Column: Election puts foreign policy on hold

September 30, 2012


— It’s embarrassing when President Obama’s risk-averse refusal to engage foreign-policy issues becomes so obvious that it’s a laugh line for the president of Iran.

“I do believe that some conversations and key issues must be talked about again once we come out of the other end of the political election atmosphere in the United States,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said cheekily in an interview last Sunday. I hate to say it, but on this matter the often-annoying Iranian leader is right.

Less than six weeks before the election, the Obama campaign’s theme song might as well be the old country music favorite “Make the World Go Away.” This may be smart politics, but it’s not good governing: The way this campaign is going, the president will have a foreign affairs mandate for ... nothing.

The “come back after Nov. 6” sign is most obvious with Iran. The other members of the P5+1 negotiating group understand that the U.S. doesn’t want serious bargaining until after the election, lest Obama have to consider compromises that might make him look weak. So the talks with Iran that began last May dither along in technical discussions.

Ahmadinejad and some of his aides let slip during their visit to New York that they may be willing to offer a deal that would halt enrichment of uranium above 5 percent. Is this a good deal or not, in terms of U.S. and Israeli security? Sorry, come back later.

Will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keep his gun in the holster until after the polls close? The White House certainly hopes so. But someone should check the odds with Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who is one of Mitt Romney’s biggest financial backers.

The Obama arm’s-length approach is evident with Egypt and the other nations that are convulsed by the Arab uprising. The U.S. is launching an innovative economic-assistance program to help President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government. But you don’t hear much about it this election season. Nor is there much public discussion of the covert U.S. effort to aid the Syrian rebels, or the war in Yemen, or the god-awful mess in Iraq.

And though Obama was eloquent in his speech to the United Nations Tuesday in eulogizing Christopher Stevens, America’s brave ambassador to Libya, the administration has been reluctant to talk about resurgent al-Qaida operations in that country. One senses a desire to keep the lid on this explosive subject in the State Department’s effort to suppress CNN’s reporting of Stevens’ private diary, along with a commendable effort to protect the family’s privacy.

I’m told that the talk in the Libyan underground is about a “global intifada” like what the new al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been preaching for the last five years. But ask U.S. officials about that subject and you get a “no comment.”

To be blunt: The administration has a lot invested in the public impression that al-Qaida was vanquished when Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. Obama would lose some of that luster if the public examined whether al-Qaida is adopting a new, Zawahiri-led strategy of interweaving its operations with the unrest sweeping the Arab world. But this discussion is needed, and a responsible president should lead it, even during a presidential campaign.

Perhaps the most disheartening example of a topic that has been deep-sixed during campaign season is the war in Afghanistan. This month marked the end of the surge that President Obama ordered in December 2009, and troops are now back to the pre-surge level of about 68,000. How fast will that number decline over the next year? Here again, we probably won’t know until after Election Day. Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces in Kabul, is preparing his recommendations now, but officials say this process of review will take ... well, at least six weeks.

The president hasn’t really made any bones about his wait-till-later approach. He put it frankly to Dimitry Medvedev, then president of Russia, back in March when he thought the microphone was off: “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”

This strategy of avoiding major foreign policy risks or decisions may help get Obama re-elected. But he is robbing the country of a debate it needs to have — and denying himself the public understanding and support he will need to be an effective foreign-policy president in a second term, if the “rope-a-dope” campaign should prove successful.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.     


Kate Rogge 5 years, 5 months ago

If posturing cries for war are the only foreign policy speech acceptable to the campaigning Republicans, I prefer President Obama remain silent and keep us out of another war in the Middle East.

Armstrong 5 years, 5 months ago

Would someone let Barry know inept is not a foreign policy

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 5 months ago

A well-reasoned debate on the issues of foreign policy would indeed be the ideal. But does Ignatius seriously believe that Romney and the Republicans are capable of that?

And neither of these candidates would consider eliminating the militarism that has become the main tool of US foreign policy, fatally crippling the "well-reasoned debate" before it ever gets going.

