R Is for Reckless

Why the Republicans can't be trusted with national security.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

I grew up in a Senate and foreign-policy world where we treated as gospel the notion that — as Sen. Arthur Vandenberg famously said — "politics stops at the water’s edge." How is it, then, not inconsistent that here on the pages of Foreign Policy, I’m offering a few thoughts now on a "Democratic foreign policy"? Very simply, because today, it is the Democratic Party that almost all alone occupies that once bipartisan space in national security policy, and it is the Democratic Party that today offers the clear-eyed vision of how to best honor our ideas in the world, while the Republican Party, too often in the grips of hard-edged ideology and a determination above all else to defeat President Barack Obama, is almost unrecognizable from its previous incarnation.

Just think, after the 9/11 attacks, the United States, both political parties at home, and most of the world, understood what the United States had to do in order to respond to grave threats. Then, something went terribly wrong and shattered that unity. We went into Afghanistan swiftly and with a clear purpose. We got rid of the Taliban in short order. But we did not finish the job. Our efforts in Afghanistan atrophied, and Osama bin Laden lived to fight another day. The world was with us, but we did not take advantage of it. Instead, George W. Bush’s administration entered a more reckless period where our national security policy was driven by ideology without regard to economic cost or sufficient attention to the strain our ideological approach put on alliances and international relationships, as well as our military.

The focus shifted from wars of necessity in Afghanistan and against bin Laden to Iraq, where the rationale was dubious and the effort unfocused. This was a war of ideology, even hubris. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no immediate need to invade, particularly when the real concern was with bin Laden and al Qaeda. We went in without a clear picture of how we were going to get out. It cost over a trillion dollars, a bill that is still coming due, a bill slapped on the credit card of our children and grandchildren.

Our stalled effort in Afghanistan and our unnecessary and expensive effort in Iraq were coupled with a new and bellicose attitude toward friends and foes alike — the old versus the new Europe; Mission Accomplished; bring it on; and you’re either with us or against us. These were the slogans of an unfocused and at times reckless foreign policy.

This was the inheritance of President Obama, who also took on an economy in meltdown. When he took office, we were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost to both our military and our budget could not be sustained. The president committed to ending one war — Iraq — and succeeding in the other — Afghanistan. He kept those promises. By the end of 2011 our troops were home from Iraq, leaving Iraqis in charge of their own future. We are in the process of forming a new relationship of mutual respect and partnership with a new Iraq.

In Afghanistan, where our efforts were languishing due to lack of attention, the focus has shifted back to building up that nation so it can take on the Taliban and keep al Qaeda from reconstituting itself on Afghan territory. This painstaking but focused effort has been implemented by our military but led by our president. The president supported a surge in troops, a buildup of Afghan security forces, and an aggressive development and political agenda as part of a realistic and honorable strategy to draw down our presence there.

For those who say having a timetable on our efforts in Afghanistan is counterproductive, the simple truth is this is our nation’s longest war. We need to put the government and people of Afghanistan on notice that our present level of involvement will not continue indefinitely. While our withdrawal is ultimately conditions-based, conditions will never be perfect, and it is also useful to note that a date certain for withdrawal proved successful in Iraq.

Relations with Pakistan, which is tied directly to our involvement in Afghanistan, remain complicated. Nonetheless, despite our differences and occasional difficulties, we have managed to work together on things that matter, particularly our counterterrorism efforts. The Pakistanis have worked with us in taking on al Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and elsewhere. Our cooperative efforts have not always been smooth, but our successes have been considerable. These counterterrorism battles have made al Qaeda’s central leadership much less formidable than it was when Obama took office.

The president’s relentless pursuit of bin Laden and the al Qaeda network is a significant accomplishment. It has transformed the post-9/11 world into one where counterterrorism efforts are important but not the sole driver of our national security policy. The fear doctrine of the previous administration, adopted by Obama’s critics, has been replaced by a more optimistic outlook born of a successful counterterrorism strategy.

