World leaders don't always have the liberty of choosing their allies, but they do get to pick their friends. And while Barack Obama has been criticized for his Vulcan-style diplomacy, the U.S. president has made a few buddies in office. Now, as anti-government protests grip Turkey, one of them is embarrassing him.
In an interview with Fareed Zakaria in January 2012, Obama spoke candidly about the world leaders he had befriended, as The Cable reported at the time (emphasis ours):
Obama replied that he couldn't compare his relationships to those of past presidents, but "the friendships and the bonds of trust that I've been able to forge with a whole range of leaders is precisely -- or is a big part of what has allowed us to execute effective diplomacy."
Obama then went on name the five world leaders he feels especially close to and explained that he isn't exactly shooting hoops with them, but they at least have good working relationships.
"I mean, I think that if you ask them -- Angela Merkel, or Prime Minister Singh, or President Lee, or Prime Minister Erdogan, or David Cameron would say, we have a lot of trust and confidence in the President. We believe what he says. We believe that he'll follow through on his commitments. We think he's paying attention to our concerns and our interests," Obama said. And that's part of the reason why we've been able to forge these close working relationships and gotten a whole bunch of stuff done."
When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Washington last month, Obama mentioned that, in addition to discussing developments in Syria and peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the leaders had also exchanged parenting tips. An administration official told Politico that Obama and Erdogan's friendship has helped them weather a series of diplomatic challenges in Obama's first term -- though a New Yorker profile of Erdogan chalked that cooperation up to American desperation to maintain allies in the Middle East as much as to Obama and Erdogan's personal relationship:
President Barack Obama has developed a close relationship with Erdogan, whom he regards as a dynamic and democratically minded leader. A White House official told me that Obama has regularly voiced his concerns about the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities. On the rare occasion that an American official has made his criticisms public, Erdogan has easily dismissed them....
One explanation for American passivity, repeated by a number of Turks, is that Obama is desperate for allies in the Muslim world and is determined to hold on to Erdogan as a friend in an increasingly combustible region. When I mentioned this to a Western diplomat, he said that Erdogan had proved to be a positive leader for Turkey. As the diplomat told me, "Turkey is Muslim, prosperous, and democratic. There isn't another country like that." And yet some Turks compare Erdogan's Turkey less to the democracies of the West than to the Russian and Chinese models, in which free-market economics are championed and domestic dissent is repressed.
Obama speaks to Erdogan frequently (in 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that the president had placed more calls to Turkey's prime minister than to any world leader except British Prime Minister David Cameron) -- enough for Mark Kennedy, writing for FP's Shadow Government blog today, to suggest Obama ring him up again to discuss the recent unrest in Turkey.
So far, though, Obama has left discussion of the protests to the State Department. "I have no calls to report," Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Monday, in explaining the administration's assessment of the protests. "Turkey is a very important ally. And look, all democracies have issues that they need to work through and we would expect the government to work through this in a way that respects the rights of their citizens." Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters yesterday that the State Department has been working through the U.S. ambassador to Turkey to communicate the administration's position to Turkish officials. It's a roundabout way for the president to send a message to one of his closest friends on the world stage.
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Barack Obama's counterterrorism speech on Thursday has drawn mixed reviews here in the United States (here at FP, Rosa Brooks gave the address an A-, while Emile Simpson found it to be a "conceptual car crash") -- and reactions have been similar in the countries that may be most affected by the president's proposals.
In the Pakistani press, the takeaway from the speech was the Obama administration's position on drone strikes, which have targeted militants in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. With a touch of optimism, Pakistani reports listed the revised criteria for drone strikes described in the speech and new "presidential policy guidance" as a major shift in U.S. policy. The reports also took special note of Obama's acknowledgement of the "thousands of Pakistani soldiers [who] have lost their lives fighting extremists."
For some in Pakistan, though, including the government's Foreign Ministry, the speech was too little, too late. The ministry issued a statement saying that, while officials agreed with Obama's comment that "force alone cannot make us safe," the Pakistani government "has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law." In an op-ed in Dawn, Pakistani author Rafia Zakaria wrote that the speech would have been better two years ago. In the time since the May 2011 Osama bin Laden raid, she pointed out, terrorism in Pakistan has metastasized as groups like the Pakistani Taliban have been emboldened by airstrikes:
The United States delegitimised the Pakistani state by continuing its onslaught of drone strikes year after year. Unheeded by both Parliamentary resolutions that denied any tacit agreement on drones and the statements of UN Rapporteurs calling them illegal; the Predators continued to fly, releasing Hellfire missiles over Pakistani territory and treating Pakistani borders as arbitrary impediments to American strategy.... The Tehreek-e-Taliban made the same point as the Americans, that the Pakistani state was not able to protect its own people, that their invasive capacity to kill was greater than the government's capacity to protect and that the writ of the state simply did not apply.
Meanwhile, in Yemen, despite the prevalence of U.S. drone strikes in the country, the reaction has focused on Obama's comments about the Guantánamo Bay detention center, where Yemeni nationals make up the majority of remaining detainees. The most-read article on the Yemen Post website on Friday, titled "Gitmo detainees could be heading home to Yemen soon," led with:
Following weeks of an intense political debate between Yemeni and American officials regarding the fate of Yemen 56 cleared terror detainees in Guantanamo Bay prison, America's infamous terror penitentiary, US President Barack Obama said he is ready to resume the transfers of prisoners, hence ended his self-imposed moratorium. In a speech on Thursday at the National Defense University President Obama made clear he wished to reduce Guantanamo "detainee population" ahead of the potential closure of the facility altogether.
The article also noted the looming political fight in Washington, stating, "While the news will come as a relief to many Yemeni officials and the families of detainees, not all American officials agree with their president's decision." The Yemeni government issued a press release and the Yemen Post article quotes officials from the country's Human Rights Ministry confirming U.S.-Yemeni cooperation on a new rehabilitation program in Yemen for repatriated detainees.
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When a former Obama administration legal advisor delivers a tough criticism of the president's prosecution of the war on terror, what do you see? Evidence of the manifest illegality of the White House's drone program? An example of Obama's lack of political will? An invocation of frightening Bush-era legal theories of presidential power?
Welcome to the Rorschach test that is Harold Koh's recent speech to the Oxford Union.
On Tuesday, Koh, until January the chief legal advisor at the State Department, criticized the White House's lack of transparency with regard to its drone program, which Koh said has resulted in "a growing perception that the program is not lawful and necessary, but illegal, unnecessary and out of control." That jab was part of a three-part plan laid out by Koh to extricate the United States from the "Forever War" (1. Disengage from Afghanistan; 2. Close Guantánamo; 3. Discipline drones).
Prior to joining the administration, Koh was an outspoken critic of the Bush administration. But once inside government, he served as one of the chief legal architects of the Obama administration's national security policies, many of which bore a striking resembling to Obama's predecessor's. Now, Koh is firing back -- if rather gently -- at his former employer. But beyond his rather straightforward policy recommendations, it's not entirely clear how to interpret Koh's speech. And the varied responses it provoked offer something of a primer on the current state of thinking about Obama's prosecution of the war on terror.
Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf sees the secrecy surrounding the drone program and Koh's call for its dismantling as proof positive of the program's illegality. In order to "discipline drones," Koh called on Obama to make public the legal rationale for drone strikes and targeting American citizens overseas, clarify its method for counting civilian casualties, and release the threat assessments behind individual drones strikes. Additionally, Koh called on the White House to send its officials before Congress to testify about the program. All in all, sensible reforms aimed at transparency.
But, as Friedersdorf argues, the fact that none of these things -- moves all within Obama's power to carry out -- have happened reveals the drone program's shaky legal basis, if not its outright illegality:
If Koh believes all that is what should happen, then he believes the Obama Administration's current approach is deeply wrongheaded, and not just because of its indefensible dearth of transparency. It is not "consistent with due process" to target American citizens. The way Team Obama counts civilian casualties is not "consistent with international humanitarian law standards." Obama can't demonstrate that its strikes were all directed against imminent threats. Being more transparent about any of those things will in fact be discrediting, not redemptive.
Hence the secrecy.
And although he precedes everything with, "as President Obama has indicated he wants to do," Koh knows that Obama could do everything Koh endorses, but has in fact chosen not to do it.
Writing for her blog Emptywheel, Marcy Wheeler interprets Koh's argument about how to close Guantánamo as evidence of Obama's lack of political will to finally erase this stain on America's human rights record. In his speech, Koh urged Obama to designate a senior White House official with sufficient weight to close down the prison. But that plan, Wheeler contends, bears remarkable similarities to Obama's failed effort to close Gitmo early in his first term:
Now, I'm all in favor of closing Gitmo and this might be one way to do it. Koh actually improves on the prior plan by admitting the indefinite detainees will have to be released as the war is over, which is legally correct but misapprehends why they're not being released and why we have to have a Forever War to justify keeping them silent and imprisoned forever.
But Koh's map for closing Gitmo also misrepresents why appointing Greg Craig himself to carry out the Gitmo task didn't work. As I traced in real time (see, here, here, and here), to get Obama's ear, Craig had to fight through Rahm Emanuel. And Rahm preferred to sell out Obama's human rights promises in exchange for an eventually failed attempt to appease Lindsey Graham. Rahm won that fight. After Rahm won that battle, he scapegoated Craig. Ultimately, when asked why he left, Craig pointed to Rahm.
It wasn't enough to appoint Greg Craig. Closing Gitmo either required appointing someone with the bureaucratic chops to beat Rahm or someone like him in battle, or someone whom Obama actually entrusts such a battle with. And Holder's fate - where Obama continues to have trust in him even while he ultimately reversed his decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in NYC - shows that's not enough. Heck, Koh stayed on for almost four years, but even battles he presumably thought he had won, like drone rules, he now appears to have lost. Ultimately, then, it's going to take a really shrewd fighter or ... it's going to take the President wanting to invest political capital in these things more than he did three years ago.
Koh's emphasis on the need to close Guantánamo reflects the degree to which the Bush administration's shadow still hangs over the Obama White House -- a fact highlighted in the blog Lawfare commentary on Koh's conception of presidential power. "Look who has discovered inherent presidential powers," Benjamin Wittes observes sarcastically (elsewhere on Lawfare, Steve Vladeck defends Koh against the charge of hypocrisy).
What do you see in this ink blot of a speech?
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Yemen's transitional government is signaling that it may release Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a Yemeni journalist who was arrested in August 2010 and who U.S. intelligence officials believe supported al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Shaye was sentenced to five years in prison in January 2011 in a trial that drew condemnation from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and human rights and journalist advocacy organizations have since campaigned for his release.