Kate Rogge 5 years, 5 months ago

I'd like to see President Obama explain to Governor Romney that the Defense budget is separate from that of the Veterans Administration. Perhaps Romney should start his foreign policy education by learning more about American agencies:


beatrice 5 years, 5 months ago

Affirmative Action President. Wow. You can change the logon name, but the racism remains.

Armstrong 5 years, 5 months ago

You can cry racism all you want, it doesn't change the fact Barry is completely ineffective at doing what he promised or even moce the country in that direction. Race baiter

beatrice 5 years, 5 months ago

I'm not the one calling Obama the "Affirmative Action President." It wasn't me who is race baiting, but nice try at playing defense for such a repugnant comment.

jafs 5 years, 5 months ago

Not at all.

But "affirmative action president" doesn't seem racist to you?

beatrice 5 years, 5 months ago

Incorrect Mike. Racism is only apparent when that disagreement is racially based, as in use of the term "Affirmative Action President." Are you suggesting that when racism is apparent we should ignore it, or that racism doesn't exist?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 5 months ago

"Clearly, this President's foreign policy of apology and appeasement has only made him appear weak and the wolves are circling."

Please, give up the parroting of Fox and Rush vacuous soundbites.

What would you have the US do? Start a war with every country in N. Africa and the Middle East? (except Israel, of course.)

"Obama will ignore the two credit down grades that have occurred on his watch "

That was a direct result of Republican foot-dragging in raising the debt ceiling. And if the tea party types who didn't want to raise it had had their way, the bottom would have dropped out of the credit rating, taking the whole world economy with it.

"We will once again see "stagflation" from the Carter administration rear it's ugly head "

The ignorance you display in the preceding sentences of this post make this prediction not worth the pixels it takes to display it.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 5 months ago

All you offer is bald assertion based on nothing but petty partisanship.

I asked once, and I ask again. What is you want Obama to lead us to? Full scale war with every country in N. Africa and the MIddle East? Apparently that's what you would consider "leadership"

And your article that supposedly blamed Obama for the debt ceiling debacle did nothing of the sort. All it did was describe the back and forth that was going on because Republicans were willing to hold the world economy hostage in order to get more cuts in spending for poor people and bigger tax breaks for rich folks.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 5 months ago

I'll ask you the same thing-- what would have been the "right" way? Declaring war on all of N. Africa?

Armstrong 5 years, 5 months ago

1) Condem that act. 2) Seek those responsible 3) Sanctions if it continues Pretty basic

Kate Rogge 5 years, 5 months ago

So you join with me to support President Obama's condemnation of the act, and his actions to identify and punish those responsible? Good to know we share common ground, Armstrong. Good to know.

Armstrong 5 years, 5 months ago

I believe it was A) aplogize, B) condem C) wait a while D) deside it would be a good idea to look for who is responsible. Don't think we're close

Kate Rogge 5 years, 5 months ago

The embassy staff in Cairo issued a statement condemning the video and stating that its views are not those of America. The Cairo statement was issued BEFORE the attack on the Libyan embassy. President Obama condemned the Libyan attack, said that America will hunt down and punish those who killed Ambassador Stevens and the three other Embassy officials, and thanked the Libyan government for its help to us in finding the perpetrators. All of this has been in the newspapers. Just read what he actually said and when he actually said it. Don't just believe whatever spin may be spun. You're better than that, Mr. Armstrong.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 5 months ago

"You're better than that, Mr. Armstrong."

No, he isn't. When it comes to facts, conflation and distortion are the only tools he knows.

Armstrong 5 years, 5 months ago

Why is it Liberals hate success on any level ? It's like biting the hand that feeds you, the takers take from the producers and then complain they aren't getting enough.WTF ?

Flap Doodle 5 years, 5 months ago

Having the State Department on automatic pilot is probably safer for America than having the Mope getting involved.

Flap Doodle 5 years, 5 months ago

This post pre-removed for using a vulgar sexual term to describe a disappointed progressive.

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