WASHINGTON – In this rather silly and definitely low brow sound bite political campaign, president Obama said in a recent TV interview that the current mess in the Arab world is akin to a “bump in the road”. This unfortunate metaphor was seized upon by Mitt Romney and his surrogates as an example of Obama’s superficiality when it comes to serious international matters.
Bump in the road
“Bump in the road’? There has been a wave of anti-American violence in the Muslim World. Our Embassies have been attacked. In Benghazi our Consulate was overtaken and destroyed. This planned attack caused the first death of a serving US Ambassador in 30 years. In the meantime, Washington sits and watches while Syria is up in flames. Last but not least, no clear plan to stop Iranian open nuclear ambitions.
Still, some Obama surrogates dismissed the whole thing. Amazingly, one of them summarized Obama’s foreign policy management credentials by asserting that the American public will trust the abilities of this president because he is the one who ordered Osama bin Laden killed. So, that’s it. Obama scored big. With Osama dead all issues are taken care of.
Killing Osama not enough
Look, killing Osama was obviously a very good thing. But it was a tactical victory in what had become a secondary front. At the time of his death Osama was no longer at the top of his game. He was a fugitive living in hiding in Pakistan. While still the inspirational leader of a transnational Islamic radical movement, he was not that important anymore.
Which is to say that the American foreign policy agenda is much larger than killing one leader of a radical anti-American organization.
Does Romney have better ideas?
That said, while Romney claims that he would do a lot better, I seriously doubt it. He is also guilty of oversimplification. Romney would like a more muscular foreign policy in which America does not apologize and is more assertive. Very nice concept; but in practice it means almost nothing.
The truth of the matter is that the world has become more complicated, with plenty more assertive actors, (China, India, Brazil, among others), while America has become weaker in relative as well as absolute terms. Other developments, such as the Arab Spring and its aftermath, or the never-ending European debt crisis, are so large and so complex that America can do very little to direct or reshape them.
Pax Americana based on US economic strength
Post WWII Pax Americana was based on American inspired principles of democracy and free trade. But these ideas were sustained by the credibility of the immense and unmatched American economic and military power. Now the overwhelming economic power is no longer there, while US military is on its way down, simply because a heavily indebted America can no longer sustain it. This is the hard and unpleasant truth.
Obama leading a country on its way down
Obama wants to avoid this conversation on the underpinnings of America power altogether, because he is now leading and wants to keep leading this downsized America. This being the trend, it is easier to tell the public that all is well because the guy who killed bin Laden is in charge than to dwell on the unpleasant realities of diminished means causing a re-evaluation of what goals are actually possible.
Romney also avoiding the hard issues
Romney is also avoiding the issues by stating that the problem is Obama’s weakness. It may be so, in part. Obama may have the wrong instincts. But the hard fact is that America is $ 16 trillion in debt. Its economy is no longer buoyant, the rate of US industrially relevant innovation is disappointing.
Meanwhile, would be military recruits that supposedly want to join the best armed forces in the world fail to answer correctly this question: “If 2 + X = 4, what is the value of X?”. (I am quoting this from the Friedman Mandelbaum book, That Used To Be US).
How to re-establish economic vigor
An adult conversation about foreign policy would be centered on how we quickly re-establish the economic and industrial foundations of US power. Impoverished super powers are no longer super powers. This applied to Spain, to Great Britain; and it will soon apply to us, if we do not take quick remedial steps.