Today's offering was going to be about the presidential campaign having entered a period of statistical probability; that is, what you see is what you will get on Election Day. By this measure, Mitt Romney has been toast for the last week or so as swing state after swing state has swung into the Obama column. That subject seemed . . . uh, a little too predictable, as well as the fact that many pundits are belaboring the obvious these days. Besides which, I have to save stuff for a day-after election post-mortem, the working headline for which is What Possibly Could Go Wrong? The Story Of The Historic Romney-Ryan Collapse, and muse on what Republicans will do after their drubbing. Blame everyone but themselves, of course.
Then it occurred to me that the very area where primary candidate Barack Obama was most vulnerable in 2008 was his lack of foreign policy experience and that foreign policy, beyond the first steps toward health care reform, is his signal achievement.
Hillary Clinton, the last opponent standing at the mid point of the primary season, memorably called into question Obama's ability to be decisive on foreign policy in a television ad riffed on so effectively by cartoonist Pat Oliphant that questioned whether voters could trust him to take a 3 a.m. call in the Oval Office about a world crisis. In the general election, John McCain was no foreign policy slouch even if he did choose a running mate who was moronically inept when it came to what went on beyond her kitchen window, and he too hammered Obama for being a neophyte.
But in an enormous political reversal, Obama has seized the foreign policy high ground long held by the Republican Party, and try as he might, Romney has not been able to lay a finger on him.
For good reason. Obama has been able to do in three and three-quarter years what George Bush could not do in eight: Destroy the leadership of Al Qaeda, get the last U.S. troops out of Iraq, and assist in toppling two Middle Eastern dictators and the bad guys running Burma. Were it not for the albatross of Afghanistan bequeathed by his predecessor, Obama would pretty much have a clean sweep.
So how did he do it?
* Consensus building between the White House, Pentagon and State Department.
The key players in this effort have been Clinton, who has served magnificently as secretary of state; Vice President Biden, who has drawn on his own formidable foreign policy experience, and Robert Gates, the wizened Bush administration holdover, who stayed on as defense secretary until July 2011.
* Carefully calibrated responses rather than massive troop deployments.
The emphasis has been on multilateralism and not unilateralism, including the involvement of NATO countries, and diplomacy over bellicosity while avoiding the kind of triumphalism in which the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis reveled.
Nowhere has Obama succeeded more than in Asia.
By taking advantage of China overplaying its hand in the South China Sea, he has reconfirmed the central role of the U.S. the region with the opening of a new base in Australia, while the rapprochement with Burma also has long-term strategic implications.
Obama also has been lucky.
Iran, despite the usual Islamic Republic bloviating, has pretty much minded its own business as the tougher sanctions pushed by the White House have taken hold. Israel and Palestine remain stalemated but not at war, and other potential hotspots have not boiled over.
The largest foreign policy setback on Obama's watch is a qualified one.
The administration was unable to work out an agreement with Iraq to maintain a U.S. troop presence beyond the end of 2011, making it more likely that Iraq will continue to unravel into sectarian warfare and further destabilize the region. Note, however, that this would not be a concern had that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis not invaded Iraq in the first place, an action that surely is the greatest foreign policy failure in American history.
It also is a certainty that once the U.S.-led NATO coalition withdraws from Afghanistan the country will further devolve into chaos because of the Taliban and meddlesome Pakistani interests, but the blame here also belongs to the Bush administration. The U.S. appropriately invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks but soon bled that conflict of troops and resources to fight the Iraq war, while giving up on taking out Osama bin Laden.
Navy commandos took out the Al Qaeda leader on Obama's orders, but many of his cadre have perished in drone attacks that despite administration denials exact a level of collateral civilian damage that I find unacceptable.
* * * * *
"Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end," Obama said as he took a muted victory lap after the death of Colonel Moammar el-Qaddafi, the longest surviving strongman. "We've demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century."
Romney has proven to be profoundly inept if not downright dangerous when it comes to foreign policy.
Recall that he had the temerity to say Quaddafi's death "did not validate" the president's approach to Libya, which in retrospect makes somewhat less shocking his fact-free rush to judgment denouncing Obama last month after the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others as being "disgraceful." Then there is the statement captured on the infamous 47 Percent video that his response to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, the most intractable foreign policy issue for American presidents for the last several decades, would be to kick the can down the road.
McCain has been one of the few Republicans to praise the president for his foreign policy chops, although he and others have been critical of the administration's somewhat botched response to the Libya killings.
"I think the administration deserves great credit," McCain has said. "Obviously, I had different ideas on the tactical side, but the world is a better place."
Cartoon copyright 2008
by Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate
by Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate