A post-debate column from the Brookings Institution focused on a criticism of Administration foreign policy that is dangerously disconnected from reality in its naivete.
The Republican presidential candidates last night disagreed on many important issues, but on foreign policy, they showed a remarkable unanimity. Together, they presented what boils down to a consensus Republican foreign policy manifesto: “Obama is weak; I am strong.”
As the author notes, the message is simple: favoring diplomacy over force is weakness.
The problem with this very simplistic worldview is front and center in the current debate about the Iran nuclear agreement. Opponents–not all of whom are Republicans, and several of whom should know better (yes, Senator Schumer, I’m looking at you)–routinely fault the agreement as “not good enough,” but fall curiously silent when they are asked to propose alternatives. To date, I have not heard any of them offer a single specific suggestion; when pressed, they say something like “I’d get a better deal,” without explaining what “better” would look like or how they would achieve it.
None of those who are opposed to any deal at all with Iran have said what they would do instead. Implicitly, of course, they are counseling war.
All of the Republican candidates seem intent on ignoring the changes in the world that limit America’s capacity to achieve such dramatic outcomes. America’s military power is second to none, but it has been shown in both the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies to have severe limits in achieving foreign policy outcomes. Overall, particularly since the global financial crisis, power has diffused; strong, new competitors have emerged, and even America’s allies have grown more independent and willful as they have grown in relative power. No presidential act of will can change those stark realities.
Indeed, this was a realization not originally of President Obama, but of President Bush, whose second-term foreign policy looks much more like that of Obama than that articulated by the Republican candidates at the debate. It was George W. Bush after all, humbled by American difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, who started the process of withdrawal from Iraq, began the search for an Iran deal, and chose to respond to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia with sanctions and negotiation. The ideas of preemptive war and unilateral American action were essentially abandoned by the end of the Bush presidency, in fact if not entirely in rhetoric.
The Iran deal is a case in point. It is all well and good to counsel abandoning it on the first day. But, after scrapping the deal, the United States does not have the capacity to reconstruct the international coalition that kept Iran in its box the last 13 years. All of its allies have accepted this deal, and without them there can be no effective effort to deny Iran a nuclear weapon.
Wishful thinking is not strategy; posturing and self-delusion are not foreign policy. It took an unnecessary and costly war to teach George W. Bush that lesson; we don’t need a repeat performance.