In a meeting with U.N. officials on Monday, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi told reporters that he has made plans to release Shaye, Yemen's al-Masdar reports. Al Jazeera bureau chief Saeed Thabit Saeed, who attended the meeting, wrote on Facebook, "We received a serious promise from [Hadi] that our colleague Abdulelah Shaye will be released," and Times of London correspondent Iona Craig confirmed with Hadi's office that there "is an order from the president to release Shaye soon."
This is not the first time that Shaye's release has been considered. In fact, soon after his 2011 trial, Shaye's release seemed imminent. "We were waiting for the release of the pardon -- it was printed out and prepared in a file for the president to sign and announce the next day," Shaye's lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, told Jeremy Scahill in his new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. But that plan fell through after a Feb. 2 phone call between then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and President Barack Obama, in which Obama "expressed concern over the release of [Shaye], who had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP," according to a readout of the call released by the White House.
The White House's position hasn't changed in the ensuing two years. "We remain concerned about al-Shai's potential early release due to his association with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told FP by email on Wednesday.
Nor, for that matter, is Shaye's release certain. Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesperson for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, walked back reports of the journalist's imminent release, telling FP that President Hadi had only agreed to consider ending Shaye's detention.
Shaye's investigative work drew international attention in 2009 when he reported that the United States had conducted an airstrike that killed 41 civilians in the Yemeni village of al-Majalla, and managed to interview New Mexico-born AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki on multiple occasions.
In July 2010, the Yemeni government arrested and beat Shaye, and interrogators told him, "We will destroy your life if you keep on talking," according to Scahill's account. Shaye was arrested a month later, beaten again, held in solitary confinement for 34 days without access to a lawyer, and then rushed through a trial on charges that included recruiting and propagandizing for AQAP and encouraging the assassination of President Saleh and his son. By the time Obama intervened in Shaye's pardon in 2011, protesters had begun filling city streets calling for the end of Saleh's three-decade presidency; Saleh resigned in November 2011, and since then his vice president, Hadi, has governed as part of what is slated to be a two-year period of reform and transition.
The U.S. government's case against Shaye is unclear. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein told Craig in February 2012 that "Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans," but did not elaborate. Before Shaye's arrest, an U.S. intelligence official, who told Scahill that he "was persuaded that [Shaye] was an agent," discouraged journalists from working with Shaye on account of "'classified evidence' indicat[ing] that Shaye was 'cooperating' with al Qaeda."
Since his imprisonment, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Yemen-based Freedom Foundation have campaigned for Shaye's release, and last November Yemeni Justice Minister Murshid al-Arashani publicly demanded that Hadi issue a pardon. Though it appears the Yemeni president may be preparing to meet that request, Shaye's family remains doubtful. "It's like the same as previous promises," Shaye's brother Khaled told Craig. "So far this is the fourth time Hadi has made this promise."
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As Barack Obama heads to Mexico, U.S. involvement in Mexico's battle against drug cartels is getting a lot of press. But it's worth noting that Mexico's notorious narcotics trade isn't just Mexico's problem anymore. And Obama should be well aware of that, considering that this past February Chicago declared Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán its first "Public Enemy No. 1" since Al Capone. "While Chicago is 1,500 miles from Mexico, the Sinaloa drug cartel is so deeply embedded in the city that local and federal law enforcement are forced to operate as if they are on the border," Jack Riley, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office, told CNN.
The infiltration of the Windy City shows the extent to which Mexican drug syndicates have made inroads in the United States -- the Associated Press and others have reported that cartel cells are operating in Atlanta, Ga., Louisville, Ky., Columbus, Ohio, and rural North Carolina. In fact, according to an excellent National Post infographic based on data from a U.S. Justice Department report and other sources, it's much easier to list states that don't have a drug trade tied to Mexican gangs. There are only twelve that haven't reported the presence of one of four Mexican cartels since 2008: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The Mexican drug trade is everywhere else.
Detected cartel operations range from traditional drug-running to using a horse ranch as a front for laundering drug money, as one group did in Oklahoma. The Sinaloa cartel, which has emerged as Mexico's dominant syndicate, has carved out new territory in the United States by controlling 80 percent of its meth trade (Mexican cartels have come to dominate the U.S. market by aggressively bumping up the purity of their meth while dropping the price per gram).
All told, Mexican cartels reside in 1,200 American communities as of 2011, up from 230 in 2008, according to the Associated Press. Below is a map that shows just how many states have been penetrated, according to the National Post's special report on the topic.
View Cartel Penetration in the US in a larger map
Fraying cooperation in the drug war will surely be top of mind as President Obama meets with his counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico this week. And perhaps nothing encapsulates Mexico's growing impatience with America's heavy-handed approach to combating drug trafficking than this nugget from a New York Times report on Tuesday. Apparently, the United States has been subjecting Mexican security officials to regular polygraph tests in an effort to identify rotten apples. But that could soon change:
Shortly after Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, took office in December, American agents got a clear message that the dynamics, with Washington holding the clear upper hand, were about to change.
"So do we get to polygraph you?" one incoming Mexican official asked his American counterparts, alarming United States security officials who consider the vetting of the Mexicans central to tracking down drug kingpins. The Mexican government briefly stopped its vetted officials from cooperating in sensitive investigations. The Americans are waiting to see if Mexico allows polygraphs when assigning new members to units, a senior Obama administration official said.
While the practice is not widely publicized, it has been an element of the two countries' security relationship for some time. In a 1997 article on U.S.-Mexican plans to join hands in the drug war, the Associated Press noted that Mexican counternarcotics agents would undergo the "kind of extensive background, financial, and polygraph tests required of U.S. drug agents." The plans came after the arrest of Mexico's drug czar, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, for taking bribes from drug traffickers.
What's more, the United States hasn't just applied this policy to Mexico. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that Washington has given elite Colombian counternarcotics agents polygraph tests as well.
The bad blood over polygraph tests isn't the only sign that U.S.-Mexican cooperation on the drug war is deteriorating. In an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE on his new book, the Mexican journalist Jesús Esquivel claimed that the Mexican military recently waved off a U.S. offer to capture famed drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Gúzman. The United States had the Sinaloa cartel chief's location and said the operation would take only 15 minutes. So why the hang-up? Mexican military officials reportedly didn't want the American military to lead the operation.
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Sen. John McCain sounded a civil note at the beginning of his remarks at a Center for a New American Security event on Thursday, April 18. "What Republicans need now is a vigourous contest on ideas on national security and foreign policy," he told a group of military, foreign policy, and business professionals. "This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something an old wacko-bird like me must remember from time to time."
Though he didn't resort to epithets, the rest of the speech featured a series of broadsides against isolationists and non-interventionists of both parties, but especially senators on McCain's own side of the aisle. "When it comes to the politics of national security," McCain said, "my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do."
In particular, McCain singled out his "libertarian friends" who participated in Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster against John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director. "Rather than debate the very real dilemmas of targeted killing," McCain said, "my colleagues chose to focus instead on the theoretical possibility that the president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil even if they're not engaged in hostilities. As misguided as this exercise was, the political pressures on Republicans to join in were significant, and many ultimately did -- including many who know better."
As a compromise, McCain suggested revising the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which provides the legal justification for the targeted killing program, and codifying drone policy "to preserve, but clarify the commander-in-chief's war powers, while insisting on greater transparency and broader congressional oversight of how these war powers are employed."
He inveighed against the "emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process," though his critique focused on the runaway costs of projects like the F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship rather than the defense budget writ large, which he has pushed to maintain. He also went after colleagues who have tried to slash foreign aid, pointing out that, "It now seems that every piece of legislation that the Senate considers faces an inevitable amendment that would cut off all our assistance to Egypt or some other critical country. And unfortunately, these kinds of provisions keep winning more and more votes." McCain sounded downright weary as he described "explaining" and "reminding people" of the purpose of foreign aid. "While foreign aid might not make its recipients love us," he noted, "it does further our national security interests and values."
McCain went after colleagues' knee-jerk opposition to the United Nations as well. When asked about the Law of the Sea Treaty, he said, "It's probably not going to come up. Not with the makeup of this Senate, that's the reality. We couldn't even do a disabilities treaty, for God's sake." The problem? Here, McCain got sarcastic. "It's just, you know, it's the 'U.N.' It's the 'U.N.,'" he exclaimed, making air quotes and shrugging.
Despite the critiques of sequestration and U.S. policies on Syria and Iran, President Obama got off pretty easy by comparison. "Right now, the far left and far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world," McCain observed. "The president and I have had our differences, many of those differences will persist, but there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my party."
And while McCain seemed uncomfortable with the many rounds of nuclear negotiations with Iran, he said he didn't envy the president's decision on the use of force. "It's going to be probably one of the most difficult decisions the president of the United States has ever had to make," he argued, "and it's very rarely that I'm glad that I'm not the president of the United States, but this is one of [those times]."
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On Monday, Barack Obama released a message to the Iranian people marking the beginning of Nowruz, an ancient holiday celebrating the start of the Persian New Year and the advent of spring. In a YouTube video with Farsi subtitles, the president offered a brief note of celebration before launching into the crux of his message: "the world's serious and growing concerns about Iran's nuclear program, which threatens peace and security in the region and beyond." He continued:
As I have every year as President, I want to take this opportunity to speak directly to the people and leaders of Iran. Since taking office, I have offered the Iranian government an opportunity -- if it meets its international obligations, then there could be a new relationship between our two countries, and Iran could begin to return to its rightful place among the community of nations.
In past years, Obama's annual Nowruz address has been regarded by some as a shining example of soft diplomacy and by others as a cynical case of political opportunism -- but all have agreed that the president is seizing the moment to send a message to the Iranian people and government. Which raises the question: What about the millions of non-Iranians who also celebrate the holiday?
Foreign Policy caught up with Adil Baguirov, who serves on the board of directors of two D.C.-based advocacy organizations -- the U.S. Azeris Network and the U.S. Turkic Network -- that have repeatedly lobbied Obama to make his Nowruz address more inclusive and less politicized. "The Turkic people who number some 200 million spanning across Eurasia, from Yakutia to Europe, were once again overlooked" in this year's message, he wrote in an e-mail.
But, he notes, this wasn't always the case. Baguirov drew a pointed distinction with the Bush years, when the president would "congratulate not only all the Iranic people (people of Iran, Tajikistan, Afghanistan , and some people living in other regional countries, as well as the diaspora in U.S.), but all the Turkic people and diaspora that trace their heritage from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgysztan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as a multitude of autonomous regions in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, the Turcomans in Iraq, the Uzbeks and Hazara's in Afghanistan, the Uighurs in China, and others."
