January/ February 2012 Foreign Affairs

The “more enemies, fewer friends” doctrine.

By James Traub

For all Obama’s efforts, his Iran policy is at best a qualified success; the leadership there is still enriching uranium, still apparently seeking to design a warhead, still posing a profound threat to Israel. The Republican candidates insist that Iran hasn’t capitulated because Obama has not applied enough pressure. They would, of course, cut out the deferential language and the holiday greetings. They would attempt regime change, if from a distance. But the real difference between a hypothetical Republican president and Obama—and it is a very important one—is that a Republican would be prepared to launch an attack on Iran designed to slow their development of nuclear technology, or would give Israel the go-ahead to do so. Yes, Obama has said that “all options are on the table,” but he might not be prepared to attack Iran. The Republicans say they would. “If we reelect Barack Obama,” Mitt Romney said in Spartanburg, “Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.”

At bottom, Obama’s policy is designed to buy time in hopes that the collective bite of sanctions will change the Iranian calculus, or that some as yet unforeseeable change inside Iran will produce a new policy. He seeks, in Cold War language, to contain Iran. Romney and others argue that the U.S. doesn’t have the luxury of containment—that Iran represents an existential threat, which must be stopped now. But airstrikes, whether by the U.S. or Israel, would not wholly eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, and would provoke very serious blowback. Leon Panetta, Obama’s defense secretary, has warned the Israelis of possible “unintended consequences” of such a mission, including attacks on American soldiers, diplomats, and assets across the Middle East. And while some Arab elites might welcome an attack, ordinary citizens in the Middle East would be enraged. The U.S. could thus pay a very grave price for a relatively modest gain.

The Republicans tend to paint themselves as hardheaded realists as against Obama’s universalist idealism; but a true realist would regard such an option as a bad bargain. The Republican candidates see China as another power seeking to assert itself at America’s expense. Romney has said that Obama has let China “run all over us,” stealing American jobs and waging a “trade war” against the U.S. Rick Perry, harking back to hoary Cold War rhetoric—in fact, to Marxist rhetoric—has proclaimed that “the communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history.” Candidates of both parties tend to accuse an incumbent president of the opposite party of coddling China and neglecting human rights, but China’s rising power means that the issues on the other side of the balance are now not chiefly moral, but strategic and, of course, economic. Romney has said that he would haul China before the World Trade Organization on charges that it was manipulating its currency, the renminbi, in order to assure a steady flow of cheap exports.

But as with Iran, it’s not clear how much space actually lies on the more aggressive side of the Obama administration’s own policies. Obama has responded to China’s rapidly increasing military budget, its growing presence in the South China Sea, and its assertive claims over disputed territory in the region by offering pointed reassurance to American allies like Japan and South Korea. On a recent swing through Asia, Obama announced that the U.S. would be stationing 2,500 Marines at a base in Australia, and declared, with uncharacteristic brassiness, “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.” Even while making these shots across China’s bow, the president has tried to send other, perhaps contradictory, messages. On international finance, administration officials have said that the cheap renminbi is hurting the U.S. economy, but they have not threatened retaliation or action before the WTO. On the military front, the White House has not explicitly said that China is trying to exclude the U.S. from the region, though that is what they fear.

A Republican president would, at the very least, shift this delicate balance. The U.S. would more bluntly describe China as a rival and demand changes in Chinese policy more harshly. Conservatives speak of creating a much stronger Asian alliance beefed up by more, and more advanced, American weaponry and a more open acknowledgment of China’s drive for regional hegemony. Indeed, Romney and other conservatives cite the imperative of responding to Chinese militarism as the most powerful argument for increasing the Pentagon budget, rather than cutting it by $450 billion over a decade, as Obama and Congress have agreed to do. Romney would increase defense spending by at least $50 billion a year, and engage in a massive program of shipbuilding aimed in part at deterring Chinese designs. Of course, this would make reducing the budget deficit that much more difficult; Romney has not explained what domestic programs he would cut even more deeply than is currently planned in order to finance such an expansion.

China really does seem to have moved away from its doctrine of “peaceful rise” to one more threatening to the neighborhood, which is why Obama has adopted a tougher tone. But toughness carries dangers of its own. China’s cooperation is indispensable on a vast range of issues, including the global economy, energy supplies, and climate change; provoking Chinese nationalism is a sure path to a scratchy relationship. This is why presidents of both parties have tended to accommodate China more than they said they would as candidates. Moreover, it’s not clear that even those allies who fear China’s bullying tactics would welcome a chestier American presence; they, even more than the U.S., have to balance their security concerns with the wish to benefit from China’s locomotive economy. It is an article of faith among Republicans that the twenty-first century, like the twentieth, will be an American century— which is to say, not a Chinese one. But “communist China” is an absurd archaism, and China is not likely to wind up on the ash heap of history. Treating the world’s premier rising power like the Soviet Union in the 1960s would be a mistake of historic proportions.

James Traub is a journalist specializing in foreign affairs. He writes a "Terms of Engagement," a weekly column in ForeignPolicy.com. He is also writing a biography of John Quincy Adams.


  • Scott A. on January 06, 2012 3:22 PM:

    Where's the mention of Obama's capitulation to Russia by removing anti missile stations from Europe and getting NOTHING in return? Or his administration's general "re-set" on US- Russina relations? What a joke.

  • Andrew G. on January 11, 2012 11:48 AM:

    Huntsman is only mentioned once in this article (and his name is misspelled), yet he without doubt has the most foreign-policy experience. He is perhaps the most viable candidate against Obama (can anyone imagine Romney drawing votes from Obama?) yet receives too little coverage. Chalk it up to the 'sanity' factor.

  • ignatzk on January 14, 2012 2:58 AM:

    "A Republican president would thus move American foreign policy not from the left to the right, but from the center to the right."

    Huh? Where did this come from? Clearly not premises and logic.

    No reason to come back to this Web site.

  • Texas Aggie on January 21, 2012 5:41 PM:

    There is no question that the main thrust of this article, that Obama is the grownup in the discussion amidst a bunch of grade schoolers, is true. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, there is room for disagreement on whether particular policies are functional in getting us from here to there.

    My own feeling is that we need to do some rapid distancing from the Israelis because Netanyahu and the rest of the hardline Zionists are bound and determined to conquer all of the former Davidian territories and are ready to use their nuclear arsenal if they feel threatened. They plan to draw us into a Middle Eastern war because they know that they run a much greater risk of losing if they did it on their own. Frankly I see little difference between the mindset of the people running Israel and the Taliban. The only difference is the vocabulary. The basic motivations are the same. Witness how the behavior of the ultraorthodox of both groups is so similar, especially in their attitudes towards women and ethnic groups not like them.

    As for China, I had to laugh at Mitt's charge that "Obama has let China “run all over us,” stealing American jobs." US jobs were moving to China long before Obama was on the scene thanks to Mitt's compadres in American corporations who were moving their production out of the US in order to take advantage of a dirt cheap work force.