Special Report

January/ February 2012 Foreign Affairs

The “more enemies, fewer friends” doctrine.

By James Traub

All of the Republican candidates for president believe that Barack Obama’s foreign policy has failed the United States; most of them believe he has failed in the same way. They insist that Obama doesn’t really believe in America—that, as Mitt Romney has put it, we have never before had a president “so eager to address the world with an apology on his lips and doubt in his heart.” They believe that he has cozied up to enemies like Iran and competitors like China, and walked away from allies like Israel. They view him as a humanitarian with a weak grasp of America’s core interests who has presided over a unilateral disarmament. Obama, in short, is a soft man in a hard world—which is pretty much what Republicans have been saying about Democrats since Vietnam.

At the same time, the fact that Obama’s rivals are certain that he is wrong does not mean that they have a clear idea—or in some cases any idea—of what is right. At times the candidates’ level of ignorance has been stupefying. In early November, then front-runner Herman Cain worried about China becoming a nuclear threat (the country has had nuclear weapons since 1964). At a foreign-policy-only debate held in Spartanburg, South Carolina, two weeks later, Rick Perry vowed to let Europe solve its own fiscal crisis since the euro is a “competitor” to the dollar, and Michele Bachmann concluded that “the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel.” Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have much more fully articulated views than most of their rivals, but they reach much the same conclusions as the others. As Romney, the most plausible nominee, said in the party’s national security debate (held a few days after the foreign policy debate), “President Obama says that we have people throughout the world with common interests. I just don’t agree with him. I think there are people in the world that want to oppress other people, that are evil.” “Engagement” only encourages those evil forces; the time has come to replace the gentle handshake with the clenched fist.

That, in any case, is how Romney says he would govern America’s foreign affairs. But foreign policy, unlike domestic policy, consists chiefly of reactions to unforeseen events, and is shaped as much by those events as by presidential ideology. As a candidate, George W. Bush promised a hardheaded policy based on “interests” rather than “values,” but emerged from 9/11 sounding like a Wilsonian idealist determined to democratize the Middle East. Nevertheless, predispositions, basic assumptions about the world, do matter. Bush the candidate took a dim view of multilateralism, and as president he disdained the United Nations in favor of “coalitions of the willing.” Bush and his team viewed nation building as socialism on a global scale, and they chose to do as little of it as possible in Iraq and Afghanistan—a mistake Bush admitted in his memoirs. So while it is impossible to say exactly how a Republican’s foreign policy will differ from Obama’s, it is nonetheless quite clear that the outcome of the 2012 election will have a profound effect on America’s behavior in the world.

Strange though it seems, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the great foreign policy dramas of the last decade, will be very little affected by the presidential election: they are destined to fade away no matter who wins in 2012. The Republican candidates insist that, unlike Obama, they will “listen to our generals,” but none of them is so rash as to speak of “victory” in Afghanistan, as John McCain did in 2008. The American people have no more stomach for ground wars in the broader Middle East, much as they had none for ground wars in Asia by the early 1970s. The U.S. will largely leave the Afghan people to their own devices by 2014 even if this means that the Taliban will seize control of portions of the country. And Pakistan will remain a supreme problem, as neither party has any cure for this constant source of neuralgia.

But elsewhere, a Republican president would turn up the dial of confrontation. Iran is a particularly stark example, since Obama’s rivals have described his engagement policy there as complicity with evil (Rick Santorum: “We sided with evil because our president believes our enemies are legitimately aggrieved”). As a candidate, Obama argued that the U.S. had sacrificed even the possibility of finding common ground with nations like Iran by refusing to talk to them. As president, he replaced the bellicose moralism of George Bush’s “axis of evil” with a more anodyne lexicon of “mutual respect” for “mutual interests.” He took pains to extend greetings to the Iranian people on the holiday of Nowruz and to refer to the country as the “Islamic Republic of Iran.” In his speech in Cairo in June 2009, Obama even acknowledged America’s role in the 1953 overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian leader.

There is more to this strategy than Republicans like to acknowledge. Perhaps Obama did believe (naively) that this more beguiling language would make it easier for the Iranian leadership to come out of its shell and make concessions on its nuclear program. But officials around him said from the outset that his ulterior purpose was to help forge an international coalition around tough measures toward Iran by first showing that the Iranians would not respond to gentle ones. And in this he succeeded: in 2010, Obama persuaded Russia and China to accept tough sanctions on Iran adopted by the UN Security Council. Iran is much more isolated today than it was only a few years ago. The Obama administration has been using clandestine methods as well, and in all likelihood collaborated with Israel to develop the Stuxnet computer virus, which disrupted Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.

Indeed, here, as elsewhere, Obama has proved to be less “liberal,” and more traditionally pragmatic, than many of his supporters hoped or his critics have charged. He has increased the use of Predator drones and continued the practice of extraordinary rendition of terror suspects to other countries, despite criticisms from human rights groups. Many of the old-line foreign policy professionals who served under the first President Bush, like Brent Scowcroft, the former national security advisor, feel more comfortable with Obama’s conduct of foreign policy than with the more confrontational one that Romney and others promise. (Only Jon Hunstman, of all the Republican candidates, has sought the advice of this group.) A Republican president would thus move American foreign policy not from the left to the right, but from the center to the right.

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