Obama is weak and has made America timid. Obama is more a follower than a leader; a passive figure lacking clarity, lacking purpose and lacking resolve. He has deserted past and potential allies, and is guilty of allowing the Middle East to become a more dangerous region than when he took office.
It’s less than a month to the US Presidential election, and as the focus turns from domestic to foreign policy, these are the charges being levelled against the incumbent by Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Speaking at the Virginia Military Institute in Washington recently, Romney prevailed on those gathered that the country couldn’t afford another four years of failure, passiveness and receding influence. That its best hope for realising a so-called ‘American century’, securing its dominant economic, political and cultural influence, is his elevation to the oval office. It’s a message he reiterated in yesterday’s town hall debate in Hampstead, New York.
Observers though are concerned about whether America, and indeed the international community, can afford the alternative Romney would offer?
With his language light on detail but growing more hawkish, his stance on Russia, Iran and China confrontational, and his foreign policy team recycling Bush era neoconservatives, there’s good reason to be.
When George W Bush came to office in 2001, he brought with him a cadre of foreign policy and defence advisors. Many were advocates of a neoconservative conception of foreign policy; built around hazardous principles of bold power projection, American supremacy, the promotion of liberal-democracy and a vehement rejection of multilateralism. Their guidance was instrumental in steering US foreign policy so disastrously off course. Despite this, two-thirds of Romney’s foreign policy advisors and staff are veterans of the Bush administration, including Robert Kagan, Dan Senor and John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and infamous proponent of the UN’s dissolution.
When Romney speaks, their influence is clear. When he describes Russia as a ‘foe’ and rejects negotiation on missile defence, he mirrors some of the earliest mistakes of the Bush administration under their guidance. When he laments the decrease in defence spending and promises generous increases at a time of economic decline, he fulfils the neoconservatives’ most fundamental desires.
Going after Obama on Libya in yesterday’s debate, a strategy that backfired badly on Romney, echoed the rash, ill-considered judgements and inflexibility under pressure that hampered decision making in the Bush administration.
It remains to be seen whether Romney’s promise to realise a new American century is optimistic rhetoric, or a sincere but foolhardy statement attesting to the genuine influence they wield.
On Iran, Romney and Obama both pledge to prevent the regime developing nuclear weapons. While Obama exercises a more moderate tone and keeps some distance between the US and Israel, Romney has moved to the right throughout the campaign.
His promise that there will be no daylight between the US and Israel on Iran, a promise he repeated in yesterday’s debate, threatens to lead the US down a perilous path with little room to move. If conflict arises, he would be unable to avoid significant US involvement.
Of more immediate concern for Australia is China. Romney, like Obama, is likely to continue America’s practice of containment. He won’t stop there though, going much harder by categorising China as a threat. A hegemon in waiting, ready to swallow up its Asian neighbours and whose rise is fuelled by the theft of American domestic prosperity.
In yesterday’s debate, Obama recognised China as a growing power attracting jobs and investment away from the US, and took the opportunity to chide Romney for his past investment in several ‘pioneers of outsourcing’.
His focus though remained on addressing domestic issues – plans essential to promoting jobs growth and business investment at home.
Romney on the other hand continued a confrontational tone in the debate, repeating his attacks on China and promising on day one to go on the offensive.
If he means to carry out his threat of designating China a currency manipulator upon taking office, a threat he repeated yesterday, the very real possibility exists for a trade war to ensue.
Such an scenario would not only have severe consequences for Australia economically, but would ask an Australian government to make a difficult strategic choice, on a scale not seen in over half a century. Some observers (myself included) aren’t convinced it would be ready to make such a choice.
There’s good reason to be concerned, but in the fervour of American politics nothing is certain.
Let’s remember that it was the vehemently anti-communist Nixon who opened diplomatic relations with China. It was Reagan, who had declared the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’, who would come to embrace its reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev, much to the chagrin of neoconservatives.
Romney may yet navigate a considered and moderate path on foreign policy; his hawkish campaign language forgotten as merely rhetoric to a voting base for whom defence and the foreign agenda are key issues.
To observers though, a leader inexperienced in foreign matters like Romney, guided by neoconservatives with a bad record, at a time when the United States must navigate financial decline, a rising China and Middle East tensions, will more likely prove to be, the sum of all their fears.
This article appeared on The Punch, 18 Oct 2012. (Image Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC Attribution Share-Alike 2.0)