It might be time for Romney staffers to get on a conference call and coordinate the campaign's position on the Arab Spring.
When moderator Martha Raddatz asked Paul Ryan during the vice-presidential debate on Thursday night if it was ever appropriate for the United States to apologize to other countries, the Republican congressman criticized the Obama administration for its delay in calling for then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down:
What we should not be apologizing for are standing up for our values. What we should not be doing is saying to the Egyptian people, while Mubarak is cracking down on them, that he's a good guy and, in the next week, say he ought to go.
The problem with that response is that it seems to contradict statements running mate Mitt Romney made ahead of a visit to Israel this summer. In an interview with Israel Hayom, the GOP presidential candidate declared that the Arab Spring "is not appropriately named" because of Islamist victories in the region and suggested that Mubarak could have been persuaded to reform, had President Obama not bungled the effort:
President [George W.] Bush urged [deposed Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner.
Romney surrogate John Bolton made Romney's point more explicitly during a Fox News interview with Greta Van Susteren shortly after the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya last month:
VAN SUSTEREN: But why is that the catalyst? I mean, like, the Arab spring that everyone started in Tunisia -- I mean, what -- was there anything that we could have done to sort of change the course of history?
BOLTON: Well, I think what we saw there was the risk to Mubarak. And instead of supporting a loyal ally who had upheld the Camp David accord, after vacillating three or four times in the course of a month, we threw Mubarak over the edge. And he had said for years, If I go, the Muslim Brotherhood's taking over.
Oh, no, said the Obama administration. Oh no, said many people in America. The Google guy is going to emerge in Egypt. He's going to be the new leader. People who tweet will be the new leaders. Do you see them anywhere today? They are off the stage.
Romney, who has also implied that the Obama administration is to blame for the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt, didn't always hold these views about the Arab Spring. In early February 2011, only days before the White House called for Mubarak's resignation, the former Massachusetts governor sounded a bit more like Paul Ryan on Thursday night. It was time, he explained, for Mubarak to "step out of the way or lead the transition," and for the United States to "make it very clear to the people of Egypt that we stand with the voices of democracy and freedom." While Mubarak needed to "move on," he added, Obama should not explicitly call for the Egyptian leader's resignation because of the friendship Mubarak had long shown to the United States (during the same period, Ryan stoked controversy by comparing public workers protests in Wisconsin to the demonstrations in Cairo).
More than a year-and-a-half later, the candidates appear to still be ironing out their positions.
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Thursday night's spirited vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan featured a lot of talk about the thresshold for U.S. military intervention in global conflicts. In one of the most telling exchanges, moderator Martha Raddatz asked the candidates what was worse: yet another war in the Middle East, or a nuclear-armed Iran?
Ryan replied that "we can't live" with a nuclear Iran that could spark a nuclear arms race in the region and be emboldened to sponsor terrorism and threaten Israel. Biden retorted that "war should always be the absolute last resort," adding that the administration's sanctions against Iran are working and that the president "doesn't bluff." The answers seemed to suggest that a Romney-Ryan administration would have fewer qualms about initiating a military conflict with Iran if Tehran appeared to be on the verge of weaponization.
The topic came up again when the conversation turned to the Syrian crisis, as Ryan declared that he would only send U.S. troops into the country if it was necessary to secure Syria's chemical weapons. It was at this point that Raddatz asked the Republican vice presidential candidate a broader question: "What's your criteria for intervention?" Ryan responded that U.S. national security interests had to be at stake:
RYAN: In Syria?
RYAN: What is in the national interests of the American people.
RADDATZ: How about humanitarian interests?
RYAN: What is in the national security of the American people. It's got to be in the strategic national interests of our country.
RADDATZ: No humanitarian?
RYAN: Each situation will -- will come up with its own set of circumstances, but putting American troops on the ground? That's got to be within the national security interests of the American people.
RADDATZ: I want to -- we're -- we're almost out of time here.
RYAN: That means like embargoes and sanctions and overflights, those are things that don't put American troops on the ground. But if you're talking about putting American troops on the ground, only in our national security interests.
The response raises the question: What was Paul Ryan's stance on the military intervention in Libya -- one of the most recent examples of these kinds of dilemmas? We know that Ryan has been critical of the Obama administration's response to the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last month (a topic that came up again at the start of Thursday night's debate). But we know much less about Ryan's position on the Libyan conflict in 2011. It turns out that in June of that year, the congressman elected not to join many of his Republican colleagues in the House in voting for a bill that would have blocked funding for certain elements of the Libya operation. He also voted against a largely symbolic resolution to authorize the mission.
