September 23, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
Foreign policy is the Republican Party’s weak link in a Presidential election that is showing signs of shifting positively towards the Democrats following the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Charlotte, North Carolina earlier this month. In fact, Mitt Romney showed his weak hand at the Republican Convention a week before the DNC when he said that the Russians are USA’s number one enemy leading many to conclude that he showed the same shallow understanding of foreign affairs as Sarah Palin she had said that she could see Russia from Alaska during the last presidential election!
The Republicans thus deliberately opted against introducing foreign affairs as an agenda in the elections till recently. They favoured fighting the Democrats on the economy where they think they can tie them down on a sticky wicket. They are conscious that foreign policy is the strong point of the Obama re-election campaign. In Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrats have a foreign affairs expert recognized nationally and internationally. Joe Biden is a former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Of course, in the last four years, the President and Joe Biden have enriched their foreign affairs credentials substantially.
In the current term, the Obama administration has ended the US involvement in Iraq and has given a road map in Afghanistan under which US combat troops would return home by 2014. The crowning glory of the Obama administration in foreign and security affairs has been the killings of Osama Ben Laden and the top leadership of Al Qaeda. These successes are significant and the Republicans know that if they get involved with foreign affairs, it would damage the Romney-Ryan ticket.
The Republicans however could not check the temptations of being drawn to foreign affairs when Israel decided to roll in the dice for Mitt Romney. It is common knowledge in Washington that President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never became friends in their respective terms. Their “famously testy relationship” was revealed during the Group of 20 Summit in Cannes in November last year. Associated Press leaked a private conversation between French President Nicolas Sarkozi and President Barak Obama before the start a press conference after the Summit in which the former said while talking of Benjamin Netanyahu: “I can’t stand him. He is a liar”. The US President agreed and remarked: “You may be sick of him but me; I have to deal with him every day.” Although respective aides declined to comment on the leak, it revealed what is now an open secret, that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have not established a good personal equation.
That personal equation was recently tested when Benjamin Netanyahu called President Obama and had an hour long telephone talk to convince the latter that Iran has crossed the “red line”. Recently gathered intelligence has convinced Tel Aviv that Iran is 90% of the way to developing the nuclear bomb and has long since crossed the “red line’ and therefore must be attacked to take out its nuclear capabilities. According to NYT, the US President declined to embrace Israeli Prime Minister’s proposal on the “red line”.
Israel is concerned about a new Obama term particularly when in Tel Aviv; the conclusion is that the race for the White House is slipping out of the hands of the Republicans. As a result, the aides of Benjamin Netanyahu have set aside an earlier unwritten agreement with aides of President Obama that Israel would not interfere in the US presidential election. They leaked to the media that the US President has refused to meet the Israeli Prime Minister on the sidelines of the UNGA session in New York but kept his schedule to appear on the David Letterman Show.
Mitt Romney instantly took the cue. He slammed the President for turning down the request for the meeting from an important and trusted ally. He flagged his close friendship with the Israeli Prime Minister highlighting their period together as consultant in the Boston Consulting Group in 1976 and the close friendship they developed subsequently. In fact during the Republican primaries last December, Mitt Romney had said that before making any disparaging statement on Palestine, he would get on phone with his friend Bibi (Netanyahu’s nick name) and ask him: ‘Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?’ He was reacting to a disparaging remark by Newt Gingrich on Palestine to flag his closeness with the Israeli Prime Minister and support for Israel.
The White House denied the Tel Aviv leak on the appointment in New York, stating that it received no request from the office of the Israeli Prime Minister. It was later revealed that the US President would have to remain in New York beyond his schedule for Benjamin Netanyahu to reach New York to meet him! In retrospect, Mitt Romney played the issue poorly. He gave voters the impression of his willingness to make his administration should he get elected subservient to Tel Aviv. It is important for any candidate in the Presidential race in the United States to be friendly to Israel because of the power of the Israeli lobby. However, the majority of the voters hate to be see their country dictated by Israel. Candidate Romney has stepped into this miscalculation no doubt because of his inexperience and that of his team in handling foreign policy issues.
Mitt Romney team also made another miscalculation with his reaction to the killings in Benghazi in which the US Ambassador died in the hands of terrorists. He blamed the Obama administration’s weak foreign policy for giving the terrorists the upper hand that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues in Benghazi. In blaming the President, Mitt Romney again exposed his naivety on foreign policy because most Americans see such unfortunate incidents as part of the risk the United States must undertake to remain as the number one power on the world political stage. The dignity and grace with which the President and Secretary of State handled the aftermath of the Benghazi incident enhanced their rating with the voters and went to show that the Romney-Ryan ticket is way short of what it needs to lead the US administration in foreign affairs.
The Romney campaign team hoped that attacking the President on Israel, the “red line” concerning Iran and the murders of the US Ambassador, all foreign policy issues, would help their cause. Instead the attacks boomeranged. In fact, since the lack luster Convention of the Republican Party in Tampa followed by the very successful Convention of the Democrats in Charlotte, the candidature of President Obama has widened the gap substantially in all the polls taken since the Convention of the two parties till the time of writing this piece as the election enters its final phase leading to Election Day on November 6.
To complete the circle of a very bad patch that the Romney-Ryan ticket is passing through since the Conventions, a video taken secretly of a Romney fund raiser dinner where per plate went for US$ 50,000 showed Mitt Romney stating that 47% of Americans will never vote for him because they are “victims” of dependency on the government. In an election where the Democrats are portraying him as a candidate of the 2% rich Americans with scant respect for the middle class and the poor, the video has made significant negative impact where the undecided voters are beginning to wake up to the fact that this election is one of choice; whether to back a candidate who speaks and stands for the middle class and the poor or to send to the White House a representative of the rich.
Candidate Mitt Romney would have to really make a major impact and President Obama a poor impression in the Presidential debates starting on October 3rd to stop President Obama from getting another term in the White House. The task ahead for the challenger is getting tougher with each passing day.
The writer is a retired Secretary and a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt