Commentary: Foreign policy football

Foreign policy is the sensitive and sometimes explosive way we interact with the other 200 countries in the world. It should be a thoughtful, reasoned and passionate defense of American values while showing respect to our allies and firm logic to our enemies.

Instead, it is increasingly a ragged soccer ball, punted from Iowa to South Carolina to Florida as every presidential candidate tries to embarrass, humiliate, ridicule and upstage the guy in charge of our nuclear weapons as well as our overall foreign policy — President Barack Obama.

Already candidates have called Obama a wimp for not bombing the suspected nuclear weapons facilities of Iran — an ancient civilization with 70 million people which was until 1979 a strong American ally.

There should be no daylight between the U.S. and Israel on Iran and other issues, say the electoral hawks, ready to send American soldiers back to battle as soon as they return from Iraq.

And in fact, some candidates would return our fighting men and women to Iraq as well. Eight years of fighting simply hasn't been enough to show the world U.S. power. The fact that Iraq's duly elected leaders, elected with U.S. advice and support, simply don't want us there any more, means little to the hawks.

Afghanistan is another place where Obama has walked a narrow line. At first he beefed up U.S. troops, then he increased drone strikes in Pakistan and finally he sent U.S. Seals helicoptering across nuclear-armed Pakistan to terminate Osama bin Laden and retrieve his computer, his records and his body — for anonymous burial at sea.

Even then the naysayers across the aisle found it was too little or too much, too soon or too late, too weak or too strong.

Unfortunately, this second guessing of our national security and foreign policy strategy — aimed at weakening and ultimately removing our head of state — is not new.

Does anyone remember Monica Lewinsky? Wag the dog?

After al Qaida bombed U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998, President Bill Clinton sent cruise missiles to attack the terrorist camps in Afghanistan, hoping to kill bin Laden.

Some Republican leaders ridiculed his efforts as simply trying to deflect attention from his ongoing battle against impeachment hearings in the Congress over his affair with Lewinsky.

I recall seeing news reports of mobs in Pakistan supporting al Qaida and ridiculing Clinton for trying to cover up the Lewinsky affair by the attacks in Afghanistan.

Let us stop for a moment to think and to ask the awful un-askable question: did the ridicule and second-guessing by partisan politicians cause Clinton to pull America's punches? Without the partisan bickering over foreign policy might Clinton have gone further? Hundreds lay dead and thousands wounded in East Africa. American rage would certainly have approved a full-bore response including U.S. troops on the ground to hunt down and kill bin Laden.

Would the horrors of 9/11 have been prevented if not for partisan nit-picking aimed at weakening the commander in chief? It is possible.

Further, let us ask whether President Obama is able to resist the push and pull of those who would bring him down? Will he fail to issue an order to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities because he does not want to be stampeded into doing it?

Can political hawks create enough media attention and public opinion that Obama either fails to act or else leaps into a thoughtless act? Will he launch another Bay of Pigs which John Kennedy was stampeded into authorizing.

Now, foreign policy has long been the subject of political debate. In the early years of the republic, President John Adams resisted lobbies by those favoring France and those favoring England.

During the first two years of World War II, isolationist or pro-German critics at home prevented President Roosevelt from supplying beleaguered England with warships and weapons.

For 50 years, America's policy towards Cuba has been a domestic issue. Candidates pledge to keep the embargo and pander to the Cuban-American exile community in Miami which can swing the whole state of Florida.

Support for Israel is another hot-button issue, with hundreds of Congressmen flocking to the Washington Convention Center last fall to trip over each other in expressing total solidarity with Israel. Any whiff of a policy calling for balance, compassion to the Palestinians or division of the land in a fair manner was buried. Even Obama's speech to the meeting was devoid of any of the criticism that is so needed to persuade Israel to make greater efforts to compromise for peace.

Now I believe that Obama is a cool customer and his use of Special Forces to get bin Laden is proof of that. But he is entering the electoral spiral which will mean a steady stream of attacks on his foreign policy. He better not be too cool or too hot. He has to make up his mind without considering that his enemies will spin his moves in offensive and harmful ways.

Let's also hope that whoever gets the nod from Republicans to contest for the White House will assume a responsible voice when it comes to talking about America's global interests, and will not put our fighting men and women at risk for the sake of one-upsmanship.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

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