"Today's vote indicates that the President has failed to adequately explain our mission in Libya either to Congress or to the American people," Ryan said in a statement. "While I do not support cutting off funding for the operations that are already underway, today's vote of no-confidence should send a strong message to the President: He owes the American people and Congress a clear strategy."
Indeed, it was strategy and procedure -- not the national security rationale behind the operation -- that constituted Ryan's critique of the Obama administration after Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was killed in October. Ryan called Qaddafi a "butcher of his people" and expressed hope that Libyans would "build a successful, civil society, where individual rights are recognized." And then he lashed out at the White House, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal:
"I don't have a problem with helping prevent genocide, but I do have a problem with they way in which they went about this operation," he said.
Asked what that problem was, he answered: "Didn't go to Congress, didn't ask for authority, the leading-from-behind strategy at NATO I think was very strange, and I don't think they had a mission well-defined. I think they jumped into this mission without having a real endgame in mind and it lasted a lot longer than anybody thought it would last."
On Thursday night, of course, Ryan made clear that he would apply his national-security-interest litmus test only when deciding whether to put U.S. troops on the ground, which never happened in Libya. But it's still worth pointing out that when President Obama decided to intervene in the country, Ryan criticized the manner in which the administration carried out the mission, not the premise of intervening militarily to prevent genocide.
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In conjunction with Mitt Romney's foreign-policy address address in Virginia this week, in which he vowed to prevent Iran from "acquiring nuclear weapons capability," the Romney campaign has updated the Iran section of its website to reflect that pledge:
Here's what the section looked like late last month, when I wrote about Romney's shifting "red line" for Iran's nuclear program. Notice the language below is virtually identical to the wording above, save for the references to capability:
It's not surprising that the campaign would update its site to reflect a revised or refined policy. But the change does challenge the explanation Romney's foreign-policy advisors gave in September when the Republican candidate told ABC's George Stephanopoulos (twice) that he had the same red line as Obama -- Iran "may not have a nuclear weapon" -- even though his surrogates had said the candidate wouldn't tolerate Iran obtaining the capability to develop a nuclear weapon, a lower bar for preemptive military action.
At the time, Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul told the New York Times that Romney had not meant to suggest in the ABC interview that his red line was the same as Obama's. She pointed to the candidate's remark that Iran shouldn't have the "capacity to terrorize the world" and argued that Stephanopoulos had mischaracterized Romney's position. "Gov. Romney's red line is Iran having a nuclear weapons capacity," Saul maintained.
Yes, the Iran debate involves extremely subtle linguistic distinctions. But it seems more likely that, amid Benjamin Netanyahu's calls for the United States to articulate red lines, Romney has decided in the election's final weeks to clearly distinguish his position from the president's, and to adopt the Israeli prime minister's more aggressive stance. As he told CNN on Tuesday, "My own test is that Iran should not have the capability of producing a nuclear weapon. I think that's the same test that Benjamin Netanyahu would also apply."
Mitt Romney often gets dinged for putting very little meat on the bones of his foreign policy, and Monday was no exception -- one of the dominant themes of his critics is that his big Virginia Military Institute address offered very few spefic clues as to what he'd do differently than Barack Obama.
But so what? Putting aside the moral question of whether American voters have a right to know what they're buying, why should Romney offer any specifics that the Obama campaign will just attack anyway? It makes sense for him to be vague now so that he can maximize his flexibility while in office -- and avoid damaging intraparty smackdowns on foreign policy while's he's trying to win an election. I doubt in any case that voters would punish him for not offering the sorts of wonkish, nuanced positions on Laotian trade tariffs and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that Washington foreign-policy hands tend to demand.
That said, Romney has offered more specifics than many of his critics will let on. He's promising to see that the Syrian rebels get their hands on weapons they can use to take out Bashar al-Assad's planes and helicopters. He's vowing to stop Iran from having the capability to develop nuclear weapons, vice Obama's promise to stop Iran from weaponizing. He's not going to re-invade Iraq. And he's more or less conceded that Obama's 2014 withdrawal date in Afghanistan is appropriate.
These are actually fairly significant matters of war and peace we're talking about here, and Romney has been just about as forthcoming as any nominee would be in his position.
