WASHINGTON — While American foreign policy seems to be playing a minor role in the lead-up to the midterm Congressional elections, don’t be misled by its absence. The key foreign policy issues of the day — Iraq, Afghanistan, Middle East peace, arms control, terrorism, international development and Iran — are crucial to the long-term security of our country and will become a significant part of the political debate as soon as the election is over.
This means that despite outward appearances, the Nov. 2 election will weigh heavily on how our foreign policy is pursued during the next two years, especially leading into the 2012 presidential election.
Therefore, voters have some key questions to ponder: Do we want to re-empower the ideologues that drove the failed Bush administration’s foreign policy, undermining our security at home and our standing abroad? Or, do we want to maintain the steady hand of our current policies, which doggedly advance our interests through an effective, pragmatic and consensus-based approach?
The choice is clear. Compared to the radical, divisive and counterproductive years of the tumultuous Bush administration, we are in a much better place today than in 2008. This is not to say that we are out of the woods yet, but we are on the right path.
Specifically, the Obama administration has drawn down our troops from Iraq in a responsible manner that supports that country’s stability. It has increased our troop levels in Afghanistan, but with a time limit to avoid deep entanglement and overstretch. It has pursued Middle East peace to the point that both Israelis and Palestinians are talking directly about a two-state solution. It has pursued arms control agreements that have strengthened our security and global standing. It has attacked terrorist groups aggressively and in a targeted manner, increasing our safety. It is leading the way on international economic development. And it is seeking a way forward on Iran through tough talk and a mixture of sanctions and diplomacy while avoiding dangerous military escalations.
But don’t think for a moment that the difficult Bush years can’t come back. They can.
This is why November’s election is so important. It is precisely because President Obama has chosen to not politicize foreign policy, and to instead seek pragmatism, that the electorate may be taking his efforts for granted. This situation reminds me of the 2000 elections, when Americans chose George W. Bush over Al Gore despite Gore’s service as vice president during a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Americans felt back then that there was no way that Bush could reverse our good fortune and took the Clinton-Gore years for granted.
How wrong we were.
It’s clear now, in retrospect, that if Al Gore had become president, the United States would not have attacked Iraq, which led to the deaths of nearly 5,000 Americans and more than 150,000 Iraqis. It’s also clear that if Al Gore had been president, there wouldn’t have been the horribly imbalanced tax cuts that blew a $3 trillion hole in our budget.
The lesson learned for all of us is that we can’t take the current situation for granted. Instead we have to pay attention to what’s going on behind the scenes.
The starkest example of this is regarding our policy toward Iran. The administration has pursued aggressive economic sanctions against that country for its nuclear program and support of terrorism — a policy has broad public support. It has done this in a multilateral fashion, ensuring that the sanctions have real bite and sustainability while increasing the political isolation of the regime in Tehran.
Yet how have the administration’s opponents responded? They have gone to the further extreme, calling for military action against Iran to find a “quick fix” to the problem, such as when President Bush’s former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said in August that Israel should “…move in the next eight days” against Iran’s Bushehr reactor through military means or else face dire consequences.
Bolton, remember, is part of the crew that sold you the idea that bombing Iraq would provide a “quick fix” to our problems in the Middle East, including undermining anti-American radicalism and preventing other countries from pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
While clearly wrong on both counts, this group remains undeterred and continues to promote its dangerous policies. But if you didn’t like the movie they sold called Iraq, then you definitely won’t like the rerun called Iran that they’re planning.
So voters beware: While it appears that all is calm on the foreign policy front when it comes to domestic politics, don’t take this for granted. These are the types of foreign policy thinkers lurking in the background, advising President Obama’s opponents. They’re hidden now, not part of the electoral debate, but are poised to return to influence if the November elections sway their way.
Take note as you head to the ballot box.
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)