Foreign policy has long been considered the one area in which President Obama has a decisive edge over challenger Mitt Romney in the eyes of most voters. Or at least that was the case until Sept. 11 2012, when mobs overran the U.S. embassy in Cairo and Al Qaeda terrorists killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, together with three other State department personnel.
Voters do not normally pay a great deal of attention to foreign affairs, at least in the absence of obvious disaster or war, and that has served to protect President Obama's foreign policy from closer voter scrutiny. While the United States' determination and ability to secure its vital interests and guard the stability of the international order have declined on his watch, these are matters far from the purview of most voters. As long as the President removed American troops from Iraq – no matter what the cost in terms of expanding Iranian influence in the country – and is well along in the process of doing so in Afghanistan, voters were sure to give him the nod over Governor Romney when it comes to guiding America's foreign affairs over the next four years.
September 11 2012 changed all that, and the events of that day and the administration's response to them will likely dominate discussion of foreign policy until November 6. From the point of view of a candidate locked in a very close contest, it is understandable why Romney would punch away at Obama's greatest foreign policy vulnerability: By putting the President on the defensive, Romney can negate Obama's perceived foreign policy advantage. But in truth, the events of September 11 are just a subset of more general policy failures that Romney will have to address if he is elected.
Let us first understand why September 11 constitutes a virtual refutation of the centerpiece of the Obama administration's foreign policy – its outreach to the Moslem world. Obama entered office with a near mystical belief in his powers of persuasion and the force of his charisma. That confidence was most on display with respect to the Muslim world. Both as a candidate and after his election, Obama touted his formative years spent in Muslim Indonesia and his knowledge of Koran.
His much publicized 2009 Cairo speech was the high point of his outreach to the Muslim world. There he proclaimed, without a scintilla of evidence, the identity of Islamic and American values: "[Islam and America] share common principles – principles of justice and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings." He used that same speech to apologize for a litany of American wrongs to the Muslim world, including having acted "contrary to our ideals" in the interrogation of Muslim prisoners. And he implied that anti-Muslim prejudice, Islamophobia, lies behind criticism of Islamic intolerance, anti-Semitism, and misogyny: "We cannot disguise hostility to any religion behind the pretense of liberalism."
Yet for all the apologies and bowing to Arab potentates, the United States is no more popular in the Middle East than under President George W. Bush. According to the Pew Center, America's unfavorability ratings in the both Egypt and Jordan are higher than they were four years ago. The day after the Cairo embassy was overrun by mobs so were a number of other U.S. embassies around the Middle East.
Obama's failure to boost America's popularity – a highly overrated quality at any rate -- highlights one of the central follies of the Obama administration's reading of the Muslim world – the assumption that anti-Americanism is primarily a result of American actions rather than growing out of indigenous forces within Islam and the deep sense of failure that pervades Arab and Muslim societies when they compare themselves to the West.
There is much evidence that Obama actually believes the bromides he offered in Cairo about the identity of Islam and democracy. He consistently portrays radical Islam, with its expansionist theology, as a fringe phenomenon in the Islamic world, and the problem of radical Islam as primarily one of a few terrorists groups. As Middle East analyst Barry Rubin puts it, the Obama administration is focused on law enforcement actions against Al Qaeda, while Islamists take over entire countries.
Its misreading of the Arab and Muslim world led the administration to take a far too sanguine view of Arab Spring and to take too little account of the dangers of posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, at the expense of true liberals, in countries under transition. Obama placed Muslim Brotherhood representatives in the front row of his Cairo speech. And the administration provided Egypt's new Muslim-Brotherhood-led government with $1.3 billion of emergency aid, with no strings attached. Yet President Mohamed Morsi did nothing to prevent the Cairo embassy from being overrun by rioters. Nor, it seems, did it ever occur to the President or Secretary of State to demand that he do so. Even President Obama had to admit afterwards that Egypt is no longer "exactly an ally."
The slightest dip into Muslim Brotherhood theology – the group also spawned Al Qaeda and Hamas – and its rampant anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism would have warned the administration that this would be the case. At root, the Obama administration's inability to understand the limits on Muslim Brotherhood moderation derives from the refusal of liberals to take religious seriously. But religious principles cannot be abrogated overnight. As the leading living Muslim Brotherhood theorist Khariat el-Shafar puts it, "No one can come say, 'Let's change the overall mission' [i.e., the Islamization of all aspects of society]. . . . No one can say, 'Forget obedience, discipline and structure.'"
The murder of the Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens by Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists put to rest one of the central boasts of the President Obama's campaign – i.e., that the killing of Osama bin Laden marked the end of Al Qaeda – and turned it into at best a symbolic victory. Protestors in Cairo and at other embassies in the Arab world chanting, "Obama, Obama, we love Osama," brought the point home.