The pursuit of bin Laden, downplayed by Mitt Romney — who said he would not "move heaven and earth" to get one terrorist, a naive approach — transformed our national security interests on several levels. It cut the head off the snake, and it put al Qaeda affiliates on notice that the United States was not going to be deterred until the mission of eliminating them truly was accomplished. One of the most dangerous jobs in the world is to be in the upper echelons of al Qaeda leadership, because the United States keeps tracking them down and eliminating them.

The death of bin Laden should be celebrated instead of devolving into a debate over who deserves the credit. For those who question the president’s leadership, they should remember his decision to go after bin Laden. The risks were considerable, and despite reservations from some key advisors, he did what he thought was right. He did what he thought was best for the American people. Today’s Republicans too often have disdain for facts, especially when it comes to national security and the chain of command. Here are the facts. Adm. William McRaven, the man in charge of Special Operations Command, said publicly: "At the end of the day, make no mistake about it, it was the president of the United States that shouldered the burden … that made the hard decisions."

Obama pursued a coherent strategy with the three wars he inherited — Iraq, Afghanistan, and against al Qaeda. He protected and promoted U.S. interests. He led the effort, ensuring success, working with our allies, traditional and nontraditional. His rhetoric was measured, his goals clear, and his implementation determined. This is in contrast to the more erratic approach of his predecessors.

What’s it all add up to? It’s a blueprint for a foreign policy that proceeds in a steady and thoughtful manner, allowing its adherents to approach a more comprehensive and nuanced agenda, an agenda that promotes American interests — a contrast with the new Republicans, whose main criteria for their foreign policy too often is that it fits into a sound bite. Ours is a model for leadership in national security that thinks before it acts, allowing us to respond constructively to the dramatic changes in the Middle East. It’s a foreign policy that understands that most change in the world — and certainly lasting change — is homegrown and that we need to support those who share our values and work with those on whom the jury is still out. The path forward may not be easy, but it positions the United States to develop positive relationships with these nations as they forge a new path forward.

Democratic foreign policy as defined by Obama is not driven by a singular ideological point of view. It is based on a balance of interests and values and comprehensive understanding of foreign affairs, adopting policies appropriate to the situation, as the president did with Egypt and Tunisia and Libya. It is clear that the president has shown that when America is threatened or its vital national interests are at stake, he is willing to act unilaterally if necessary, as with the bin Laden raid.

But as David Sanger and others have observed, when important but not less vital interests are at stake, he will act, but preferably by leading a coalition. That was the case with Libya and is the case with Syria, where the administration’s course is measured, offering aid and support, encouraging the opposition to be more organized and inclusive, and charting a course that appropriately reflects the complicated and dangerous situation on the ground. There is no right answer with Syria, but as we learned with Iraq, there could be a wrong answer with respect to what to do next, leading to dire consequences. It is unclear what will happen there, but whatever that may be, the United States is in a good position to help shape events in a way that will create conditions for a more stable and politically open Syria without Bashar al-Assad.

Bedeviling administrations from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on, the question of how to handle Iran will never be easily answered. Right now, it is particularly complicated because of the concern about Iran’s intention to develop a nuclear weapon. But the Obama team took this head-on, showing a willingness to reach out to the Iranian government through international talks like the P5+1 if the Iranian government showed verifiable signs it was sincere about pushing aside any interest in becoming a nuclear weapons state. The administration also has put in place the most aggressive bilateral and multilateral sanctions regime we have ever had in order to send the message to the Iranians we will not be deterred. The president is committed to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state.

The administration understands an unwavering policy toward Iran is in the U.S. national interest but also in the interest of our special relationship with Israel. That relationship has been central to U.S. policy in the Middle East. It is integral to overall security concerns, and it is an essential part of the moral dimension of our foreign policy, as Israel is the only true Middle Eastern democracy. This president has been an unfailing friend to Israel. Israeli leaders from Shimon Peres to Ehud Barak to Benjamin Netanyahu have said as much. The president stands with Israel because it is right, and it is in our interest to do so.

