Christopher Lee

Obama ticks most of the defense & foreign policy boxes


4th September 2012

Barak Obama speaks with authority of office.  Romney speaks from an empty can of rhetoric. That is the reality of the two opening rallies of the men who would be President of the United States.

Romney did his best and that, ladies and gentlemen of the American electorate, is the shame of it.  Romney said nothing to prove that he had the credentials of a world leader other than the fact that he wants the job.  Obama’s track record is much better than Republican suggest and that record of office speaks for itself.

Importantly for the world beyond the United States, an American President’s global credentials will decide or heavily influence foreign and defense policy for more than a quarter of world governments. These governments are America’s natural allies such as the UK and Israel, governments with bi-lateral and multi-lateral treaty obligations such as NATO members, governments with both established and burgeoning commercial agreements including defense equipment deals and remember, those governments opposed to American policy that adjust theirs in response to US postures.

Commonly, we are reminded that the single biggest influence on the American voter is The Economy Stupid.  However, to a significant degree, US economics is nudged in different directions by White House defense and foreign policy and its success or failure over a long period unlike the markets that only flutter the economy.

Hence the need to see Obama’s global record. To begin with, it might be remembered that when Obama moved into the Oval Office, the economy was in the worst state since Franklin D Roosevelt arrived at the White House in 1933. From Lehman Brothers to AIG to Bank of America to General Motors and Chrysler, there was a sense that however Obama reacted, his presidency could never recover America’s confidence at home.  

Abroad, America’s foreign policy was suffering from the military hangover in Iraq and the utter impossibility of imposing its will in Afghanistan. His let’s go decisions on Iraq were easy top make because there was no distinct, certainly no logical option to stay.  Americans wanted home, the Iraqis wanted Americans out so they could get on with their cruel and therefore cynical internecine war.

The Iraq surge example devised by General David Petraeus was deployed in Afghanistan without apparently understanding that this was tactical and theatre warfare on a quite different scale and moreover, a complex tapestry of kill and burn, low intensity operation and imperial combat.  America was totally unsuited to fighting the enemy within Afghanistan surrounded by political contradictions in Pakistan, India, the Central Asian Republics and Iran. Worse, Obama’s advisers did not understand that the war was not to be won.  

After the initial Petraeus and then the long assessment to the White House, Obama saw what many of his military did not see: the US had to be out.  His declaration of a 2014 withdrawal was totally contrary to accepted doctrine of announcing a pull-out, but that mattered not.  Obama said Bring Them Home. It was a sensible decision.

In 2011, he – with advice of course – announced that US defense policy would have to reinforce its Pacific interests especially with a major force deployed, not as a threat but as a prudent precaution in the China and South China Seas.  The establishing agreement with Australia for a basing arrangement in the Northern Territories was the clearest reminder that NATO, while an important alliance, no longer had America’s full attention.

If global policy were that easy.

The Arab Spring and all that followed (including the racked-up Iran Question) tested US foreign analysis.  Obama was fortunate in having one of the most energetic Secretaries of State in generations, Hilary Clinton and the shrewdest and most trusted of UN Permanent Representatives, Susan Rice. On balance, it’s been a good team.

But at home, The Economy Stupid has remained Public Enemy Number One. That alone has caused the Administration to look at defense procurement and acquisition and cut the budget by a token amount – $500 billion.  (Romney says it should be increased by $2trillion – but doesn’t say where the money’s coming from).  Projects have been delayed, reviewed and cancelled, including part of the F35 program.  None of this will weaken US defense systems nor the overall security of the nation, a security system that has been running hard since Harry Truman was in office.

So what’s the reading on Obama? No President gets it right because foreign and defense policy is long term and cannot be switched like monetary or even fiscal policy and market conscience programs. Thus on balance, the Obama Administration has coped with what it inherited – hence the absolute minimum involvement in Libya, the cautious re-deployment in the Pacific and Australia, the slowly-slowly position on ABM defenses in Europe.

In all, and pork-barreling aside, whoever takes the poll ion November will not inherit a disastrous foreign & defense policy.  On present evidence, a Democrat White House may handle it better.


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