In his 2006 Nowruz message, for example, Bush noted that for "millions of people around the world who trace their heritage to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Central Asia, Nowruz is a celebration of life and an opportunity to express joy and happiness." (It's worth noting that Bush focused a bit more on Iran in 2003, and devoted his entire 2002 address to Afghans and Afghan-Americans after the fall of the Taliban.)
Baguirov, for his part, said Obama's approach is as if Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei spoke directly to the American people on Christmas or New Year's Day. "Other countries, especially if they have been celebrating those holidays far longer, would be rather baffled and even offended by such preferential treatment," he pointed out.
Clearly, the Obama administration now sees Nowruz as a chance to address Washington's increasingly fractious relationship with Tehran, and to reach out to and draw support from the Iranian people. Whether or not Iranians appreciate the gesture, it's clear at least some other Nowruz celebrants don't.
More than 800,000 Americans packed the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Monday to listen to President Obama deliver his second inaugural address, but many more were listening around the world. Here are a few interesting global reactions:
In the Chinese media, Obama's promise to "try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully" and argument that "engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear" than military force was taken as a sign that the U.S.-China relationship will be at the top of his foreign policy agenda for the next four years. Of course, as the state-run Global Times notes, there's a bit of skepticism that the president will live up to his words:
"If the president really lives his words, he would agree that for the sake of the world's peace and prosperity, it is important for the United States and China to foster mutual trust, for trust is the cornerstone for every relationship, no matter between people or between nations...The words also show that he agrees that the two nations should properly solve their disputes, either economic or political."
News agency Xinhua was a little more positive, describing the overall approach Obama outlined in his Monday address as "balanced" and "decidedly progressive."
One Guardian writer described Obama's speech as "urg[ing] Americans to reclaim from conservatives the spirit of the founding fathers" and as "more inspirational than 2009," praising Obama's strong support of climate change and gay rights. Another was more cautious in hispraise, maintaining that Obama's speech was less of a populist manifesto and more of a "to-do list [covering] what he has still to do to make good on the economic promises of his first term."
Peter Foster of the more conservative Telegraph granted that Obama's speech was well-received
by the spectators on the Mall, he reminded readers just how deeply divided the United States still is: "It was apparent," writes Foster, "that only half of the nation had showed up to listen
to [Obama's] call...Overwhelmingly, the crowd of 800,000 people was filled with
the faces of the young, female, urban, African-American coalition that ensured Mr. Obama's re-election for a second term last November. They were Obama's people, and they
were there to celebrate their victory."
In his article for the Australian, Troy Bramston praised Obama's rhetoric, but argued that Obama cannot rank amongst the truly great American presidents until he "translate[s] a presidency of promise into a presidency of action."
That may be hard to do, claims Janet Hook in another article for the Australian, in which she points out that Obama's speech made little effort to readch out to the GOP.
After the inaugural address, the headline of Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat read "The decade of war is over," referencing a line from Obama's speech. Yet in an op-ed for the same paper, Abdul Rahman Rashed, though praising Obama's experience in Middle Eastern affairs, was not so sure about peace in the coming decade. "Obama's second term will possibly be reconciliatory, particularly after John Kerry and Chuck Hagel join his administration...but who can tell if the region will be in a reconciliatory mood?"
In his article for Palestinian-run, London based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi (translated into English by the Times of Israel), Abdel Al-Bari Atwan writes that Obama "completely shut the door on any military intervention, stressing that a decade of wars has ended and that the only way to peace is dialogue." "President Obama's message is very clear," the article continued. "In short, he said that he does not intend to militarily intervene in Syria; will not wage a war on Iran, succumbing to Israeli pressure; and will focus on rescuing his country from its crippling economic crisis."
Atwan continues: "Obama disappointed many of his allies in the Middle East by neglecting to mention any of them in his speech." (Obama didn't mention any foreign countries by name in his address.)
Obama's equal opportunity rhetoric made news in Mexico. In its coverage of the inaugural address, El Universal highlighted Obama's commitment to immigrants, women, and gays. The article quoted Obama's statement promising immigration reform:
"Our trip (as a nation) will not be complete until we find a better way to welcome the hopeful, striving immigrants in the U.S. are still the land of opportunity, until the brightest students and engineers are listed on our strengths work instead of being expelled from our country."
The headline of the article read, in Spanish, "Obama calls for welcoming immigrants."
The president's inaugural address was a chance for Canadians to pat themselves on the back, the Ottowa Citizen snarkily reports:
"On the key issues that President Barack Obama pledged to dedicate his second term to in his inaugural address, Canada has already made substantive progress: on supporting democracy around the world; on providing equal rights to gays and lesbians; on creating an aspirational immigration system."
It doesn't stop there either. The column went to on say that Canada has also beat Obama to the punch in securing a budget deal and repairing its economy.
When Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird hosted a largely American gathering at the Canadian embassy on Monday, he was more tactful. "This is not a time for long speeches," he said. "We have very different systems, so we don't exactly want to be bragging," a Canadian embassy spokesman said.
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Americans, U.S. President Barack Obama said yesterday during his inaugural address, "are made for this moment."
Why? Because "we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive, diversity and openness, endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention."
It's a reassuring thought, but do we Americans really possess these qualities more than any other countries?
Without a doubt, the U.S. is not particularly youthful when compared to other countries around the world. The median age in the U.S. is 37.1; the world's median age is 28.4, placing us well on the older end of the spectrum. We're younger than most of the OECD countries, but are still beaten out by Brazil (29.6), Chile (32.8), Ireland (35.1), Israel (29.5) and Mexico (27.4).
Is the U.S. very diverse? Not really, according to Stanford political scientist James Fearon. Fearon tried to measure diversity in 160 countries around the world in a 2003 study, and (with all the appropriate caveats that ethnicity is a difficult thing to define) found that the the U.S. comes in as the 85th most diverse country in the world. The most diverse western country is actually Canada, with an "ethnic fractionalization index" of .596 (the U.S.'s is .491), and we're outranked by almost every country in sub-saharan Africa, as well as Brazil (.549), Mexico (.542) and Israel (.526), among others.
How about our appetite for risk? A little trickier to measure, but a group of researchers at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin tried last November, through a study in which they conducted experiments to measure the risk tolerance of 80-100 students in 30 countries, to see how their results compared with development and growth levels. The U.S., despite our "have gun, will travel" reputation, is actually somewhat risk averse, according to this research: they give us a risk tolerance score of about .-07 - still above those stodgy Germans, but slightly below France. Meanwhile, the Brazilians (again!) seem to be a little more inclined to put some skin in the game:
Finally: do we have more capacity for reinvention than other countries? This might be the hardest characteristic to find a proxy for, but one might be how likely a country's workers are to find new jobs within a certain time period. This study, from 2004, looked at 25 countries, and found that while U.S. workers are fairly likely to keep on moving, they are still less likely to change jobs in a twelve month period than Canadians (again!) or Russians.
Whether these particular characteristics are really the ones that will count in the years to come is the subject of a separate blog post. But if Americans are "made for this moment," as Obama says, it seems that Canadians and Brazilians might be too -- or maybe even more so.
When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he'd vote for Barack Obama if he could, you knew it was only a matter of time until the president's opponents used the unwelcome endorsement against him. First there was the ad released by Gary Bauer's Campaign for American Values PAC on the "dictator vote" that Obama had secured from Chavez, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Now, as the Miami Herald reports, the Romney campaign itself has released a Spanish-language ad on Spanish-language TV in Florida that shows Chavez and Raul Castro's niece Mariela expressing support for Obama, and even tries to tie the president to Che Guevara by noting that the Environmental Protection Agency sent out an Hispanic Heritage Month email containing a picture with a mural of the Marxist revolutionary in the background. The Obama campaign has responded by emphasizing the administration's efforts to expand trade with Latin America and criticizing Romney for "giving Chavez the attention he thrives on and that he doesn't deserve."
Romney approved the message, but he isn't promoting the ad on his YouTube channel and the Miami Herald says the campaign has refused repeated requests to furnish the ad to the paper. Why? Perhaps because the spot stoops pretty low in sending out subliminal messages about Obama being a closet socialist. Poor email judgment on the part of the EPA does not make Obama a Marxist revolutionary, and superimposing Obama's face on a famous Che poster -- and then showing the poster again, this time with Che's face -- probably won't convince voters otherwise.
The ad also doesn't mention that Fidel Castro has said a robot would be a better president than Obama, or that Chavez once called the president a "clown" after Obama criticized Venezuela's ties to Cuba and Iran. During the 2008 election, Obama's aides had to tamp down controversy after a flag with an image of Che Guevara was spotted at a volunteer office unaffiliated with the campaign. Are we really doing this again?
As a recent BBC World Service poll suggested, Barack Obama would cruise to victory if countries ranging from France to Kenya to Canada could vote in the U.S. presidential election. But a new Peace Index poll reveals that Mitt Romney has a sizable advantage in at least one country: Israel.
The survey, which was conducted last week by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, found that 57 percent of Jewish Israelis felt that it would be preferable for Romney to win the election from the perspective of Israeli interests, while 22 percent said the same about Obama. Seventy percent of self-identified right-wingers, 54 percent of centrists, and 30 percent of left-wingers surveyed expressed support for Romney. Meanwhile, a plurality of Arab Israelis in the poll preferred Obama (45 percent) to Romney (15 percent).
A Peace Index poll over the summer, when Romney traveled to Jerusalem, yielded similar -- if less pronounced -- results, with 40 percent of Jewish Israeli respondents supporting Romney and 19 percent backing Obama on a slightly different question: Which candidate would assign "more importance to defending Israel's national interests?"
In this month's Peace Index poll, which will be released in full on Monday, 69 percent of Israeli Jews said they do not believe the result of the U.S. election will influence the outcome of upcoming Israeli elections, while 51 percent of Israeli Arabs said they think the U.S. race will have an impact on the Israeli contest. I've written before about speculation in the Israeli press that Benjamin Netanyahu could be punished at the polls if Obama wins reelection and bilateral relations suffer because of the Israeli prime minister's aggressive efforts to establish "red lines" for Iran's nuclear program during the U.S. campaign.
One surprising result of the BBC World Service poll last week was that the only country where more respondents favored Romney than Obama was Pakistan, where drone strikes and the Osama bin Laden raid have inflamed anti-American sentiment. But the real story there was that most Pakistani respondents were, well, undecided: a whopping 75 percent had no opinion about the candidates. In Israel, at least among Israeli Jews, the preference for Romney appears to be far more resounding.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
I see the Obama campaign has a new YouTube ad featuring Girls star (and fellow Oberlin alum!) Lena Dunham:
"Your first time shouldn't be with just anybody. You want to do it with a great guy," she says, referring to casting your first ballot for Obama. (What were you thinking?)