One towering American historical figure played a key role in Mitt Romney's foreign-policy address at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) on Monday: VMI graduate George Marshall. The Republican candidate noted that as Army chief of staff during World War II and later as secretary of state and secretary of defense, Marshall had helped "vanquish fascism and then planned Europe's rescue from despair." He wove Marshall's contributions into his narrative about the "struggle between liberty and tyranny" taking place in the Middle East and the need for American leadership in the region:
We have seen this struggle before. It would be familiar to George Marshall. In his time, in the ashes of world war, another critical part of the world was torn between democracy and despotism. Fortunately, we had leaders of courage and vision, both Republicans and Democrats, who knew that America had to support friends who shared our values, and prevent today's crises from becoming tomorrow's conflicts.
Statesmen like Marshall rallied our nation to rise to its responsibilities as the leader of the free world. We helped our friends to build and sustain free societies and free markets. We defended our friends, and ourselves, from our common enemies. We led. And though the path was long and uncertain, the thought of war in Europe is as inconceivable today as it seemed inevitable in the last century....
Sir Winston Churchill once said of George Marshall: "He ... always fought victoriously against defeatism, discouragement, and disillusion." That is the role our friends want America to play again. And it is the role we must play.
Most of us have heard about the general's Marshall Plan for war-torn Europe. But what's less known -- and perhaps of interest to Romney, who's employed aggressive rhetoric against China -- is that, during the same period, Marshall faced withering criticism from figures such as Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy and U.S. General Douglas MacArthur for the 1945-1947 Marshall Mission, a failed effort to mediate China's civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, which Mao Zedong's forces ultimately won. In the early 1950s, as Republicans blamed Democrats for "losing China" to communism, McCarthy and MacArthur pointed fingers at Marshall and the Truman administration.
"It was one of the greatest blunders in American diplomatic history for which the free world is now paying in blood and disaster and will in all probability continue to do so indefinitely," MacArthur wrote in 1951, in reference to the Marshall Mission. He accused Marshall, who, as secretary of state, had opposed U.S. military intervention in the Chinese Civil War, of weakening the Nationalists by using "the potential of American assistance as a weapon" in trying to force the two sides to form a coalition government.
McCarthy was even harsher during a Senate speech several days later. Warning of "a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man," he turned to Marshall:
It was Marshall, with [Dean] Acheson and [John Carter] Vincent eagerly assisting, who created the China policy which, destroying China, robbed us of a great and friendly ally, a buffer against the Soviet imperialism with which we are now at war.
It was Marshall who, after long conferences with Acheson and Vincent, went to China to execute the criminal folly of the disastrous Marshall mission....
It was Marshall who, disregarding [General Albert Coady] Wedemeyer's advices on the urgent need for military supplies, the likelihood of China's defeat without ammunition and equipment, and our "moral obligation" to furnish them, proposed instead a relief bill bare of military support.
McCarthyism, of course, was later discredited, but not before McCarthy's positions forced Dwight Eisenhower to remove a tribute to Marshall, his mentor, during a 1952 campaign speech in Wisconsin.
All this isn't to say that Romney shouldn't have made Marshall's work an organizing theme in his address. But it does speak to the ironies of the GOP candidate invoking the statesman's legacy. Romney, for instance, demanded that the United States confront China's "assertiveness" (Republicans accused Marshall of appeasing Beijing), pledged to arm the Syrian rebels (the GOP slammed Marshall for not assisting the Chinese Nationalists militarily), promised to "reaffirm our historic ties to Israel" (Marshall urged Truman not to support a Jewish state), and called for conditioning U.S. aid to Egypt on the country's government embracing democracy and maintaining its peace treaty with Israel (in announcing the Marshall Plan, which did call for economic reforms in exchange for U.S. aid, Marshall declared that "our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos").
As former Clinton administration speechwriter Heather Hurlburt put it today, Marshall's career was characterized by a "nuanced blend of diplomacy and strength." Some might argue that those nuances didn't make it into Romney's speech.
Plenty of folks have already pored over Republican nominee Mitt Romney's major address on foreign policy today, pointing out their disagreement and factual gripes, but here's one you probably won't hear too much about: his suggestion that he'd have better luck than his predecessors in persuading European countries to cough up more dough for their militaries.