And the assassination called into question the administration's Libyan policy, by highlighting the degree to which the Western-supported overthrow of Gaddafi created a vacuum in Libya into which jihadi terrorists have poured.
IN RESPONSE TO THE EVENTS of September 11, top administration officials – Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Presidential Press Secretary Jay Carney, and the President himself quickly settled on a narrative: the trigger for Cairo riots (and those that followed the next day in Yemen and elsewhere), as well as the events leading to Ambassador Stevens murder was a trailer for an insulting film about Islam apparently produced in America. That narrative, the falsity of which should have been quickly realized by every sentient being, was the outgrowth of both politics and ideology.
First, the ideology. The narrative fit well with administration's basic view of the Muslim world comprised of people basically just like us, albeit with a lower threshold of irritability, whose hatred of America and the West is largely the result of the wrongs and insults they have suffered. Clinton, Rice, and Carney thus proclaimed over and over again their revulsion at a movie they had never seen, and which may not even exist. In response to Egyptian President Morsi's demand that the those responsible for the film be prosecuted, the producer of the trailer (once he was identified) was visited by brown-shirted U.S. Probation officers in the middle of the night and taken away for questioning about possible probation violations. And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey contacted an obscure Florida pastor to ask him not to show the film so as to not incite further Muslim rioting. In short, many in the administration do actually view the United States, including its freedom of expression, as a principal cause of radical Islam.
Politics, of course, had a good deal to do with the chosen narrative as well. Candidate Obama obviously had no interest in highlighting the fact that Al Qaeda is still alive and kicking, much less the failure of his entire outreach to the Muslim world. Thus Press Secretary Carney was at pains to insist that the rioting was "obviously not a response to United States policy, and obviously not the administration or the American people, [but to] a film we judged to be reprehensible and disgusting."
Yet from the start the story did not hold, even with respect to the events at the Cairo embassy. On September 8, an Arabic-language website called for the burning of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo unless certain demands (none involving a film) were met. Those threats were published in an article by Raymond Ibrahim of the Middle East Forum the day before the Cairo embassy was overrun. (Despite the warnings, security was not reinforced and the Marines guarding the embassy were not provided with ammunition.) Moreover, the leader of the rioters was none other than Muhammed al-Zawahiri, brother of Al Qaeda's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In Libya, the claim of a spontaneous riot evolving into a terrorist attack was facially implausible. The night before the attack, Sean Smith, one of those killed, posted on-line his premonition of a coming attack: "We saw one of our 'police' that guard the compound taking pictures." He worried about dying that night. Finally, the number of those who attacked the embassy compound and the quality of their weaponry made it clear that the attack was a carefully planned terrorist operation. Just prior to congressional hearings three weeks later, the State Department finally admitted that all had been quiet at the compound when Ambassador Stevens bid farewell to his last guest, less than an hour before the start of the attack. At the same time, State Department representatives detailed numerous requests for increased security in Benghazi, all of which had been turned down.
Following the Watergate rule, the cover-up only made matters worse, much worse. Within the administration, everyone was busy pushing the envelope when it came to explaining why the administration had spent five days pushing a blatantly false story about a spontaneous demonstration morphing into a terror attack. The White House claims that it was relying on intelligence reports, but the intelligence points circulated to Congress appear to have been carefully crafted. Reuter's Mark Housenball reports that the first information streaming into Washington during and just following the Benghazi attack did not mention a demonstration. The initial intelligence report fashioned from those feeds, however, did raise the possibility that the Benghazi terrorists sought to use the Cairo eruption over the film a a pretext for the attacks. Only four days later, did the administration circulate to Congress "CIA talking points" suggesting that the [non-existent] demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protest in Cairo.
[This piece was written prior to the October 16 presidential debate, at which President Obama claimed to have referred to the killing of Ambassador Stevens as "an act of terror," in remarks in the Rose Garden on September 12, before leaving for the fundraiser in Las Vegas. But the reference to an "act of terror" followed two paragraphs discussing the attacks of September 11 2011. In his discussion of the events in Libya, the president referred only to "senseless violence" and "brutal acts," perpetrated by "killers," not terrorists. And he implicitly linked those "brutal acts" to the offensive movie, by describing the United States as a nation that "rejects all efforts to denigrate religious beliefs of others."]
Meanwhile, at a State Department briefing of reporters on October 9, Charlene Lamb, who was in real-time communication wit Benghazi during the attack, gave a detailed account of the events at the U.S. compound on the night of September 11, and said that it had never been the State Department's view that the attack on the compound was anything other than a terrorist operation or that it had been preceded by a demonstration. Asked by Fox News' Chris Wallace whether President Obama had met with national security officials after the attack before jetting away to a fundraiser in Las Vegas, campaign guru David Axelrod evaded the question.