It's a clever conceit, but feels a bit familiar. Perhaps because the same joke was used in an ad for Vladimir Putin's presidential campaign earlier this year:
A suggestive ad rallying support for Putin's presidential campaign shows a young woman seeking a fortune-teller's advice. "Let's find out, cutie, who is intended to you by destiny," the mystic says. The girl replies, "You know. I wish it to be for love -- It is my first time."
Here's that one:
Another ad from the same campaign featured a doctor telling a young woman, "The main thing is to be sure it's safe. Especially the first time."
Let's just hope the campaign doesn't delve further into the Putin catalog.
Update: Looks like Reagan may have beaten Putin to this joke by a few years.
Also, whether you like the Dunham commercial or not, describing it as "further proof we live in a fallen world destined for hell fire" is um... going a bit far.
Last night I tallied up the number of times various countries were mentioned in Monday's foreign-policy debate. And today, not surprisingly, many of the most-mentioned countries are adding their two cents to the discussion. In China, the Global Times notes that President Barack Obama "surprised China and his own people by labeling China an 'adversary" while Xinhua cautiously observes that the candidates offered a "speck of belated comfort" by also referring to Beijing as a partner. Israeli columnists are discussing Obama's anecdote about visiting Yad Vashem and Sderot as Pakistani news outlets highlight Romney's pledge to continue drone strikes and attach conditions to Pakistani aid.
But it's the countries that didn't get mentioned last night that are issuing some of the most interesting commentary today. Blogging for the French newspaper Liberation, for example, Lorraine Millot notes that Europe was in the running with Australia for the most forgotten continent last night but adds that the silence may not be so bad, since Europe is a perennial scapegoat on the campaign trail. Palestinian political leader Hanan Ashrawi has called the lack of discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a "sin of omission" and "clearly the elephant in the room."
Indian news outlets in particular have been wrestling with the meaning of their country's absence from the debate.
The Times of India, for its part, isn't surprised. "As expected, India did not come up even once during the 90-minute debate, not even obliquely or tangentially ... or in reference to China or Pakistan," the paper observes. But other outlets appear to be more taken aback. In an article for The Hindu entitled "Obama scores, but did the world lose?" Narayan Lakshman laments the narrow worldview that the candidates articulated on Monday night:
[B]oth men appeared keen to limit the debate to their respective talking points, which not only resulted in the debate often being pulled back into arguments over domestic issues such as the economy, it also led to a vast swathe of nations, allies and foes of U.S. alike, being entirely ignored. India and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, did not feature in the debate at all, and the European Union and Latin America were only given passing mentions.
In a far more pessimistic take at Business Line, J. Srinivasan accuses India's leaders of inviting the slight by scuttling the country's relationship with the United States and global ambitions:
Some years back, with 9 per cent-plus growth, India was the toast of the world, and the US. Obama had called India the ‘risen nation'. Washington and New Delhi finally seemed getting closer, overcoming the peculiar legacy of an uneasy relationship between the two largest democracies. Suddenly, all that bonhomie seems over.
Principally, the blame may lie with India. The US has been backing India in its anti-terror efforts at all fora. But the quid pro quo has not come. Washington must be most disappointed with New Delhi's waffling on serious foreign investments. Actually, the loser is India as it now gets only some portfolio investment that is notoriously fickle to boot. And, when the government has made some glacial moves, they have been politically stymied. India is still to open its banking and insurance sectors. Then, the off-putting corruption revelations.
Really, can the US, or any other country, be blamed for ignoring India? For all the big talk of our political class, the sad truth is forget a chair, we don't get a stool at the world high table. We, the aam aadmi [common man], must also wake up to the reality that if our political class continues in its ways, we cannot catch up with China warts and all.
At First Post, Venky Vembu has a little more fun with the omission:
What's the point of our "stealing" so many middle-class American jobs through the outsourcing route if we can't even find one measly mention in the US presidential debate? What price our status as a "risen power" (to quote Obama, during his visit to India in November 2010) if we cannot colonise the mindspace of even one of the two men who are vying to be the next president of the US?
Even lowly Pakistan came in for mention, uncharitable though it was....
But while Vembu, like J. Srinivasan, argues that India's political, economic, and diplomatic problems may contribute to the country's irrelevance in the current U.S. foreign-policy debate, he adds that America's increasing isolationism is also to blame:
[America's] foreign policy horizons are shrinking, as an economically enfeebled America increasingly focuses inwards.
India and the US, it has been famously said, are "estranged democracies" that ought to have gotten along a lot better than the vicissitudes of geopolitics have allowed. History, of course, comes with its own baggage, but today, as both India and the US retreat into the recesses of their minds, the capacity for India to inject itself into American foreign polity thinking stands vastly diminished.
If it's any consolation, Obama did mention India once in the second debate. The context? Condemning Romney for supporting tax breaks that would create jobs in countries like India.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Just over a month ago, I wrote a post with the headline, "Dems haven't had this much national-security swagger since LBJ." At the time, the Democrats were concluding their convention and President Obama was enjoying rare and resounding double-digit leads over his Republican challenger on foreign policy, national security, and counterterrorism. That was before the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Obama's lackluster performance in the first debate, and Mitt Romney's sustained post-debate bounce.
Fast-forward several weeks, and Romney appears to have made dramatic strides on foreign policy and national security. The wording of questions and types of respondents vary in the national polls below, so what follows is not an apples-to-apples analysis (sadly, there's no daily tracking poll for foreign policy). The most recent polls also don't reflect Obama's stronger outing in his second debate. But the general trend should be clear:
The Pew poll released this week also shows Obama losing some support for his response to the Libya attack, Obama and Romney running neck-and-neck on dealing with Iran's nuclear program, and Romney leading Obama by nine points on handling China's trade policies.
As I mentioned before, it's important to emphasize that these polls do not capture Obama's performance in the second debate. But when CNN polled Americans who watched this week's town hall and asked them which candidate would do a better job handling foreign policy, Obama emerged with a mere 49-47 advantage over Romney.
Obama clearly still has the overall edge on foreign policy. But his dominance appears to be waning -- just in time for a debate on foreign policy next week.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
With the U.S. presidential election now closer than ever, the press is brimming with speculation about whether Barack Obama, after turning in a lackluster performance in the first debate, can reverse Mitt Romney's momentum during his second outing tonight. And not just the U.S. media. News outlets from India to Israel are busy dissecting Obama's setback, Romney's comeback, and what the new state of play in the race means for their countries. Here's a snapshot of some of the most colorful coverage in recent days:
The British press has at times been rather brutal in assessing the shifting dynamics in the presidential race (sample Daily Mail headline this week: "Preparing for a new job already? Obama delivers pizzas to campaign workers as he gets ready for make-or-break TV debate at golf resort"). But commentators have also speculated about what a Romney win would mean for Britain. Over at the Telegraph, Tim Stanley argues that David Cameron and his Conservative Party have expressed their preference for Obama too openly. "By airing these views in public the Tories have gambled too much on Obama winning the election," he maintains. "And if he doesn't, then they'll have a President on their hands who they have routinely insulted. That can't be good for the Atlantic alliance." (Stanley, for the record, thinks tonight's debate will end in a draw or Romney win.)
Meanwhile, Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to the United States, writes in the London Evening Standard that an Obama victory would be best for Britain:
Romney could turn out to be an excellent foreign policy president, yet right now, his foreign policy team is split between neo-con hawks and those of a more pragmatic, "realist" world view, similar to our own. We don't know which faction will come out on top. In the circumstances, we're better off with the devil we know - and that's Obama.
The state-run news agency Xinhua has a warning today for the presidential candidates: "[I]t would be both politically shortsighted and detrimental to China-US relations if they turned the town-hall-style meeting into a China-bashing competition" (the news outlet appears to be confusing tonight's debate with the third and final debate on foreign policy, which will touch on topics such as "the rise of China and tomorrow's world"). Sure, both candidates' tough talk on China may be nothing more than campaign bluster, Xinhua observes. But "these chameleonic politicians should not always expect that the wounds they have inflicted to the China-US ties would heal automatically" once they assume office.
In an article on the possibility that India could be dealing with several new world leaders in a matter of months, the Times of India marvels that "from being a candidate who could barely control his own Republican Party, Mitt Romney has surged forward to be a surprisingly competent debater and a more than credible opponent." Still, the paper adds, the outcome of the U.S. election may not have a major impact on bilateral relations. "The Indo-US relationship has now become institutionalized and isn't actually dependent on a president," the article notes.
In a debate preview at the Hindustan Times, the U.S.-based journalist Rashmee Roshan Lall argues that Romney is unlikely to endear himself to India or the world during Tuesday night's event. True, she notes, the "New Delhi punditocracy has always thought Republican presidents suit India much better than Democratic ones." But Romney doesn't mention India on the campaign trail and wants to "reinstate the US as globocop, albeit with a makeover that borrows heavily from some of the darker manifestations of Lord Voldemort." She concludes with a question: "Is it better to be steamrollered or simply ignored or might the best option for India and everyone else be four more years of Obama?"
As the U.S. race has tightened -- "The presidential race has begun anew," one Israel Hayom headline proclaims -- the editorial boards at Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post have published explanations for why they'll be remaining neutral during the election. Haaretz notes, in rather vivid language, that "Romney would stick with Israel's prime minister and they would become flesh of one flesh" but adds that the substantive differences between the candidates are minor. Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev, meanwhile, muses about the various leadership permutations that could result from elections in Israel and the United States.
As for the upcoming debate, Israel Hayom's Abraham Ben-Avi thinks it is "Obama's last window of opportunity to rehabilitate his status as a leader" while Haaretz's Adar Primor argues that the world will still favor Obama over Romney even if the candidates sharpen the distinctions between them on foreign policy tonight. "Those [around the world] who have shaken off their Obama fixation have done so largely because in certain areas of policy he is seen as having adopted the Republican agenda," Primor writes.
Russia's RT didn't buy the widespread verdict that Romney trounced Obama in the first debate, noting that the "tepid" forum had shown the candidates to be "two sides of the same coin." But Romney's post-debate bounce has spurred the Russian press to give the GOP candidate a closer look. News outlets covered Romney's Russia comments during his recent foreign-policy address in Virginia but cautioned against reading too much into the aggressive rhetoric (the state-run Voice of Russia did note that "a serious politician should avoid making that kind of remarks with respect to another leading country"). One Russian lawmaker, meanwhile, accused Romney of embracing George W. Bush's failed policies and presiding over the "last convulsion of the American-style world."