Here's what Romney said:
I will call on our NATO allies to keep the greatest military alliance in history strong by honoring their commitment to each devote 2 percent of their GDP to security spending. Today, only 3 of the 28 NATO nations meet this benchmark.
If you believe that, then I have a bridge in Bruges to sell you!
Of course, Romney's got a point here -- the Kantian Europeans have been free-riding on American military strength for decades. But the problem is getting urgent now, with contractors now warning that critical supply chains are at risk of collapse.
And as then Defense Secretary Bob Gates all but screamed from the rooftops in a much-discussed 2011 speech, the Libyan war exposed just how little European countries are able to contribute to the common defense these days. As Gates put it, “Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t .... The military capabilities simply aren’t there."
Ouch! But seriously: Does anyone think Romney can pull this off? American presidents have been begging Europe to bolster its defenses for years, going back to Dwight Eisenhower, whose secretary of state threatened in 1953 to carry out an "agonizing reappraisal" of U.S. commitments if the Europeans didn't get their acts together.
In the middle of a never-ending economic crisis -- at a time when the likes of Britain, Greece, Italy, and Spain are implementing what you might call European-style austerity programs -- is Europe really going to cough up a few more percentage points of GDP on Mitt's say so?
Perhaps the best we can hope for in the short term is that European countries get smarter about collaborating and promoting "selective excellence" as each country specializes in what it does best. But until Europeans' economic situation turns around -- and their perception of threats changes -- no amount of American hectoring is going to make an impact.
Mitt Romney may not have unveiled many new policy proposals in his foreign-policy address on Monday, but he did roll out a number of sound bites, including "hope is not a strategy." And one line in particular sounded quite familiar:
There is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East-and it is not unique to that region. It is broadly felt by America's friends and allies in other parts of the world as well- in Europe, where Putin's Russia casts a long shadow over young democracies, and where our oldest allies have been told we are "pivoting" away from them ... in Asia and across the Pacific, where China's recent assertiveness is sending chills through the region ... and here in our own hemisphere, where our neighbors in Latin America want to resist the failed ideology of Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers and deepen ties with the United States on trade, energy, and security. But in all of these places, just as in the Middle East, the question is asked: "Where does America stand?"
In her well-received Republican convention speech, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the question "Where does America stand?" a central theme of her remarks:
And we have seen once again that the desire for freedom is universal - as men and women in the Middle East demand it. Yet, the promise of the Arab Spring is engulfed in uncertainty; internal strife and hostile neighbors are challenging the fragile democracy in Iraq; dictators in Iran and Syria butcher their own people and threaten the security of the region; China and Russia prevent a response; and all wonder, "Where does America stand?"
Indeed that is the question of the moment- "Where does America stand?" When our friends and our foes, alike, do not know the answer to that question - clearly and unambiguously - the world is a chaotic and dangerous place. The U.S. has since the end of World War II had an answer - we stand for free peoples and free markets, we are willing to support and defend them - we will sustain a balance of power that favors freedom.
Romney continued to echo Rice in his subsequent statements, acknowledging that Americans have a touch of leadership fatigue but warning that America's enemies would eagerly fill the void if the United States leads "from behind" or fails to lead at all:
I know many Americans are asking a different question: "Why us?" I know many Americans are asking whether our country today-with our ailing economy, and our massive debt, and after 11 years at war-is still capable of leading.
I believe that if America does not lead, others will-others who do not share our interests and our values-and the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us. America's security and the cause of freedom cannot afford four more years like the last four years. I am running for President because I believe the leader of the free world has a duty, to our citizens, and to our friends everywhere, to use America's great influence-wisely, with solemnity and without false pride, but also firmly and actively-to shape events in ways that secure our interests, further our values, prevent conflict, and make the world better-not perfect, but better.
And I know too that there is weariness - a sense that we have carried these burdens long enough. But if we are not inspired to lead again, one of two things will happen - no one will lead and that will foster chaos -- or others who do not share our values will fill the vacuum. My fellow Americans, we do not have a choice. We cannot be reluctant to lead - and one cannot lead from behind.
I've noted before that Rice's record differs sharply from Romney's campaign rhetoric on issues such as foreign aid, U.S.-Russian relations, North Korea's nuclear program, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But when it comes to a sweeping, high-level critique of the Obama administration's foreign policy, Romney apparently believes that Rice got it just right.
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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.
