must be guarded in what he says, and will often be unable to provide full explanations for his positions for reasons of diplomatic strategy and national security.  Obama, as we know, is a man who values the meaning of words, and measures them very carefully (this is why he is fond of the teleprompter).  He is a writer, and a constitutional lawyer, and it is reflected in the measured language he tends to deploy, and the pragmatic and process-focused approach he uses to the world.  He is in many ways the ideal president for the country to have at the moment, as we seek to re-familiarize ourselves with the cultivation and use of soft power after a decade in the self-destructive manichean wilderness.

Romney really has no restrictions whatsoever on what he can say tonight, save what his conscience and political instincts tell him are inappropriate.  There was a time, not too long ago, when presidential challengers knew that there were certain kinds of issues, questions, and discussions that had to be put aside during the election season.  Our times are different, and Romney doesn't seem like the sort of candidate who would honor such limits anyway.  He has already demonstrated that he doesn't care whether his arguments directly contradict his prior statements.  He also doesn't particularly care whether what he says is logical, reasonable, or truthful.  I'm guessing he also doesn't care that the consequence of attempting to corner Obama into a belligerent 'if-then' statement might be a dramatic narrowing of our national options, with regard to a nuclear Iran in particular.  Romney is even more likely to shake the etch-a-sketch on foreign policy than on domestic policy, since the ignorance of the remaining persuadable voters on world politics is extensive to say the least.

Let's make this more concrete.  Romney is likely to push -- hard -- on two inter-related issues tonight:  the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and the commitment of the U.S. to Israel's national security.  He has the luxury of bellicosity on both of them.  Even if Romney were tempted to rein this in for moral or intellectual reasons, the political benefits to saber-rattling will be too tempting for him to ignore, especially because Obama cannot responsibly match him.

Tonight, Romney will attempt to draw a 'line in the sand,' and draw Obama into making a definitive statement that we will never tolerate a nuclear Iran.  He will do the same with Israel, by trying to depict Obama as someone who would throw Israel under the bus to avoid military conflict with Iran.

Obama cannot join him in the drawing of such lines.  If he does, I'm going to come down on him like a ton of bricks, because he will be betraying the restraint, balance and realism that have led to his foreign policy success.  It will be the functional equivalent of a wartime president saying 'defeat is not an option.'  Of course its an option -- it always is -- and one must always leave room to maneuver in case it becomes the most likely one.  A nation, like an alliance (Israel!), is not a suicide pact.

Obama cannot responsibly take the bait.  If, in refusing to take it, he can appear more reasonable, responsible and knowledgeable than Romney -- if he can make the case that there are outcomes in the world that the United States does not have the power, even the right, to determine -- he can turn these exchanges to his advantage.  But it will be exceedingly difficult to do, because of the logical and emotional simplicity of the policy choices that Romney will present.  Romney will try to make this into Munich, and will make Obama's attempts to qualify and complicate the situation into something that sounds like waffling and appeasement, rather than a reasoned judgment based on a full understanding of the limits of American power in general, and military power in particular.

Obama, of course, could respond by being bluntly honest.  He could say that a war with Iran -- following quickly upon the worst foreign policy blunder in the nation's history, in Iraq -- would be an unmitigated disaster for the United States, and for Israel.  It would almost certainly grease the already slippery slope toward American national decline.  And he could conclude this response by saying that a nuclear Iran is inevitable, and we must begin to the lay the groundwork now for dealing with it, by establishing a diplomatic structure to prevent an arms race in the region.  Since Israel already has nuclear weapons, perhaps some kind of stasis can be obtained. 

But he can't say any of this, because he is the president.  Does Obama know that we probably can't prevent Iran from developing nuclear materials, and weaponizing it?  Of course -- he must.  He knows that is an option, even the most likely one.  Does Obama know that a military strike on Iran would be an unmitigated disaster?  Surely.  But he cannot say so publicly, for fear of losing whatever leverage the US still might have over Iran's rulers.  But he also can't follow Romney into the corner, because he will eliminate his room for maneuver should he get re-elected.

Romney will tell the country that the most important foreign policy threat facing the country is the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.  I believe the most important foreign policy threat facing the country is the possibility that our own domestic politics (and the irresponsible behavior of Israel) might lead us into a military conflict with Iran.  I'm quite certain that President Obama holds a position closer to mine.  But he's going to have a devil of a time trying to make that argument during the debate, without being depicted by his opponent as an appeaser, and a betrayer of our Israeli ally.

Second, you can discern my foreign policy views from what I've written above.  I'm including a few paragraphs on this, because some of my comments during the debate tonight will probably be disagreeable to some of my friends on the left.

I believe Obama has been our most successful foreign policy president in decades, because my study of American history tells me that it is far easier to start wars, than to finish them.  Some military conflicts have easily definable goals -- the definition of victory, if not the path to it, is clear.  Victory in World War II was going to ultimately require the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.  Victory in Korea was going to require the preservation of the territorial integrity of South Korea.  One might also call these 'necessary wars,' though obviously the case is much clearer for the former than the latter.

Iraq and Afghanistan more clearly resemble the Vietnam War, than these other conflicts.  In each case, we were ostensibly trying to pursue political goals through military means -- they were wars of choice, in other words.  In each case, both the definition of and timetable for victory was essentially left in the hands of either our enemies, our local allies -- or both.  And in each case, little to no effort was made to assess whether the price (in blood, treasure, reputation, domestic civility, and opportunity costs) was ultimately worth it, until we began to seek an exit.