In the most creative commentary, the Voice of Russia compares the debates to chess matches and quotes the chess player Vladislav Tkachev:
"Very often the real moves, such as the candidate's plan of actions and package of reforms, remain in the background and the psychological factor comes to the fore. Suffice it to look at the footage of the confrontation between Karpov and Kasparov to see that the duel of the eyes, a springy step and an overall aggressive look were of paramount importance. It is common knowledge how difficult it is to give the right answer when exposed to the rival's glare. The response of the audience can also either pep one up or completely demoralize. Barack Obama with downcast eyes did not look his best this time, side by side with his opponent who radiated confidence."
However, there are more debates ahead and the results could change. After all, Obama is leading in public opinion polls. The main thing for him now is to get rid of the image of a serious, thoughtful and humane but not very determined leader because this is the wrong style for the time of change. However, chess practice shows that the style of playing games cannot change overnight.
The German press has adopted the Mitt-mentum narrative -- as U.S.-based journalist Gregor Peter Schmitz wrote in Der Spiegel, Joe Biden's vice presidential debate performance "almost single-handedly revived the Obama campaign, which was in danger of being put on life support after the president's disastrous debate performance in Denver." But news outlets have also pointed out that the race would look very different if it were held in Germany (or many other European countries, for that matter), where more than eight in ten people would support the Democrats. "Obama has assured victory -- among Germans," a headline in Die Welt declares (an article in Berliner Morgenpost suggests that Obama's overwhelming popularity in the country helps explain why Romney didn't visit Germany during his overseas trip this summer).
The Pakistani press has covered the narrowing race. "Even the New York Times, which favours Mr Obama, concedes that Mr Romney has continued to surge since the debate," an article in Dawn observes. But in an op-ed for the same newspaper, Muhammad Ali Siddiqi argues that the weeks since the first debate have shown Obama to be the true victor. "Mr Obama was consistent, without flamboyance, and stood his ground" while "Mr Romney played to the gallery," Siddiqi notes. He adds that "Mr Romney would like to conduct his foreign policy in Cold War fashion" but admits that, contrary to the impression in Pakistan, foreign policy has "taken a back seat in the campaign."
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
As my colleague Dan Drezner notes today, excerpts released ahead of Mitt Romney's big foreign-policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute this morning suggest that the Republican candidate isn't going to be rolling out much new policy content in his address. The problem, Drezner adds, is that Romney's rhetoric on international affairs has been pretty opaque so far:
If one pushes past the overheated rhetoric, then you discover that Romney wants a lot of the same ends as Barack Obama -- a stable, peaceful and free Middle East, for example. But that's not shocking -- any major party president will want the same ends. The differenes are in the means through which a president will achieve those ends. And -- in op-ed after op-ed, in speech after speech -- Romney either elides the means altogether, mentions means that the Obama administration is already using, or just says the word "resolve" a lot. That's insufficient.
But if Romney's foreign-policy views have been incoherent, the Obama campaign's criticisms of Romney's positions have been no less perplexing. Simply put, team Obama can't seem to decide whether the president's challenger is the second coming of Barack Obama or George W. Bush -- or a different beast entirely: a blundering buffoon or possibly an inveterate flip-flipper.
These contradictions are on full display in a memo that Obama foreign-policy advisors Michèle Flournoy and Colin Kahl sent out in advance of Romney's speech.
First, Flournoy and Kahl paint Romney as the second coming of George W. Bush (but worse and outside the "mainstream"):
Mitt Romney has, throughout this campaign, raised more questions than answers about what he'd actually do as President. He supported the Iraq war and said that removing all of our troops from Iraq was "tragic," he called Russia - not al-Qaeda - our "number one geopolitical foe," and he said that he wouldn't have set a timeline to end the war in Afghanistan. Those aren't policies, those are misguided talking points - and the American people deserve more from someone running to be commander-in-chief.
Today's latest effort to reboot and reset the Romney foreign policy doesn't change the fact that he's repeatedly taken positions outside of the mainstream and often to the right of even George W. Bush. This isn't surprising. After all, Romney is advised by the same people who were responsible for some of the worst foreign policy failures in American history, including the Iraq War. And now he wants to take us back to the same with-us-or-against-us approach that got us into wars without getting us out of them.
Then as the second coming of Barack Obama:
For example, Governor Romney still can't say what he'd do differently on Iran other than taking us to war. He continues to criticize the President's timeline in Afghanistan even while saying he'd pursue it as President. His position on Libya has no credibility since he's been both for and against our Libya policy. And he offers no way forward on Syria other than suggesting that the United States should get more deeply involved in the conflict without defining a strategy.
And then as an inveterate flip-flopper. (In a statement on Sunday, Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith noted that Romney has "erratically shifted positions on every major foreign policy issue, including intervening in Libya, which he was against before he was for.")
The bar is high for Governor Romney during his speech today. After six previous chances, it is up to him to finally clear it. Because while the American people can trust Barack Obama's strong record of winding down wars and decimating al-Qaeda, Mitt Romney has repeatedly shown that he has no idea what he'd actually do as commander-in-chief. In today's complicated world, that's just not good enough.
In a new ad today attacking Romney for his gaffe-filled overseas tour this summer and response to the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, the Obama campaign promotes the fourth persona: the blundering buffoon. "If this is how he handles the world now, just think what Mitt Romney would do as president," the narrator declares. (As Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Sunday, "This is the same guy who, when he went overseas on his trip, the only person who has offended Europe more is probably Chevy Chase.")
So on one side of this campaign, we have a president who has made America lead like America again. What is there on the other side? An extreme and expedient candidate, who lacks the judgment and vision so vital in the Oval Office. The most inexperienced foreign policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades.
It isn't fair to say Mitt Romney doesn't have a position on Afghanistan. He has every position. He was against setting a date for withdrawal-then he said it was right-and then he left the impression that maybe it was wrong to leave this soon. He said it was "tragic" to leave Iraq, and then he said it was fine. He said we should've intervened in Libya sooner. Then he ran down a hallway to duck reporters' questions. Then he said the intervention was too aggressive. Then he said the world was a "better place" because the intervention succeeded. Talk about being for it before you were against it!
Mr. Romney-here's a little advice: Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you better finish the debate with yourself!
"President Mitt Romney"-three hypothetical words that mystified and alienated our allies this summer. For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is what you call it when you trip all over yourself overseas. It wasn't a goodwill mission-it was a blooper reel.
But a Romney-Ryan foreign policy would be anything but funny. Every president of both parties for 60 years has worked for nuclear arms control-but not Mitt Romney. Republican secretaries of state from Kissinger to Baker, Powell to Rice, President Bush, and 71 United States senators all supported President Obama's New Start treaty. But not Mitt Romney. He's even blurted out the preposterous notion that Russia is our "number one geopolitical foe." Folks: Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from Alaska; Mitt Romney talks like he's only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV.
Mitt Romney is an inexperienced flip-flopper who is comically inept on the world stage. But in all seriousness, folks, he's dangerous.
It was one of the most heated and perplexing moments in the presidential debate last night. Barack Obama pledged to "close those loopholes that are giving incentives for companies that are shipping jobs overseas" and instead "provide tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States." As things stand, he added, "you can actually take a deduction for moving a plant overseas. I think most Americans would say that doesn't make sense. And all that raises revenue."
Romney expressed bewilderment. "You said you get a deduction for taking a plant overseas," he noted. "Look, I've been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you're talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant."
So what's going on here? It turns out that both candidates, in a sense, had it right. There's no specific tax break for moving jobs or a plant abroad, but companies can deduct the expenses associated with doing so as part of the cost of doing business.
"To be perfectly blunt [Obama's] proposal is for show only," Eric Toder, co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Policy Center, told Foreign Policy. While many companies invest overseas, he explained, "there are not a lot of companies that take plants and literally ship them overseas." "Who knows," he added, "maybe [Romney's] businesses never did ship a plant."
For some time now, however, Obama has been running on the promise to end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. He made it a central theme of his 2008 campaign, and even raised the issue during a debate while running for the Senate in 2004:
But Obama's talk of "loopholes" and "incentives" for companies to send jobs abroad is pretty misleading. As the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler notes today, it's true that companies can deduct the expenses associated with moving their operations overseas, but they can do so because "ordinary and necessary" business expenses -- including closing a plant in the United States and opening one in another country -- are tax deductible. Or, as Fox News put it, "a company can claim the deduction whether it's moving operations to Bangalore or Boston, to Kuala Lumpur or Kansas City."
In other words, it's not like the U.S. government is encouraging corporations to relocate plants overseas through specific tax credits or sleight of hand in the tax code. Instead, Obama wants to add incentives and disincentives to the tax code by preventing companies from deducting the costs of moving their operations overseas as part of their ordinary business expenses. Kessler also points out that, according to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, taking such action would only raise $168 million in revenue over a decade -- a paltry sum relative to the country's $1 trillion annual budget deficits.
The Obama administration would go a step further by offering companies a 20-percent tax credit for the costs they incur in moving operations back to the United States, in an effort to incentivize "insourcing." Senate Republicans blocked a Democrat-led bill -- the Bring Jobs Home Act -- that included these very proposals. "Unfortunately, there's a constituency in Congress that supports tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney lamented shortly before the legislation died, in response to a question about why, three-and-a-half years after Obama's election, the president hadn't made good on his campaign promise.
In January, shortly after Obama's State of the Union address, the White House released a fact sheet that offered a clearer explanation of what the president meant by his overseas jobs sound bite:
If a company was closing a plant to move that plant overseas and incurred $1 million in expenses - ranging from the cost of scrapping equipment to shipping physical capital to clean up costs - it could right now deduct those expenses, and get a tax reduction of $350,000 (assuming the firm faces the 35 percent statutory tax rate). The President proposes to eliminate this tax deduction. And, if a corporation moving jobs to the U.S. incurred similar expenses, the President proposes to provide that company with a tax credit of $200,000 to help offset these costs and encourage investment here at home.
That's a point the administration can make without clouding the issue by invoking phantom "loopholes" and "incentives." Or, as Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) put it after waiving a copy of the U.S. tax code on the House floor in July:
"I'll keep this book of tax codes at my desk here. If someone wants to show me the tax code that allows deductions for shipping jobs overseas. I'd like to see it. But it's not in here."
