January/ February 2012 Foreign Affairs

The “more enemies, fewer friends” doctrine.

By James Traub

One of the favorite GOP tropes is that President Obama has truckled to our adversaries and betrayed our allies. The one ally the Republicans are almost always thinking of in this formulation is Israel. Michele Bachmann vows never—unlike Obama—to let an inch of space come between the U.S. and Israel. Romney accuses Obama of throwing Israel “under the bus.” It is absolutely true that Obama has been more willing to criticize Israel than George Bush was, though no more so than many of his other predecessors. Obama determined early on in his tenure that Israel would have to make the good-faith gesture of freezing the construction of settlements in the occupied territories in order to give the Palestinian leadership the political space to make painful concessions of its own in a negotiation over a two-state solution. Israel ultimately balked, and the Palestinians walked away. In his Cairo speech, Obama called on each side to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other’s core aspirations. It would be hard to argue that his policy of equal pressure on both sides succeeded: Obama managed to offend the Israelis and disappoint the Palestinians, with little to show for it. He is, however, working with very unpromising materials, since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unwilling to make serious concessions for peace, while the Palestinians are so divided that they probably couldn’t even agree on concessions of their own.

A Republican president would stand by the Israeli leadership even if it behaved in ways that inflamed the Palestinians, and the Arab world in general. This could well make a very bad situation significantly worse. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan (and now CIA chief) David Petraeus have all publicly stated that the deadlock over a Palestinian state fosters anger at the U.S. in the Arab world, and thus endangers our national security. That anger will only deepen as prospects for peace disappear altogether and the U.S. resolutely defends Israeli intransigence. Indeed, in recent years the certainty of support from Republican leaders has given Netanyahu the confidence to ignore Obama’s pressure. In the past, autocratic allies in the Arab world have served as interlocutors with Israel, and dampened public fury over the plight of the Palestinians. The Arab Spring has largely put an end to that era—which means that the U.S. is more exposed than ever to Arab public opinion.

The U.S. under a President Romney—or Gingrich or Perry—may be more certain where it stands than it is today; but it will stand alone. The U.S. will have more adversaries— including Iran, China, Russia, Venezuela, and “Islamists,” to name the principal ones the candidates have targeted—and it will have fewer allies. As a candidate, Obama argued that George Bush had done America a disservice by turning his back on traditional allies in western Europe as well as the United Nations, and he set out to repair relations in each case. White House officials argue that the combination of restored multilateralism and compliance with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty has helped the U.S. forge strong responses to both Iran and North Korea, while the president’s willingness to share leadership in the UN Security Council led to the resolutions that authorized NATO’s air war in Libya. Multilateralism, for Obama, is not a gesture made out of weakness, but a means of enhancing American strength.

The Republicans, by contrast, see the UN as a fundamentally hostile place, the more so as the issue of Palestinian statehood continues to play out there. Under a Republican president, U.S.-UN tensions might sink to the level of Bush’s contentious first term, and Washington might respond by defunding all or part of the institution. Whatever immediate satisfactions this provided to some might fade as the new president discovered that the UN does a lot of things—like peacekeeping—that the U.S. wishes to have done but doesn’t want to do itself. The Republicans are also skeptical of many of America’s traditional allies. Few of them even mention western Europe. Romney, for example, speaks of Europe chiefly as the home of a failed experiment in social democracy. Gingrich does the same. But Europe’s problems will soon become America’s, and the U.S. will have to work with European capitals in order to contain the spreading financial crisis.

Presidential candidates almost always treat the world as simpler than it really is. Candidate Obama, to his credit, did not reduce foreign policy to shibboleths, and never made success sound like a mere effort of will. His rivals, however, seem to actually believe the simpleminded nostrums they peddle on the stump and in debate. That’s a frightening thought. The Republicans believe that the world is more dangerous than Obama thinks—and they would conduct America’s policy in a way that might make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

[Return to What if Obama Loses: Imagining the consequences of a GOP victory]

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.