The question remains to be answered: If the State Department never believed that the Benghazi attack was the outgrowth of a protest over the movie trailer, how did Ambassador Rice appear on numerous Sunday morning talk shows, five days after the attack to espouse her "the movie made them do it theory." She is, after all, a State Department employee. And her boss, Secretary of State Clinton, also busied herself with denunciations of the unseen film and wondering how this could have happened in Libya, after everything America had done for the people of Libya.
In sum, the foreign policy apparatus of the administration stands indicted for having negligently failed to protect its foreign service personnel in dangerous locations, and, far worse, for having advanced a narrative to explain the events of September 11 that was either mendacious or phantasmagoric, in order to evade having to face the delusions of its foreign policy towards the Muslim world. And Mitt Romney will understandably harp on these points, which are relatively easily digested, in the coming debates.
NEVERTHELESS, IT IS TOO BAD that the discussion will likely not focus on more fundamental issues concerning the direction of American foreign policy. Perhaps that would be too much to expect from the debate format. As Jackson Diehl writes in the October 15 Washington Post, future historians are likely to attach much more importance to Obama's Syrian policy than to poor security decisions made by mid-level State Department officials about Benghazi. The former, he writes, "exemplifies every weakness in his foreign policy – from his excessive faith in "engaging" troublesome foreign leaders to his insistence on multilateralism as an end in itself to his self-defeating caution in asserting American power." As a consequence, the United States sits on the sidelines in Syria, while "allies" like Saudi Arabia fund the Islamist forces among the Syrian opposition, and thereby make likely that the world's largest cache of chemical and biological weapons will eventually fall into the hands of Islamists.
Obama seeks to deflect attention from Syria so that he can carry on with his cheery mantra of "war is receding." But the truth is the world is not becoming a safer place. In many ways, it is much more unpredictable and unstable since the end of the Cold War 1989, and with it a bi-polar world. The rise of radical Islam and the accompanying proliferation of terrorism, by both state and non-state actors, increase the sources of danger.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and the withdrawal of America from its role as guarantor of global order will be filled by actors both inimical to our values and security. Neither America nor the world can afford an America that is, in Bernard Lewis's words, neither trusted by its friends nor feared by its enemies. But that is what has taken place over at an accelerated rate over the last four years (and to be fair under a series of American administrations.) It's not that America does not continue to hold the best geo-political cards, writes Walter Russell Mead, but that it has forgotten how to play them.
Iran is the test case for the future of the global order, Bret Stephens argues, in a masterful article in the current Commentary devoted to foreign policy issues. Iran presents Western policymakers, chief among them the President of the United States, with a clear binary choice. Either avoid a confrontation now because it will "likely entail unseen and unpleasant consequences, or accept a nuclear Iran soon, which will entail easily foreseeable and utterly disastrous consequences. It says something about the quality of statesmanship and public discourse in the West today that the choice should be presented as a difficult one and the decision . . . should be so much in doubt."
Romney has spoken about the need to identify and aid potential allies among the Syrian opposition, has criticized the Obama administration for failing to convince the Iranians of its seriousness, and called for the United States to retain its overwhelming naval superior and the ability to deploy on multiple fronts. In a major foreign policy address, just after the first presidential debate, he asserted that "our friends and allies" want more, not less, American leadership. For "if America does not lead, others will – others who do not share our interests and our values."
American global leadership cannot be separated from the theme of economic strength that has been the centerpiece of the Romney campaign. As Cicero (quoted by Victor Davis Hanson in the curren Commentary) warned, "the sinews of war are endless money." The Soviet Union ultimately imploded because it did not have the economic capability of matching the American arms buildup under Reagan. By the same token, if American entitlement spending continues to skyrocket, until it accounts for almost the entire U.S. budget, the United States will be unable to maintain its position as the world's pre-eminent military power.
And if the global order devolves into chaos, following an American withdrawal from its role of guardian of stability and trade, there will be no hope of the recovery of the world economy from its current doldrums. Romney would do well to link a growing, vibrant American economy to continued American leadership.
But my guess is that his critique of Obama's Syrian policy will be muted by the lack of any good or obvious options – just less bad ones. Nor will he enunciate any red lines on Iran, lest he seen to be acting as the puppet of Prime Minister Netanyahu. And too much emphasis on the necessity of American leadership will, unfortunately, be selling spinach to an American public eager to consume of ice cream of Obama's "war is receding."
So, as Diehl writes with resignation, it will be easier for Romney to focus in the foreign policy debate on the death of ambassador in a terrorist attack than to force President Obama into a serious discussion about American foreign policy going forward.