For those who are wondering: As far as I can tell, Orrin Hatch is not Mitt Romney's accountant.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Stalled budget negotiations and Benjamin Netanyahu's extension of the timeline for striking Iran's nuclear facilities have the Israeli press speculating that the Israeli prime minister will call early elections in February or March (they're currently scheduled for October 2013). But in a report today, the Israeli financial paper Globes suggested another reason why Netanyahu might want to hold elections as soon as possible:
The likely reelection of US President Barack Obama is also part of Netanyahu's calculations. Netanyahu's aides fear revenge by Obama against Netanyahu for supporting the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, throughout the campaign.
As my colleague Josh Keating pointed out yesterday, the Israeli leader hasn't explicitly endorsed either candidate in the U.S. presidential election. But many political observers in Israel and the United States have pointed out that Netanyahu and Romney are like-minded friends who even have many donors in common, and argued that Netanyahu's actions -- hosting Romney in Israel, demanding that Obama set red lines for Iran's nuclear program, chatting by phone with both Romney and Obama during a recent visit to New York -- amount to an implicit endorsement of the GOP candidate (or, at the very least, an unstated preference).
Globes isn't alone in raising the possibility that Obama, if reelected, could make Netanyahu pay a price for his perceived meddling in the race. As the president has pulled away from Romney in the polls, the idea has gained traction in the Israeli press. Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer, for instance, recently argued that Netanyahu's behavior could torpedo the prime minister's reelection bid:
Surveys show that Israelis are more concerned over losing their strategic alliance with the United States than they fear an Iranian nuclear bomb. Though very few serious observers believe there is much prospect of U.S.-Israeli ties being seriously downgraded during the administration of whichever candidate wins in November, there are certainly grounds to believe that the Obama-Netanyahu relationship will become even more acrimonious, should both leaders be reelected as polls indicate is likely. They have both been so bad at papering over their differences in public that there is little hope for any improvement once Obama enters his second term, unencumbered by electoral considerations....
If ... Obama secures another four years in the Oval Office, then no matter how he treats Netanyahu and Israel over the next few months, Bibi's opponents and media critics will ceaselessly remind voters how the prime minister allowed himself to be openly aligned with the president's rival. Will that harm Netanyahu's reelection bid? It depends on how deep the mistrust between him and Obama will seem and what other issues are on the agenda, but opposition politicians are already routinely blaming him for jeopardizing Israel's most crucial relationship. For now, not one of his challengers is seen as a credible prime minister, and the electoral mathematics still favor a right-wing-religious coalition, but a full-blown crisis with the administration may yet prove the most significant threat to the chances of a third Netanyahu victory. If Obama wins in November, Netanyahu may very well regret his decision four months ago not to hold early elections in 2011.
In another Haaretz op-ed on Friday, Don Futterman, the Israel program director for the Moriah Fund, made a similar point:
Netanyahu and [casino magnate Sheldon Adelson] may have been able to buy Republican support for their pet positions: that Iran must be attacked and settlements allowed to flourish. They forgot to consider the possibility that Obama might be reelected. At this moment, it seems Netanyahu may have bet on the wrong horse, but why was the leader of the Jewish state betting on horses at all?...
The Iranian threat should never have become a partisan issue in U.S. election politics. If only our prime minister could have looked after Israel's interest with dispassionate concern instead of trying to play kingmaker. Due to the damage he has done to Israel's relationship with the U.S. administration and the personal animus he has demonstrated toward one of the most supportive American presidents Israel has ever known, Netanyahu's legacy may prove more apocalyptic than messianic. His failure could be epic and historic.
And here's former Knesset employee Susan Hattis Rolef in the Jerusalem Post a week earlier:
It is not difficult to guess that irrespective of the result of the US presidential election, but certainly in the case of an Obama victory which today seems more than likely, Netanyahu's [appearance on the Sunday talk shows] will further distance liberal American Jewry from Israel, emotionally, culturally and financially.
Israel-US relations are already in need of some serious repair, and let us just hope that we are not in a situation of "all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again."
In the wake of Netanyahu's visit to the U.N. General Assembly in New York last week, the White House and the prime minister's office have emphasized their common ground when it comes to dealing with Iran, the biggest thorn in the side of U.S.-Israeli relations. But while we may all be focused on Nov. 6, some in Israel are still preoccupied by the question of what happens the day after.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
I think we can add Hugo Chavez to the list of Obama endorsements that Ohioans won't be seeing in the president's campaign ads:
"If I were American, I'd vote for Obama," Chavez said in a televised interview that aired Sunday.
The Venezuelan leader called Obama "a good guy" and said if the U.S. president were a Venezuelan, "I think ... he'd vote for Chavez."
Not surprisingly, Romney supporters are gleefully publicizing the endorsement.
No other leaders have have been quite as blatant in picking a candidate in the U.S. election. After all, they're going to have to deal with whoever gets elected and generally duck the question when asked. (See Hamid Karzai's diplomatic answer to Wolf Blitzer: " It's for the American people to decide their president. I like them both and have worked well with both.") But a number of other leaders have dropped some hints about who they'd rather see in the White House in November.
Probably leaning Obama:
Francois Hollande: The French president was not exactly subtle when asked about the U.S. election in New York last week. "I'm careful to say nothing because you can imagine if a Socialist were to support one of the two candidates that might be to his detriment," he said. He then quipped: : “So I suppose I should endorse Mitt Romney. But I won’t.”
Hollande may be a socialist, but Obama fandom seems to cut accross party lines in France. Nicolas Sarkozy set a precedent for this sort of thing, when he essentially endorsed Obama in 2008. He also said of Obama's mideast peace efforts in March, "President Obama, who is a very great president, won't take the initiative before he's re-elected -- and I hope he will be."
David Cameron: Conservatives on either side of the pond hoping for Thatcher-Reagan II if Romney is elected might be disappointed. From all the signals we've gotten, Cameron seems to be an Obama man. Visiting the United States in March, Cameron praised the president for his “strength, moral authority, and wisdom" as well as his "strong and beautiful words." The British tabloids had a field day over Cameron's "fawning" after taking in a basketball game with the president and U.S. conservatives complained about Camerons"unprecedented" Republican leaders while in Washington. Then came the GOP candidate's visit to London and the series of gaffes that came to be known as "Romneyshambles." Cameron, not surprisingly, differed with Romney's doubts about whether Britain could successfully come together to "celebrate the Olympic moment," saying, "We'll show the world we've not only come together as a United Kingdom but are extremely good at welcoming people from across the world." (London mayor Boris Johnson was a lot more blunt.)
Vladimir Putin: Putin was the only foreign leader mentioned by name in Romney's convention speech, so it makes sense that he takes the U.S. race a bit personally. The Russian president suggested in an interview with the satellite network RT that Obama would probably be easier to work with than the candidate who has described his country as America's "number one gepolitical foe." “Is it possible to find a solution to the problem, if current President Obama is re-elected for a second term? Theoretically, yes,”Putin said. He continued: "My feeling is that he is a very honest man, and that he sincerely wants to make many good changes. But can he do it? Will they let him do it?”
He has also paid a backhanded compliment to Romney: “I’m grateful to him for formulating his stance so clearly because he has once again proven the correctness of our approach to missile defense problems... The most important thing for us is that even if he doesn’t win now, he or a person with similar views may come to power in four years. We must take that into consideration while dealing with security issues for a long perspective.”
Probably leaning Romney:
Benjamin Netanyahu: Romney has made his support for Netanyahu, whom he has known since the 1970s, a centerpiece of his campaign. Anonymous sources close to Netanyahu say would prefer to see Romney in the White House. As Romney notes in his now infamous hidden camera fundraising speech, some of his campaign consultants also worked for Netanyahu and the two share a number of major donors as well. All the same, Netanyahu has denied that his recent comments asserting that Obama has no "moral right" to prevent Israel from attacking Iran were not meant to undermind the adminsitration. "What's guiding me is not the election in the United States but the centrifuges in Iran,"he recently told an Israeli newspaper. This hasn't really satisfied his American critics.
Donald Tusk/Lech Walesa: As recently as 2011, despite past disagreements over issues like the planned missile defense system in Poland, Tusk told Obama “We feel that you are one of us” during a visit to Poland. But this May, Tusk responded with rare vitriol to a reference made by the president to "Polish death camps" -- as opposed to Nazi death camps located in Poland -- during a White House ceremony. Tusk said the remarks smacked of " ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions" and rejected the White House's explanation that the president has simply "misspoke." Tusk met with Romney during the GOP candidate's trip to Poland in July but hasn't said anything that can be construed as an endorsement of either side.
Former Polish President and anticommunist icon Lech Walesa was not so subtle, telling Romney, “I wish you to be successful because this success is needed to the United States, of course, but to Europe and the rest of the world, too." Walesa had refused to meet with Obama in 2011. Romney has made confronting Russia a centerpiece of his foreign policy and has accused Obama of abandoning Poland in the name of the "reset" with the Kremlin. Though feelings toward the U.S. haven't really changed much in Poland in recent years.
Fidel Castro:Back in 2008, Castro called Obama "more intelligent, refined, and even-handed" than John McCain. But this time around, he has argued that a robot would do a better job preventing "a war that would end the life of our species". (Jokes about his personality aside, Castro's no fan of Mitt Romney. He says Republicans have "more nuclear arms on their backs than ideas for peace in their heads.") Really, he just seems excited about the robot idea, writing, "I'm sure 90 percent of voting Americans, especially Hispanics, blacks, and the growing number of impoverished middle class, would vote for the robot."
Am I missing any endorsements or near endorsements? Write them in the comments.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Three weeks after the deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi the Republicans appear to be pivoting -- however gingerly -- back to foreign policy, amid a steady drumbeat of reporting and commentary on the Obama administration's delay in characterizing the violence in Libya as a terrorist attack and failure to appreciate the security threat to American personnel in the country ahead of the incident.
Politico reports that while Mitt Romney's advisors are divided about aggressively to attack President Obama's handling of foreign policy (and how much to deviate from the campaign's message on the economy -- the most important issue in the election), Romney himself is planning a major address on international affairs in the coming days. The GOP candidate, who's in search of a turnaround moment as his poll numbers flag, underlined the renewed focus on foreign affairs in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Sunday:
Disturbing developments are sweeping across the greater Middle East. In Syria, tens of thousands of innocent people have been slaughtered. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has come to power, and the country's peace treaty with Israel hangs in the balance. In Libya, our ambassador was murdered in a terrorist attack. U.S. embassies throughout the region have been stormed in violent protests. And in Iran, the ayatollahs continue to move full tilt toward nuclear-weapons capability, all the while promising to annihilate Israel.
These developments are not, as President Obama says, mere "bumps in the road." They are major issues that put our security at risk.
Yet amid this upheaval, our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them. We're not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies.
And that's dangerous. If the Middle East descends into chaos, if Iran moves toward nuclear breakout, or if Israel's security is compromised, America could be pulled into the maelstrom.