There are plenty of other examples of the president’s leadership. Like Teddy Roosevelt, he walks softly but carries a big stick in contrast to those in the opposition who rely on slogans and empty rhetoric as a weak substitute for real policy initiatives. Theirs is a Potemkin foreign policy of all facade and no substance. The president, on the other hand, has developed a far-reaching game plan to pursue U.S. interests in Asia with a rebalancing of our foreign policy toward that region. He has had a steady and successful nonproliferation agenda, including passing the New START treaty, tightening sanctions on Iran and North Korea, and generally reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our overall nuclear security strategy.

The Asia pivot has a strong security dimension with a shifting of military assets and the development of an aggressive economic agenda through APEC, ASEAN, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The president understands that a large part of our future is tied to events and relationships in East Asia. Despite pressing issues and concerns in the Middle East and elsewhere, he has been able to look to the future with these forward-thinking initiatives.

There has been much carping and complaining about Russia and China by the president’s critics. This bellicose rhetoric is all too familiar and tiresome. These nations play a role globally. China in particular is an integral part of the global economy. We have interests, and they have interests. Where there is common ground — like New START and Iran sanctions — we can work together. Where we can’t agree, as is the case with Syria, we pursue our own, independent course. Labeling, as the Romney team has done with China and Russia, is fine for talk-show hosts and for partisan political rallies, but it is a waste of time when pursuing real policy issues with real consequences.

While domestic economic issues are front and center to the current political debate, national security concerns are integral to the future of our economy. The term "global economy" is redundant. There is one economy, and it is global. The president’s critics can criticize and attempt to ignore international rules and agreements, but that is the way the world works. We can’t man the barricades and keep the world outside. We need to use these rules and agreements — as we do with trade agreements and did with New START and are doing with NATO — to better protect and promote our interests.

Another problem with the Republican opposition is that it doesn’t know what its policy is — some want to aggressively pursue the situation in Syria and others don’t; some want us to be more aggressive in Afghanistan and others want us out tomorrow, while still others want to withdraw from all global commitments. Their budget preserves at all costs defense spending, but recommends cuts to the foreign assistance and State Department budgets to the point that, if enacted, there would be nothing left. This is not a prescription for a forward-looking foreign policy.

We are entering a post-9/11 era full of uncharted waters. We don’t know what will happen in the Middle East. Big changes will occur in East Asia, but what that means for the United States, China, and other Pacific nations remains to be seen. What will happen with Russia and with Europe and its economic crisis? What can we do to ensure that Afghanistan will stabilize after 2014? What is next on the counterterrorism front in places like Yemen, Nigeria, Mali, and Somalia? The balanced approach of Obama reflecting American interests but based on our democratic values is what is needed to respond to these tough challenges. We don’t need the simple slogans and conflicted policy positions the opposition offers up. There is too much at stake.

We are a country that always works best when we try to work together. Our common agenda ought to be protecting the American people. That sometimes makes for some strange bedfellows. It sometimes means holding back when others call for full speed ahead, and it sometimes means striking a balance between leading and participating in a coalition, letting others play more of a leadership role. The president understands this and has successfully brought America back to a position of international respect and preeminence.

The tragedy of the divisive remarks about Obama’s national security record we have heard recently is the missed opportunity it represents. A more bipartisan approach would be in the best interest of the nation. The irony is it was not always this way and does not have to be this way in the future.

In the past, both parties have come together in common cause. For example, President George H.W. Bush and his excellent foreign-policy team of James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and Larry Eagleburger did a very good job of uniting us after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the first Gulf War and even in Central America. Even if both parties didn’t completely agree, they respected one another and held honest conversations about what was in the national interest.

We do not have the time or luxury to create false dichotomies between us and them on national security issues. There is too much at stake. This requires leadership, the kind of leadership that the president shows.

Obama’s foreign-policy record offers a preview of what a future Democratic foreign policy would look like. There is a willingness to make tough decisions. He is willing to work with allies and others who can help us pursue our interests. And he is committed to using American values as a compass as he makes consequential decisions. The president will continue to meet new challenges like those we will confront in Asia, as well as old challenges in the Middle East, South Asia, and against al Qaeda, with clarity and focus.

We are a great nation that will continue to be great as long as we continue to work together in common interest and purpose. It is time to lose the empty rhetoric and find ways once again to work together in pursuit of an American agenda — not a partisan one.

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