Setting the foreign policy agenda for the next term

Setting the foreign policy agenda for the next term

If Mitt Romney is elected president, he will immediately face several urgent foreign policy crises. (For that matter, President Obama will face the same crises if he is reelected). What’s worse is that the crises are the most urgent, but arguably not the most important issues he will face. He and his team will have to decide rather quickly their basic stance on these crises, and then clear the decks so they can focus on the longer-term and more important issues.

1. Afghanistan and Pakistan. The war in Afghanistan is not the most important foreign policy issue facing the United States, but with 80,000 U.S. troops in combat, it is still the most urgent, despite the media’s criminal neglect of it. Romney would do well to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and order another Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review to reexamine the nature and extent of U.S. involvement there. The review should look closely at where we’ve made progress, where we are still lacking, when we can afford to transition, and what sort of stay-behind force should take shape after transition.

In my view, the review should affirm the importance of the war, recognize the slow security gains made in recent years, affirm the goal of transitioning to Afghan lead as conditions warrant (with 2014 as an aspirational, flexible deadline), pledge a larger commitment of civilian aid to bolster the Afghan government’s capacity, and prepare for a stay-behind force of perhaps 30,000 to 35,000 troops to continue counter-terrorism, training, and village stability operations. It should also lay out a series of steps to increase pressure on Pakistan to compel it to stop supporting militants.

2. Iran. Do we bomb or not? This is one of the hardest questions for foreign policy wonks to answer because it is nearly impossible to know 1) how close Iran is to getting a nuclear weapon, 2) what Iran would do with it, and 3) what Iran would do if we bombed them. Bombing Iran could be a brilliant and low-cost means to stabilizing the Middle East (if we live in a Panglossian universe) or the prelude to general catastrophe.

At the very least, we need public redlines which will trigger a strike (such as enriching a certain amount of weaponized uranium, or assembling a nuclear-capable warhead, or some other step prior to a nuclear test), otherwise our vague threats are not credible. We also need a declared policy for how to respond if Iran successfully builds a nuclear weapon (a nuclear attack anywhere is an attack on the United States; the use by any actor of a weapon traceable to Iranian sources will be treated as originating from the Iranian government, etc.)

3. Syria. Do we intervene or not? Syria’s descent into civil war is messy and awful. Less clear is whether the U.S. has any direct interests at stake in Syria’s awfulness. The Obama administration has established a strange redline: the president threatened a U.S. military response against Syria if Assad uses chemical weapons against the rebels. Why would that make a difference? The use of chemical weapons might make Assad more awful, but it doesn’t mean U.S. interests are more threatened. Are we now establishing a "no-use" taboo for all weapons of mass destruction? Is the U.S. going to enforce a global norm against any and all WMD, everywhere, forever? Because the Obama administration doesn’t have a policy towards Syria, the Romney administration will essentially have to start from scratch. I may be in a minority amongst conservative foreign policy types in my hesitance to advocate an intervention in Syria.

4. The European financial crisis. I’m not going to pretend that I understand much about the financial crisis in Europe, other than that it is a Bad Thing, which also means I have little idea what to do about it, other than Something. Unfortunately, I get the sense that my level of expertise is typical for the foreign policy establishment. The United States is not in a position to bail out the EU, but it is not in our interest to stand by and watch our largest trading partner collapse, nor our strongest allies plunge into depression. The Europeans do not often welcome an American role in EU affairs, but is there room for some old-fashioned U.S. shuttle diplomacy between the Greeks and Germans (or the Germans and the Spanish, Portuguese, and Italians)? Could the U.S. play the role of a trusted outsider, an impartial third-party? Is it time for the U.S. to call an international summit to reform or replace the world’s financial architecture? Doing nothing for four years has accomplished little.

With a policy in place on these three issues — ideally in NSC meetings held in the first few weeks of the new term — the Romney administration could then take a moment to breathe before starting more in-depth reviews of bigger challenges: China, Russia and its stance towards Europe, globalization and state failure, the global Islamist insurgency, the environment, the role of democracy in U.S. foreign policy, and lots more — which I hope to address in a future post.