We still have time to address these threats, but it will require a new strategy toward the Middle East.
The column is short on specifics about what this "new strategy" would look like, and it recycles several of Romney's stump speech lines about the Obama administration not controlling events and Mideast developments signifying more than "bumps in the road" (a reference to comments the president made on 60 Minutes). But it sheds light on the GOP's evolving strategy as the debates loom and the presidential race enters its final weeks.
The op-ed comes amid the first batch of campaign ads from conservative groups attacking Obama over Libya. American Crossroads is out with a spot criticizing Obama for campaigning in Las Vegas after the consulate attack and appearing on The View instead of meeting with foreign leaders in town for the U.N. General Assembly:
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has released two similar ads condemning the Obama administration's shifting account of the attack and lamenting the "crisis of leadership" in the country:
In a Washington Post column on Friday, David Ignatius criticized Obama for putting foreign policy on the backburner during the election, at one point steering his argument to Libya:
To be blunt: The administration has a lot invested in the public impression that al-Qaeda was vanquished when Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. Obama would lose some of that luster if the public examined whether al-Qaeda is adopting a new, Zawahiri-led strategy of interweaving its operations with the unrest sweeping the Arab world. But this discussion is needed, and a responsible president should lead it, even during a presidential campaign.
Instead, the GOP appears to be positioning itself to lead that discussion.
Friday ushered in a surreal new chapter in the duel between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney over how to approach relations with Israel and Iran's nuclear program, as both candidates hopped on phone calls with Benjamin Netanyahu a day after the Israeli prime minister delivered a fiery U.N. address on red lines for Iran in New York.
During Obama's conversation with Netanyahu (see photo above), the White House announced, "the two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." Romney told reporters that while he and the Israeli leader spoke about red lines in a subsequent chat, they did not delve into the "kind of detail" that "would define precisely where that red line would be."
The bizarre episode raises the question: Is it normal for presidential candidates to insert themselves into global events by dialing up heads of state? In fact, Obama did pretty much the same thing -- multiple times, no less -- as a candidate during the 2008 campaign.
Obama, like Romney, embarked on a foreign trip as a candidate, meeting face-to-face with leaders such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (headline: "Obama Talks Tough About Iran During Visit to Israel"). But he also placed several phone calls.
In January 2008, for example, Obama reached out to the two leaders at the center of a bitterly disputed election in Kenya, his father's homeland. "What I urged was that all the leaders there, regardless of their position on the election, tell their supporters to stand down," Obama explained at the time. The Bush-era State Department, which coordinated the calls with Obama, praised the effort. "Any time you have a person of stature ... who is pushing for a peaceful, political resolution, that's a positive thing," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Then, after hostilities erupted between Georgia and Russia in August 2008, both Obama and Republican challenger John McCain phoned Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, while condemning Russia for violating Georgia's sovereignty. In fact, the candidates called Saakashvili so frequently -- the Georgian leader said he heard from them "pretty often" -- that it became a bit of a contest; when pressed by Fox News, Saakashvili conceded that McCain had called first but that Obama was "very supportive." In September, the prime minister requested a call with Obama to thank him for mentioning Georgia in his convention speech.
The campaign-trail diplomacy didn't stop at phone calls. McCain sent two of his allies in the Senate -- Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) -- to Georgia at the height of the conflict, while Joe Biden, then a leading contender to be Obama's running mate, made the trip himself.
Perhaps that's the lesson: We'll know this is getting out of hand when Romney dispatches campaign surrogates to Jerusalem.
The White House
Readers of Iran's official FARS News Agency encountered a surprising headline today -- "Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama":
TEHRAN (FNA)- According to the results of a Gallup poll released Monday, the overwhelming majority of rural white Americans said they would rather vote for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than US President Barack Obama.
"I like him better," said West Virginia resident Dale Swiderski, who, along with 77 percent of rural Caucasian voters, confirmed he would much rather go to a baseball game or have a drink with Ahmadinejad than spend time with Obama.
"He takes national defense seriously, and he'd never let some gay protesters tell him how to run his country like Obama does."
According to the same Gallup poll, 60 percent of rural whites said they at least respected that Ahmadinejad doesn't try to hide the fact that he's Muslim.
The uncredited source for the item was, not shockingly, the Onion. To make things worse, FARS's item is copied word-for-word from the Onion's story, so it's both inaccurate and plagiarized. The Tehran dateline is a nice touch, though.
There's an entire (excellent) blog dedicated to internet users who take Onion stories seriously, but sometimes foreign news services get caught as well. In 2004, the Beijing Evening News credulously reported on an Onion item about the U.S. congress threatening to move out of Washington. At least they went through the trouble of rewriting it.
During his speech at the U.N. General Assembly this afternoon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu busted out a diagram of a cartoonish bomb and a red marker to indicate where he would draw a red line for taking preemptive military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. He argued that his red line would come before the third stage in acquiring a nuclear weapon: Iran enriching enough high-enriched uranium to build a bomb (according to Netanyahu, Iran is currently "well into" the second stage, and will complete this phase -- and, by extension, trigger Netanyahu's red line -- by next spring or summer "at most"):
Where should a red line be drawn? A red line should be drawn right here -- before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb. Before Iran gets to a point where it's a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
Whatever analysts may think about the wisdom of using such rudimentary props for such a grave topic, Netanyahu's words are still significant because the Israeli prime minister has avoided defining his red line with such specificity in the past. When NBC's David Gregory asked Netanyahu about his red line during a recent appearance on Meet the Press, for example, Netanyahu mentioned acting "before they get nuclear weapons" but then resorted to football-inspired platitudes. "They are in the red zone," he explained. "You know, they are in the last 20 yards. And you can't let them cross that goal line. You can't let them score a touchdown."
Unless you interpret Barack Obama's pledge to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon rather liberally, the position Netanyahu staked out today appears to be at odds with the president's. Netanyahu is saying that Iran's capacity to develop a nuclear weapon in short order is unacceptable -- a stance Mitt Romney recently embraced as well (after claiming that his red line was the same as Obama's, only for the campaign to walk the statement back). But Romney hasn't offered details about where along Iran's spectrum of nuclear development he would draw his red line (an advisor told the New York Times that the candidate "would not be content with an Iran one screwdriver's turn away from a nuclear weapon"). Netanyahu, it seems, wants to intervene well before Iran's nuclear scientists reach for the screwdriver.
In the days and weeks ahead, the indelible image of Netanyahu drawing a thick red line on his crude diagram could compel Romney to offer more specifics about his red line, and Obama to explain how and why his stance differs from the Israeli prime minister's, if at all.
Here's the key clip from Netanyahu's speech, via BuzzFeed:
Mario Tama/Getty Images
The foreign-policy results of the new Bloomberg National Poll haven't gotten much attention yet, but the survey contains some bad news for the Obama campaign. According to the poll, Mitt Romney has a 48-42 advantage over Barack Obama on the question of which candidate would be tougher on terrorism. Romney, in other words, has encroached on one of Obama's signature strengths.
What makes this result so surprising is that the president has consistently trounced Romney when it comes to counterterrorism. A Fox News poll earlier this month found that 49 percent of respondents trusted Obama to do a better job than Romney in protecting the United States from terrorist attacks, compared with 41 percent who put their faith in the Republican candidate. The president had a 51-40 advantage on handling terrorism in an ABC News/Washington Post poll around the same time, and a 50-35 edge on carrying out the war on terror in an Ipsos/Reuters poll in August. The Democrats' rare national-security muscle was on full display at their convention, where speakers boasted about the administration's successful raid against Osama bin Laden and targeted killings of al Qaeda leaders.
The Bloomberg poll contains other grim findings for Obama -- such as declining approval of the president's diplomacy and a neck-and-neck battle between Obama and Romney on flashpoint campaign issues such as energy independence, Chinese trade practices, relations with Israel, and Iran's nuclear program (61 percent of respondents were skeptical about Obama's pledge to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon). There are also bright spots for the president, like healthy skepticism about Romney's promise to designate China a currency manipulator and Obama's continued advantage over Romney on the question of which candidate would be better suited to handle a Mideast crisis.
Significantly, Bloomberg's survey, which was conducted from Sept. 21-24, is one of the first polls to come out since the wave of anti-American protests in the Middle East. The key question: Is Romney's terrorism advantage an anomaly, or a sign that Obama is more vulnerable on national security after the unrest in the Middle East and the administration's shifting account of the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi?
Given that a separate poll this weeks shows Obama besting Romney on national security among likely voters in swing states, it may be too early to answer that question.
David Calvert/Getty Images
Mitt Romney has called President Obama's decision to not meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N. General Assembly a "mistake." The Republican National Committee has criticized the president going on "daytime TV instead of meeting with foreign leaders at the U.N." Conservative news outlets have eagerly picked up the story. This morning the Drudge Report offered its take: photos of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meeting with heads of state in New York alongside a story on Obama campaigning in Virginia -- all below the headline, "President Clinton?"
The criticism isn't entirely original (see the New York Times) or accurate (Obama did meet, albeit briefly, with Yemen's president and the U.N. secretary-general on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly), but it has been a recurring campaign theme this week. The president's U.N. schedule hasn't made its way into campaign ads yet, but the conservative group Let Freedom Ring did release a spot on Tuesday highlighting the fact that a U.S. delegation did not walk out of a U.N. meeting on Monday in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized Israel. "Why did your administration sit with Iran rather than stand with Israel?" the narrator asks.
The U.S. delegation did boycot Ahmadinejad's General Assembly speech on Wednesday, but I imagine we won't see a Let Freedom Ring ad praising the action.
There's a lot of coverage today of Barack Obama's tough words for Iran at the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), but the president has expressed the main points in the speech -- America's commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the limited timetable for a diplomatic solution -- before, notably in an interview with the Atlantic and a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this year.
Still, as the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg notes today, the U.N. General Assembly is "not exactly a Hadassah convention." And Obama's comments on Iran's nuclear program before world leaders on Tuesday were far more aggressive than the language he's employed in past UNGA addresses.
Here's what Obama said about the Iranian nuclear program today:
Time and again, [Iran] has failed to take the opportunity to demonstrate that its nuclear program is peaceful, and to meet its obligations to the United Nations.
Let me be clear: America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited. We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace. Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Rewind to 2011:
The Iranian government cannot demonstrate that its program is peaceful, it has not met its obligations, and it rejects offers that would provide it with peaceful nuclear power. North Korea has yet to take concrete steps towards abandoning its weapons and continues belligerent action against the south. There is a future of greater opportunity for the people of these nations if their governments meet their international obligations. But if they continue down a path that is outside international law, they must be met with greater pressure and isolation. That is what our commitment to peace and security demands.
