Republicans fighting in the wrong arena

Business Times - 18 Nov 2011

Republicans fighting in the wrong arena

Silly for their candidates to portray Obama as weak in foreign policy and national security


IT is difficult to decide whether to laugh or cry when listening to the debate on foreign policy among Republican presidential candidates. It's either militarist and pro-war or a display of ignorance of global affairs.

During televised National Journal/CBS debate devoted entirely to foreign policy issues last week, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney - most observers expect him to eventually win his party's presidential nomination - and former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, sounded as though as they were planning to follow in the footsteps of George W Bush - the last Republican to occupy the White House - and lead America into a new war in the Middle East.

While President Barack Obama is engaged in a delicate balancing act on Iran - using diplomacy to press Teheran to put its alleged nuclear military programme on hold - both Mr Romney and Mr Gingrich, two candidates who should be knowledgeable about foreign policy, called for the US to use military action against Iran if diplomacy failed to do the job.

Mr Obama insisted that the economic sanctions against Iran had 'enormous bite', and that he was united with Russian and Chinese leaders in ensuring that Iran does not develop an nuclear weapon. Speaking at a news conference at the end of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Honolulu, he did not specifically say he would consider military action if Teheran were to persist in arming itself with a nuclear weapon, but added: 'We are not taking any options off the table. Iran with nuclear weapons would pose a threat not only to the region but also to the United States.'

If you are a responsible Republican leader who is hoping to become the next US Commander-in-Chief, you should first and foremost provide the current Commander-in-Chief with all the diplomatic space he needs to manage what is clearly seen as a very explosive foreign policy issue. The last thing you want to do is goad him to a point that forces the US towards military action against Iran at a time when the country is already occupying two countries in the Broader Middle East and has neither the financial resources nor the popular backing to be drawn into another military adventure there.

'If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,' Mr Romney stated during the debate. 'And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon,' he said. 'If all else fails, if after all the work we've done there's nothing else we can do besides take military action, then of course you take military action,' Mr Romney added.

And what happens if Mr Romney is elected as president and Iran does have a nuclear weapon? Will he go to war against Iran? Attack its nuclear sites? Invade the country? That no serious politician can or should lock himself to a fixed strategy on such an issue during an election campaign only makes it clear why he or she should not try to politicise it.

Which is exactly what Mr Romney, Mr Gingrich, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, former Senator Rick Santorum, and former business executive Herman Cain were doing during the debate.

Public opinion polls

There is something silly, if not bizarre, in the continuing efforts by the Republican candidates to paint Mr Obama - who presided over the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the overthrow of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, the build-up of US forces in Afghanistan, and a get-tough approach towards Pakistan - as indecisive and weak in handling US national security concerns.

Ironically, public opinion polls indicate that most Americans approve of the way Mr Obama is responding to the threat of terrorism and handling foreign policy in general. In a way, the Democratic President is 'stealing' national security from the Republicans, who traditionally were regarded as the party that was tough on the issues in contrast to the supposedly less assertive Democrats.

One of the Republican presidential front-runners seems to exhibit what amounts to total ignorance of the rest of the world. Former head of a pizza company, Herman Cain, warned recently that China was about to acquire nuclear capability (which it did in 1964). And during an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board, Mr Cain first said that he disagreed with Mr Obama's decision to back Libyan rebels - and then added that he likely would have done the same.

The Republican candidate with the most experience in foreign policy is Jon Huntsman, a former ambassador to China and Singapore (and former Governor of Utah) who has called for accelerating the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and shifting the focus of US foreign policy in the 21st century to East Asia.

During the debate on Saturday, Mr Huntsman challenged Mr Romney's suggestion that Washington formally accuse China of currency manipulation at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), warning that 'I don't know that this country needs a trade war with China'.

Instead, the US 'should be reaching out to our allies and constituencies within China', Mr Huntsman said.

But Mr Huntsman remains at the bottom of Republican polls and has no chance of winning his party's presidential nomination this year. As he told Politico, as the Republican candidate with the most foreign policy experience, he felt as though he 'got left in Siberia'.

That says a lot about where the Republican Party is these days.

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