I'll have more to say about this in a future post, but I maintain that the invasion of Iraq was the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States.  And I say that with an expert's knowledge of the Vietnam War, which was a far more bloody and destructive conflict.  While over 2 million people (59,000 Americans) were killed in Vietnam, and it bitterly divided the country and stressed the federal budget and the economy, it had no appreciable impact on the nation's strategic position, its military capabilities, or its national security.

The invasion of Iraq, in contrast, fundamentally and perhaps permanently changed the position of the United States in the region, and in the world.  It also greatly weakened the possibility of success in Afghanistan, while strengthening the one nation in the region willing and able to check American power (Iran).  40 years from now, when historians write about the first decade of the 21st century, they will likely mark the acceleration of American national decline to the decision to invade Iraq, as well as the manner in which the war and its aftermath were prosecuted.

Obama inherited TWO of these wars of choice -- oh, and the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression.  And to make the task of winding these conflicts that much more challenging, Obama was the leader of a political party that had been repeatedly hammered from the right since the late 1940s for lacking the stomach to fight and win wars.

Obama nonetheless undertook the detailed strategic assessment that his predecessor should have engaged in before these invasions took place, and did so with what I believe was an admirable sense of the limits of American power.  The preeminent foreign policy goal of the first Obama Administration had to be the marking of a clear exit path from both Iraq and Afghanistan.  While those of us on the left may lament how slow the wind down has been -- particularly from Afghanistan, where the initial response was to increase the number of US troops -- we must not forget the enormity of this task.  Lyndon Johnson kept throwing America's young men into the volcano that was Vietnam, too cowardly to admit that victory was not possible, too cowardly to accept that sometimes tactical retreat is the only wise path.  Richard Nixon, not wanting to be the "first president to lose a war," ran for president in 1968 claiming to have a 'secret plan' to end the war...and then sent over 30,000 Americans to their deaths in Southeast Asia, with the full knowledge that victory was not possible. 

Obama finished the work of winding down the war in Iraq, so that the nation's resources (financial, military, diplomatic) could be concentrated on extracting ourselves from Afghanistan in as satisfactory a manner as possible.  Initially, this required resourcing US forces there -- the 'Afghan surge' -- in order move the status quo to a place where a timetabled exit was possible.  This was not nation-building, Bush style, though some on the left have said as much.  The Afghan surge was not about 'victory.'  It was about getting out.  If you doubt this, read some of the reporting by Woodward and others on Obama's decision making in the late summer and early fall of 2009.  The deliberations included detailed discussions of the Vietnam War, of the limits of military power, and of a timetable to leave.  Some in the administration argued against any kind of surge at all; others, mostly the devotees of the religion of 'counter-insurgency,' hoped to use the surge to launch an ambitious test-case for nation building.  Almost everyone, other than the president, resisted the idea of a timetable -- a date.  Obama was so adamant that the surge had to be in service to a time table to withdraw, that he ultimately settled the internal debate by writing a 10 paged single-spaced brief one night on just what he was agreeing to...and got all the major advisers to sign it.

As my friends on the left will rightfully point out, part of this process of clearing a path to the exit from Afghanistan has been the use of drones there and in Pakistan, often resulting in the deaths of civilians.  But to me, as long as Obama is able to keep his eye on the prize here -- it must only be a tool to facilitate what will ultimately be a much smaller American footprint -- I think its a call a pragmatic American president has to make.

And so, our military role in Afghanistan will come to an end, too, as it has in Iraq.  If you do not think that the implementation of two tactical retreats constitutes an ENORMOUS foreign policy accomplishment, I will remind you once again of the failures of his predecessors when confronted with similar moral and strategic dilemmas.  I believe it is the greatest foreign policy accomplishment of any American president in nearly a half century.

And of course, Obama's sense of limits -- he is an avid reader of Niebuhr, recall -- has extended to the rest of his foreign policy as well.  If the situation with a nuclear Iran comes to a head in the next 4 years, it is absolutely essential that we have someone like Obama in charge.

But do you think Obama can explain all of this in a debate, when Romney hammers him repeatedly about killing the bad guys?  God help us all if he can't.  Romney is surrounded by the same neo-conservatives that Bush was.


Anonymous said...

I believe you have deftly argued the major points that we will indeed see in tonight's debate (although don't be surprised if Romney once again brings up the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi, Libya on September 11th as a means of making political hay and making Obama look weak on, of all things, terror). Thus far Romney has been rather elusive on his stance on the Afghan war. His only real statements on the war ("we should not negotiate with the Taliban, we should defeat the Taliban" and "We go anywhere they are--the Taliban--and kill them") sound hopelessly out step with the wishes of the vast majority of Americans (even Republicans) whom polls say are tired with the war. It will be interesting to see if Obama can gain credit for the killing of Bin Ladan and successfully winding down two costly wars that his Republican predecessor started.
Brian Glyn Williams
History Department
University of Mass. Dartmouth

Mark Santow said...

Thanks Brian. I'm curious - did/do you read Obama's thinking similarly, with regard to the 'Afghan surge' decision in 2009?