As part of our effort on non-proliferation, I offered the Islamic Republic of Iran an extended hand last year, and underscored that it has both rights and responsibilities as a member of the international community. I also said -- in this hall -- that Iran must be held accountable if it failed to meet those responsibilities. And that is what we have done.
Iran is the only party to the NPT that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program, and those actions have consequences. Through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, we made it clear that international law is not an empty promise.
Now let me be clear once more: The United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it. But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program.
I have said before and I will repeat: I am committed to diplomacy that opens a path to greater prosperity and more secure peace for [Iran and North Korea] if they live up to their obligations. But if the governments of Iran and North Korea choose to ignore international standards, if they put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people, if they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races in both East Asia and the Middle East, then they must be held accountable.
Obama, in other words, broke new ground today at UNGA by warning that the administration's patience on diplomacy and sanctions is wearing thin, outlining the dire global implications of a nuclear Iran, and stating that the United States will not permit Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Where Obama stopped short, however, is in repeating his assertion that all options -- including military force -- are on the table when it comes to preventing Iran from getting the bomb -- a key issue in the U.S. election (he opted for the vaguer formulation that "the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon"). Perhaps Obama wanted to avoid comparisons to George W. Bush, who made the case for invading Iraq at UNGA in 2002, just months before launching the operation.
John Moore/Getty Images
One quote in particular stands out in today's New York Times article on the contrast of President Obama appearing on The View while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with world leaders in town for the U.N. General Assembly. Obama isn't conducting bilaterals with any foreign leaders, even though he held 13 during last year's session and Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush met with foreign leaders at the U.N. General Assembly while facing reelection (George H.W. Bush, like Obama, outsourced the meetings to Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger). Here's the nugget from the Times:
Mr. Obama was scheduled to attend a reception for world leaders at the United Nations on Monday night. But a campaign adviser acknowledged privately that in this election year, campaigning trumped meetings with world leaders. "Look, if he met with one leader, he would have to meet with 10," the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Not to nit-pick, but doesn't meeting with world leaders fall squarely within the president's job description?
Obama's aides have been more articulate in public about why the president isn't holding bilaterals, but this anonymous quote doesn't do much to discredit the charge that Obama is making an election-year calculation to avoid exposing himself politically -- and multiplying that exposure by ten.
Foreign policy assumed a more prominent role in the election in September, fueled by the emphasis on national security at the Democratic convention, the attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya, and the tensions between Israel and the United States over Iran's nuclear program. And the campaigns and their support groups have taken notice, injecting international affairs -- or, more accurately, a selective and often misleading reading of international affairs -- into the political ads now blanketing America's airwaves.
In early September, for example, the Koch brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity released an ad starring a Canadian woman named Shona Holmes, who told the story of how she'd sought treatment for a life-threatening brain condition in the United States to avoid long waits under Canada's government-run health care system. The message: Oust Obama and repeal health-care reform so that the United States doesn't become Canada. Holmes even held a press conference in Charlotte during the Democratic convention.
CBS criticized the ad when it was released, noting that the "U.S. law is insurance-based and runs through the private market, while Canada's is a public system largely run and administered by the government." Bloomberg, meanwhile, pointed out that back in 2009, when Holmes appeared in another Americans for Prosperity ad campaign, a Canadian neurosurgeon had accused Holmes of exaggerating the gravity of her condition (back in Canada, Holmes confronted death threats and a Facebook campaign to deport her).
When the Democrats caused an uproar at the convention by not affirming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in their platform -- and then hastily added the language during a messy floor vote -- the right-wing Emergency Committee for Israel, which had run ads slamming Obama's position on Jerusalem before, pounced. The spot below includes footage of the embarrassing vote on the Jerusalem amendment (with the voice votes of delegates who supported the amendment conveniently edited out), before a narrator asks, "Is this still your Democratic Party? Or Obama's?"
So far, the Romney campaign hasn't released an ad attacking Obama over the U.S. mission attacks, but it did release a spot shortly after the incidents denouncing the president for failing seven times to stop China's "cheating" (code for labeling China a currency manipulator) and losing half a million manufacturing jobs -- all while China secured a competitive advantage in manufacturing.
PolitiFact pointed out that the United States has actually created half a million manufacturing jobs since 2010, though that hasn't been enough to replace the decline that occurred during Obama's first months in office. And it noted that while Obama hasn't labeled China a currency manipulator, it has filed seven complaints over China's trade practices with the World Trade Organization. The Washington Post added that the bar graphs the ad uses to illustrate China's new manufacturing edge are "totally out of proportion."
The Obama campaign quickly responded with an ad accusing Romney of investing in companies that shipped jobs overseas and investing part of his personal fortune in China. "Romney's never stood up to China," the narrator says. "All he's done is send them our jobs." PolitiFact confirmed that Romney did have some Chinese investments (indeed, BuzzFeed reported today that Romney's blind trust sold shares in a Chinese video company in June), but the Washington Post added that "there is no evidence that Romney, through Bain investments in which he had an active role, was responsible for shipping American jobs to China."
This week, the conservative group Let Freedom Ring released an ad criticizing Obama for supporting a bill as a senator to restrict U.S. military aid to countries that use child soldiers, only to waive the restrictions as president. "Why aren't you standing up for these children?" the narrator asks.
The statistics, quotes, and assertions in the ad generally check out. In October 2010, Obama granted waivers to Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Yemen because, as the Christian Science Monitor put it at the time, these countries were considered "key national security interests." Obama took a similar action the following year.
Let Freedom Ring released another ad this week denouncing Obama for inviting Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to the White House and sending Cairo $1.5 billion in foreign aid, when the Brotherhood wants to "conquer" Israel, "undermine" the United States, and renew ties with Iran. The ad doesn't mention the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, but Let Freedom Ring President Colin Hanna made sure the subtext was clear. "After our embassies were stormed, President Obama's administration offered apologies while the Muslim Brotherhood stood by as we were attacked," he told US News & World Report on Thursday.
The ad is highly misleading. It begins by showing a fiery speaker pledging to establish a capital in Jerusalem at what the narrator describes as a "Muslim Brotherhood rally for their new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy." But the spot doesn't mention that the speaker is the Egyptian cleric Safwat Higazi, not Morsy. To support the claim that the new Egyptian leader wants to revive relations with Tehran, the ad cites a Reuters report on an interview with an Iranian news agency that Morsy denies giving. The narrator makes the contentious claim that Iran is "building nuclear weapons" and cites a line from a 1991 memeorandum for the Brotherhood's North American wing to prove that the group's "top leaders" are interested in "taking over America."
Most recently, the group Secure America Now released an ad featuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent warnings about the progress Iran has made on its nuclear program and the need for the international community to move beyond diplomacy and sanctions to stop it. "The world needs American strength," the ad declares. "Not apologies."
What the ad fails to mention is that Netanyahu was not involved in making the spot and that the Israeli prime minister has avoided expressing support for either candidate in the U.S. election. On Friday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Netanyahu had passed along a message to Obama that he is not trying to interfere in the race. That won't stop groups like Secure America Now from invoking his words to prove their point, of course.
Let Freedom Ring/YouTube
Don't let the numbers fool you. Barack Obama may be leading Mitt Romney by a two-to-one ratio in polls of Latino voters, and 58 percent of those voters may approve of the job the president is doing on immigration. But Obama's record on immigration isn't unassailable -- as the president's appearance at an Univision forum in Florida on Thursday, following Romney's participation in the same program yesterday, made clear.
Early on in the interview, for example, Univision host Jorge Ramos asked the president why he hadn't kept his pledge to Ramos in 2008 that "we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support." Obama responded that unforeseen crises and partisanship -- and the limits of presidential power -- had torpedoed comprehensive immigration reform and specifically the DREAM Act, which stalled in the Senate in 2010 and would have offered legal status to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and enrolled in college or joined the military.
"When we talked about immigration reform in the first year, that's before the economy was on the verge of collapse," Obama noted. "What I confess I did not expect," he added, "and so I'm happy to take responsibility for being naive here, is that Republicans who had previously supported comprehensive immigration reform ... suddenly would walk away." He later said his "biggest failure" was not passing immigration reform. Here's a clip from the interview:
Obama also had to address the fact that his administration has pursued a far more aggressive deportation policy than his predecessors, removing nearly 1.5 million illegal immigrants from the country since 2009 (according to PolitiFact, Obama has deported an average of 32,886 people per month, compared with 20,964 under Bush and 9,059 under Clinton). In his Univision interview, Obama argued that immigration authorities have focused on threats to the United States -- criminals, people apprehended at the border -- rather than illegal immigrants with clean records and deep roots in the country. According to government figures, roughly 50 percent of those deported in fiscal year 2012 were convicted criminals, and roughly 40 percent of the non-criminals were removed at or near the border (the group Obama didn't mention: the 50 percent of non-criminals who had repeatedly violated immigration law).
Additionally, Obama had to fend off the criticism that he had politics in mind when he issued an executive order in June halting the deportation of some young undocumented immigrants and allowing them to apply for work permits. The president told Univision's anchors that the executive order was a response to the stories he heard from young people across the country, and that he was winning the Latino vote long before he took the action.
Indeed, Obama's consistent advantage among Latinos may be the most interesting story here. The evidence suggests that Obama's record on immigration is a political liability. An AP-Univision poll in 2010 found that 56 percent of Hispanics felt Congress not passing a comprehensive immigration bill was a bad thing for the country, and a Pew Hispanic poll in 2011 reported that 59 percent of Latinos disapproved of Obama's deportation policy. By early 2012, a Univision News/ABC/Latino Decision poll found that 53 percent of Latinos were less excited about the president than when he took office (Obama regained some of that enthusiasm and widened his lead against Romney among Latinos after announcing his executive order in June).
During the Univision forum on Wednesday, Romney tried to exploit these very vulnerabilities. He criticized Obama for not fixing the immigration system in his first year as promised, and pledged to do so through measures such as increased border security, temporary work visas, and an employment verification system (something the president also supports). "We're not going to round up people around the country and deport them," he added. But Romney's softening immigration stance has yet to move the dial on Hispanic support. Conservative attacks on Obama from the left -- such as an ad in August condemning the administration's aggressive deportation policy -- haven't made a dent either.
Romney's positions on immigration may not be the only issue at play here. Polls consistently find that Latino voters care more about pocketbook such as jobs and the economy than they do about immigration. And, if the polling is any indication, Obama appears to be winning the economic argument among Latino voters -- whether or not he's fulfilled his promises on immigration.
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