The Balance Sheet: Foreign Policy in the 2012 Election

Like his predecessor’s administration, the Obama administration has been indelibly marked by its role in Middle Eastern politics. From highs like the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the successful intervention in Libya to lows like accusations of fumbling the response to the protests in Tahir Spring and widely criticized drone attacks in Pakistan, the priorities of this administration in its approach to the war of terror are clear - a combination of rigid stances and flexing of military muscle. 21st century American politics has come to mean fighting fear mongering with only more fear mongering and violence. 

While Obama has attempted to distance himself from Bush on most issues, he has shared a remarkable amount of policy continuity with “W”. Early attempts in his term to distance himself from the Bush Doctrine of preemptive action and aggressive use of American military and economic power largely failed. Guantanamo Bay continues to remain open and efforts to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 terrorists in civilian court were eventually thwarted. While Obama has admittedly made positive contributions to the worldwide perception of America, he has not made substantial inroads in the Middle East where American policies continue to be reviled by the vast majority of citizens.


I say this all not to critique Obama harshly, but rather to put things in perspective. College campuses, especially campuses like Yale in liberal strongholds like Connecticut, tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic. While the criticisms of our opponent are often apt, we tend to overlook the flaws of our own candidate.

Despite the critiques that can be made regarding various aspects of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, a number of positives might tip the balance sheet for most voters who place foreign policy at the top of their list of priorities for the election. According to a July 2012 Gallup poll, 42% of voters list “dealing with terrorism and international threats” as a priority in this election, thus it is an issue that any presidential candidate must be well-versed in. Given increasing globalization and the presence of multilateral organizations, Obama’s personal and academic background make him an ideal leader. Moreover, his natural sensitivity to foreign relations have been augmented by the extensive skills of Vice President Biden, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who accrued foreign policy experience during her time as First Lady and as a junior senator. With Clinton poised to retire after this term, Senator John Kerry, the current Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as a frequent envoy to countries in the Middle East and Africa. 

In comparison with these foreign policy heavyweights, the Romney campaign seems to be severely lacking. Aside from his experience as a Mormon missionary in France in the late 1960s and interactions with foreign investors through Bain Capital, Romney’s foreign policy expertise can only be described as virtually nonexistent. His absence of diplomatic skills was painfully obvious during his summertrips to London for the Olympic Games and to Israel. In London, his series of gaffes was the subject of derision from pundits and politicians from both sides of the pond. After Romney told NBC News that “a few things that were disconcerting”, British Prime Minister David Cameron responded tersely saying: “Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.” Romney continued his string of faux pas in Israel when seemed to insinuate that Israel was more economically successful than Palestine due to cultural differences. 

Romney’s foreign policy stances betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of power in a 21st century world. His approach to international affairs is not only isolationist and antiquated, but encourages the “might is right” approach to foreign policy that incited worldwide hatred and scorn during the Bush era.

The informed citizen must be cognizant of the fallacies of both candidates. While holding Obama accountable for failed promises and diplomatic failings, we also must accord him respect for steering us through four years without a domestic terror attack. Simultaneously, we must be wary of a candidate who reaches back for the days of an America that overuses its military and economic might.

It is time for both candidates to openly acknowledge that America occupies a different place in the world than it did over 60 years ago. With Mitt Romney painting Russia as America’s biggest threat, we appear to be grapsing at straws to return to a world that is gone. World War II and the Cold War left us as the de-facto guiding light of peace, democracy and diplomacy. However, as political and economic unions form worldwide and emerging economies gain leverage in the marketplace, we have slipped from being the dominant leader to being a powerful voice among many.

And that position is not inherently bad. In fact, it could serve as an encouragement for increased trade with the US in a time where we see more countries increasingly shifting towards business with China because of wide availability of capital as well as the perception that the Chinese treat their dignitaries as equals. 

Instead of trying - and often failing - to manipulate the world to meet our own ends, perhaps it is time to take a new approach by capitalizing on America’s strengths and working on our weaknesses. While new technology is constantly being developed on American soil, we face a serious uphill battle to remain at the cutting edge if our educational system continues to remain sub-par and American students struggle to compete with talented schoolchildren in other nations. We need to develop new strategies instead of living in the valley of nostalgia. We need to accept decline and learn how to manipulate it to land on our feet. 

It is time for campaigns and debate moderators to more openly address the reality of the world we live in and develop appropriate military and diplomatic strategies to address this new era. However, despite its shortcomings on the foreign policy front, the Obama campaign is better equipped to handle this challenge.

Akinyi OchiengComment