Daniel W. Drezner

The coveted Drezner endorsement for 2012 goes to….

Your humble blogger has not been shy in stating that he now votes in presidential elections based largely on foreign policy considerations.  Nor has he been shy in expressing his… er… exasperation with various foreign policy kerfuffles during the campaign.  So as Election Day approaches, you might wonder — what will Daniel Drezner do?  [Oh, ...

Your humble blogger has not been shy in stating that he now votes in presidential elections based largely on foreign policy considerations.  Nor has he been shy in expressing his… er… exasperation with various foreign policy kerfuffles during the campaign.  So as Election Day approaches, you might wonder — what will Daniel Drezner do?  [Oh, give me a f**ing break, just get on with it!!–ed.]

With Barack Obama, there’s an actual record to judge…. and I think it would be best to call it mixed.  The Economist, in its Obama endorsement, noted the following:

[On] foreign policy… he was also left with a daunting inheritance. Mr Obama has refocused George Bush’s “war on terror” more squarely on terrorists, killing Osama bin Laden, stepping up drone strikes (perhaps too liberally, see article) and retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan (in both cases too quickly for our taste). After a shaky start with China, American diplomacy has made a necessary “pivot” towards Asia. By contrast, with both the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and his “reset” with Russia, he overreached and underdelivered. Iran has continued its worrying crawl towards nuclear weapons.

All these problems could have been anticipated. The Arab spring could not. Here Mr Obama can point to the ousting of tyrants in Egypt and Libya, but he has followed events rather than shaping them, nowhere more so than with the current carnage in Syria. Compared with, say, George Bush senior, who handled the end of the cold war, this aloof, disengaged man is no master diplomat; set beside the younger Bush, however, Mr Obama has been a safe pair of hands.

I think that’s a decent assessment, although it overlooks what is, to me, the most troubling element of Barack Obama’s first-term foreign policy legacy — his management of the foreign policy process.  As my Foreign Policy colleague Rosa Brooks has written about in agonizing detail, the dysfunction that was talked about in Obama’s first year in office hasn’t disappeared along with Osama bin Laden. 

Indeed, the aftermath of Benghazi puts this on full display.  To be blunt, for all the GOP efforts to make the lack of pre-attack planning an indictment of the White House, consulate security in Benghazi is not the kind of decision that rises to the White House level.  The aftermath of the attack is another story, however.  In the past 24 hours alone, report after report after report after report shows Obama’s foreign policy agencies defending their own turf, leaking to reporters in ways that heighten bureaucratic dysfunction, and revealing the White House’s national security team to be vindictive and petty

Benghazi also highlights a deeper problem with this administration — the lack of policy follow-through.  Whether one looks at the Iraq withdrawal or the rebalancing to Asia or the Afghanistan build-up or their embrace of the G-20, the story is the same.  Even if the administration had demonstrated good first instincts, it has failed to follow up those instincts with either next steps or contingency planning. 

So, the biggest indictment of the Obama administraion’s foreign policy has been poor management.  Which, as it turns out, is Mitt Romney’s genuine strength, as Ezra Klein points out in his excellent Bloomberg column this AM: 

Romney’s apparent disinterest in an animating ideology has made him hard to pin down — for the Journal editorial board, for journalists, for Democrats and Republicans, for campaign consultants, even for Romney’s closest confidantes. It has led to the common knock on Romney that he lacks a core. He’s an opportunist. He picks whatever position is expedient. He is a guy with brains, but no guts.

But after spending the last year talking to Romney advisers and former colleagues, as well as listening to him on the campaign trail, I’ve come to see this description as insufficient. It’s not so much that Romney lacks a core as that his core can’t readily be mapped by traditional political instruments. As a result, he is free to be opportunistic about the kinds of commitments that people with strong political cores tend to value most.

What Romney values most is something most of us don’t think much about: management. A lifetime of data has proven to him that he’s extraordinarily, even uniquely, good at managing and leading organizations, projects and people. It’s those skills, rather than specific policy ideas, that he sees as his unique contribution. That has been the case everywhere else he has worked, and he assumes it will be the case in the White House, too. 

This jibes with all the chatter I hear about Romney as well.  Which should lead you to think that Romney might be exactly what ails American foreign policy. 

The thing is, Romney’s own foreign policy rhetoric makes it clear that managing foreign policy isn’t enough.  As he’s said, the president has to be a foreign policy leader.  A president has much greater leeway on these issues than on other policy dimensions.  A good foreign policy president needs to be genunely interested in the subject, possess good foreign policy insincts, and rely on a core set of ideas that allows him or her to make tough decisions in a world of uncertainty.  As I wrote last year

[A] philosophy of "I won’t say anything until I know all the facts" is bogus because, in foreign policy, the facts are never all in. Very often intelligence is partial, biased, or simply flat-out wrong. It’s those moments, when a president has to be a foreign policy decider for a 51-49 decision, that a combination of background knowledge and genuine interest in the topic might be useful.

When I use these criteria to think about Mitt Romney, he doesn’t do very well.  Every conversation with every Romney advisor confirms the same thing:  this is not a guy who has engaged deeply in international affairs.  He was perfectly happy to go all neocon-y in the primary season to appeal to his base, and then tack back to the center in the general election to appeal to war-weary independents.  He’s not doing this because he’s dishonest; he’s doing this because he doesn’t care.  His choice of foreign policy neophyte Paul Ryan as his VP pick confirms this as well:  Romney/Ryan has the least foreign policy experience of any GOP ticket in at least sixty years.  

Furthermore, in the moments during this campaign when Romney has been required to display his foreign policy instincts, he’s foundered badly.  He stuck his beak into the Chen Guangcheng case when silence was the better option.  He did the same thing in the aftermath of the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, going so far as to accuse Obama of "sympathizing" with terrorists.  As for his overseas trip, well, the less said, the better.  All of these episodes show a guy who’s out of his depth on matters of foreign affairs.  And when he’s been criticized in taking these stances, Romney has responded by doubling down on a bad position.  His political instincts have led him to some bad foreign policy choices. 

I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about as Obama as, say, Jonathan Chait, but his endorsement of the president makes an interesting point:

It is noteworthy that… the best decisions that Obama made during his presidency ran against the advice of much of his own administration…. Many of his own advisers, both economists steeped in free-market models and advisers anxious about a bailout-weary public, argued against his decision to extend credit to, and restructure, the auto industry. On Libya, Obama’s staff presented him with options either to posture ineffectually or do nothing; he alone forced them to draw up an option that would prevent a massacre. And Obama overruled some cautious advisers and decided to kill Osama bin Laden.

On foreign policy, Barack Obama might be an indifferent manager, but by making his first decision the right one, he has saved himself numerous embarrassments and reversals. 

This was a closer call than I expected, and I honestly hope (and think there’s a good chance) that if Mitt Romney is elected, he’d grow into his foreign policy role with time.  For this analyst, however, Barack Obama is the imperfect, but superior, alternative. 

And now the bitter political invective in the comments…. begin!! 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola