Team Blog

Continuity we can believe in: why foreign policy will not be a campaign issue

Heads bowed, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reflect at a sombre ceremony to mark the return of the four slain American diplomats from Libya. EPA/Molly Riley

The recent murders of US diplomats in Libya – seemingly by Islamists liberated by them from Muammar Gaddafi last year – and protests in locations across the Middle East and North Africa and now Sydney, Australia, has invited speculation that foreign policy might now intrude into the presidential campaign. This is unlikely. Whilst both Obama and Romney have tried to use their respective responses to the attacks to show leadership (the incumbent coming out marginally ahead on this score), their actual foreign policies are remarkably similar. Since 9/11, national security, specifically, and foreign policy, generally, has been subject to far more consensus than conflict in American politics.

When Obama won in 2008 (as I argued at the time) he did so offering national security continuity not change, let alone revolution. Sure, he would adopt a new tone of engagement and fence-mending, especially with the Muslim world, but he was not so “unBush” that he rejected the Texan’s designation of nuclear terrorism – not the national debt, jobs crisis or wider recession – as “the most urgent threat to the security of America and the world”. In the following, from 2007, it is impossible to detect where Bush stops and Obama starts:

“We must confront … the spread of nuclear weapons, material, and technology and the risk that a nuclear device will fall into the hands of terrorists. The explosion of one such device would bring catastrophe, dwarfing the devastation of 9/11 and shaking every corner of the globe.” [answer: it is all Obama]

Indeed, his central charge was that George W. Bush had chosen the wrong tactics (most noticeably in Iraq) in meeting this threat. The Iraq war was “dumb” because it was ruinous of the wider strategic goal – not because war, per se, is always wrong or stupid. This is one of the reasons his very thin national security CV received little attention four years ago. If Obama was a radical liberal this was not evident in his foreign policy positioning. In 2008, he and John McCain, his GOP opponent, represented a “McBama consensus” on national security.

Obama defined the enemy in the same terms as did his predecessor: as an “evil network” (Bush called it an “axis”) that must, at all costs, be denied a WMD capacity. Obama has been more vociferous, more violent and more competent in his prosecution of the war on terror than was Bush, out-Bushing the Bush Doctrine. Whereas he was condemned for allegedly torturing terrorist suspects and/or caging them at Guantanamo Bay, Obama has escaped the same censure by killing them before they can be captured and otherwise keeping the rented Cuban prison open (why is the most powerful state in world history paying rent to one of the world’s last holdouts to communist dogma?).

President Obama killed more al Qaeda and Taliban operatives with drones in his first twelve months in office than Bush did in eight years. They remain the war on terror weapon of choice.

When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 – during his ongoing, largely extrajudicial, drone war, and before he invaded a Muslim country, Libya, leading to the non-UN authorised execution of it leader – the great community organiser pointedly told the assembled Euro-liberals that he was no Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

Rather:

“As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.”

It is a speech that George W. Bush, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Mitt Romney could have made. And this is the point. Whilst trade policy and attitudes to China’s gaming of the currency markets may separate Obama and Romney (and then not much), when it comes to national security they are on the same page. For over a decade, every mainstream American politician and serious contender for the White House, from both political parties, has agreed that nuclear/WMD terrorism is the central threat facing the Republic. It is one of the forgotten reasons the Iraq war commanded majorities in both houses of Congress.

The debate is over how – not whether – to counter such catastrophic terrorism. The cold war is the obvious analogue here. For nearly half a century, successive US presidents adapted their tactics to meet a security objective the validity and reality of which they each accepted: the containment of communism. Tactical differences produced dissensus (as over Vietnam or détente) but only because the strategic consensus was so great.

That situation obtains today. The Arab Spring has brought it into sharper relief: into whose hands might a nuclear weapon fall given the emerging anti-American orientation of the region’s new leaders? Might Israel not now take matters into its own hands and pre-empt attack – conventional or otherwise – by using force against Iran? If Washington stands with Israel, the US homeland would surely, eventually, be targeted for reprisal – with something far worse than bad pilots with box-cutters, the weapons of choice on September 11, 2001.

The economy, for obvious reasons, is what the 2012 race is about. There is genuine difference between both campaigns over the appropriate path to take. In foreign policy there is not. Obama and Romney may jostle over defence cuts and diplomatic etiquette when US foreign service officers are murdered, but these are tactical disputes framed around a national security consensus, into which both men buy.

Expecting foreign policy transformation anytime soon is to wait for Godot.