From Guantánamo to Joseph Kony, the boasts that could invite a backlash.
- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
This year’s Democratic platform, which the party unveiled ahead of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week, includes a response to the new Republican attack line that Americans are not better off than they were four years ago. "America is safer, stronger, and more secure than it was four years ago," the document declares — four separate times.
When it comes to foreign policy, however, some of the evidence that the party marshals to support that assertion, however, is sure to raise eyebrows. Here’s a look at some of the more wobbly pronouncements in the platform’s section on national security:
The platform praises President Barack Obama’s decision in 2009 to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and set the goal of defeating "al Qaeda and its extremist allies" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama "sent additional resources to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and to give the Afghans the time and space to build the capacity of their security forces," the document notes. "We have accomplished that, and now we have begun the process of bringing our troops home from Afghanistan."
Beyond the vigorous debate over the extent to which Obama’s targeted strikes against al Qaeda leaders have weakened the organization, there’s also a great deal of doubt about whether the Afghan surge has worked. The U.S. military argues that it has, pointing to success such as expanding Afghanistan’s security forces and driving the Taliban out of strongholds in southern Afghanistan. Yet as Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman has noted, the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar are still the most violent in the country, and insurgent violence across the country has hardly dropped. In a recent New Yorker article on whether civil war will soon return to Afghanistan, Dexter Filkins observed that "the war in Afghanistan has come to this: the United States is leaving, mission not accomplished."
CLIMATE CHANGE TALKS
The platform explains that the "Obama administration has taken a leadership role in ongoing climate negotiations, working to ensure that other major economies like China and India commit to taking meaningful action," and adds that the party "will seek to implement agreements and build on the progress made during climate talks in Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban."
Critics might say, "What progress?" The truth is that these climate talks have not produced much meaningful action — specifically an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted back in 1997. The 2011 Durban conference, for example, merely extended the Kyoto agreement for several years and produced a vague and non-binding pledge to develop a new global treaty at a later date.
HUNT FOR JOSEPH KONY
The Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony — who was the subject of a withering viral video campaign by Invisible Children earlier this year — makes a surprise appearance in the platform’s only paragraph on Africa — in the very first line, no less. "We will continue to partner with African nations to combat al-Qaeda affiliates in places like Somalia and to bring to justice those who commit mass atrocities, like Joseph Kony," it reads.
Critics may question the decision to name-drop the arguably marginal Kony at the expense of more pressing issues in Africa, or point to the fact that the U.S.-supported hunt for the rebel leader hasn’t been going particularly well. The African Union mission has been hobbled by a lack of troops and equipment.
EUROPEAN DEBT CRISIS
While the Republicans barely mentioned the European debt crisis in their platform, the Democrats appear to have gone the passive-aggressive route. "Europe’s leaders have made clear they will do what is necessary to preserve financial stability in the Eurozone and have the collective ability to address their economic challenges," the platform notes. "We have been and will continue to be in frequent contact with our European allies to discuss best practices and share valuable lessons from our own experience reversing our economic downturn, helping them chart the best way forward."
Not only is it very much in doubt that European leaders really are ready to do whatever it takes to stem their economic crisis, but one way to read the platform isn’t very diplomatic: "Europe, you’d better stay true to your word. And if you’re not up to the task, we’re happy to offer expert advice." That sentiment is unlikely to sit well with Europeans who have accused Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner of lecturing them on the debt crisis. And Republicans would probably have a thing or two to say about the claim that the United States has reversed its own economic downturn.
ARAB SPRING AND BAHRAIN
In a section on the Arab Spring, the platform trumpets the U.S. role in helping bring about democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, whether by building a coalition to intervene in Libya, facilitating political transition and reform in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, or imposing sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s government while aiding the opposition in Syria. The document adds that in response to the Green Movement in Iran, "President Obama spoke out in support of the pro-democracy protestors and imposed human rights sanctions on the Iranian government."
At the Republican convention last week, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) condemned Obama for not doing enough to support the Iranian protest movement in 2009 (at the time, the Obama administration was pursuing diplomatic negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program) — and others may question whether the White House is inflating its involvement in the other revolutions. But equally controversial is what’s left out. The text does not mention the uprising in Bahrain, a U.S. ally that houses the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. In his major speeches on the Arab Spring, Obama refrained from speaking out as forcefully against Bahrain as he did against countries such as Libya and Syria, and has continued to sell weapons to the Gulf monarchy.
The Democrats pat themselves on the back for Myanmar’s unprecedented reforms in recent years, noting that "we successfully employed a combination of sanctions and engagement to encourage the government to open up political space and release political prisoners. Our historic opening to Burma will continue to incentivize a democratic transition, a deeper engagement with the United States, and national reconciliation among Burma’s many different ethnic groups."
Of course, the Obama administration’s carrot-and-stick policy isn’t the only reason Myanmar has opened up recently. Other countries imposed sanctions on Myanmar, and President Thein Sein is likely attracted to reform for other reasons as well. As Southeast Asia expert Joshua Kurlantzick has written, he may want to reduce Myanmar’s dependence on China and avoid a pro-democracy uprising that could threaten the wealth that the country’s ruling generals have amassed. "He apparently understands how far Myanmar, with a per capita GDP of roughly $3,000, has fallen behind once-comparable neighbors like Thailand," Kurlantzick adds.
The party manifesto asserts that "we are substantially reducing the population at Guantánamo Bay without adding to it. And we remain committed to working with all branches of government to close the prison altogether because it is inconsistent with our national security interests and our values."
The party’s commitment might be more credible if it wasn’t for the fact that Obama has so far failed to close the detention facility in the face of congressional opposition, despite having signed an executive order in 2009 that called for closing the prison within a year. Politico‘s Josh Gerstein also notes that the 2012 platform backs away from 2008 language about granting trials to suspected terrorists and curbing the president’s power to combat terrorism.
In its 2008 platform, the Democratic Party declared that it would "close the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, the location of so many of the worst constitutional abuses in recent years." This year’s boast about not subjecting any new inmates to those abuses is likely cold comfort for those who support shuttering the facility.