Mitt Romney stunned Barack Obama in their debate last week, in part by ditching the persona of a movement conservative -- vowing not to reduce taxes for the rich, to protect education funding, highlighting his willingness to work across the aisle, and so on. It was a deft move, one that clearly has caught off balance an Obama campaign that was counting on running against the unpopular agenda of Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it, "Moderate Mitt" -- the successful businessman and technocratic governor of Massachusetts -- has returned.
On Monday, Romney is due to give a speech on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute. Can he do the same?
I have my doubts. For one thing, making a pivot to the center on foreign policy would entail embracing Obama's position even tighter than Romney already has. If you strip aside the bluster, Romney's foreign policy looks much like Obama's. Why give a big speech if you're just going to explain that you more or less agree with the other guy? Nuance doesn't sell in an election year.
Second, the Obama administration's stumbles on Benghazi offer a pretty tempting target, and it's clear that Romney will try to hit the president hard on Libya. Never mind that Romney's been all over the yard on the Libyan war, or that the kinds of austerity budgets he and his running mate favor imply deep cuts in diplomatic security -- the death of an ambassador is evidently too good an opportunity to pass up. Mitt Romney has probably never thought about Libya a day in his life -- but he'll be all over it tomorrow.
Finally, what issues could he reasonably pivot on? Would he say that he'd try to work with Russia on smoothing the U.S. path out of Afghanistan? That he'd take military force off the table in dealing with Iran and vow not to entangle the United States in Syria's civil war? That he'd push hard for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and seek to de-escalate tensions with China?
It's hard to imagine any of those things happening -- which is why I expect Romney's big speech will be more of the same: America good, strength good, military very good, Obama very bad.
The debates begin
The two candidates met for their first head-to-head debate on Tuesday night -- an encounter almost universally agreed to have been won by Mitt Romney. The debate was focused on domestic policy, but the rest of the world did come up a few times. Romney noted that, "Spain spends 42 percent of their total economy on government. We're now spending 42 percent of our economy on government. I don't want to go down the path to Spain." The statement provoked some backlash from Spanish reporters and politicians, and is slightly misleading, as well: Spain actually spends 46 percent and the American figure includes state and local expenditures as well.
Romney also promised to "open up more trade, particularly in Latin America" and "crack down on China if and when they cheat." Employing a popular applause line from the campaign trail, Romney also vowed to "eliminate all programs by this test -- if they don't pass it: Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?"
Barack Obama, who appeared somewhat listless throughout the debate and unable to effectively defend his record, returned to national security when summing up his accomplishments as president. Describing his willingness to "take ideas from anybody, Democrat or Republican," the president said, "That's how we signed three trade deals into law that are helping us to double our exports and sell more American products around the world. That's how we repealed ‘don't ask, don't tell.' That's how we ended the war in Iraq, as I promised, and that's how we're going to wind down the war in Afghanistan. That's how we went after al Qaeda and bin Laden."
The two also clashed on defense spending, with Romney arguing, "We have a responsibility to protect the lives and liberties of our people, and that means the military, second to none. I do not believe in cutting our military." Obama countered that Romney's pledge to provide "$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn't asked for" is economically unsustainable.
The two candidates will meet again on Oct. 16 for a town hall debate that will feature foreign and domestic policy and a final debate on Oct. 22 focused entirely on international issues.
Romney on the attack
Romney is likely hoping to capitalize on the momentum from his debate performance, and part of that will be renewed attacks on the president's handling of national security. Romney is scheduled to give a speech on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday. He still trails Obama in polls asking voters which candidate they trust more as commander in chief, though Obama's foreign-policy numbers have been slipping in the wake of the recent turmoil in the Middle East.
Romney's speech may continue themes raised in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday which criticized the president's handling of the crises in Libya, Syria, and over Iran's nuclear program. "[A]mid 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," Romney wrote.
On domestic policy, Romney seemed in the debate to have moved away from the Tea Party-influenced rhetoric on spending cuts and tax breaks that he has employed since the GOP primary toward more centrist positions, prompting Obama to quip, "When I got on the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney." The VMI speech will be an indication of whether a similar shift is underway on Romney's approach to foreign policy.
The Obama administration continues to face criticism for its handling of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, three weeks ago, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Asked on 60 Minutes on Sunday if recent events in the Middle East had caused him to reconsider U.S. support for the Arab Spring, Obama replied, "I think it was absolutely the right thing for us to do to align ourselves with democracy [and] universal rights, a notion that people have to be able to participate in their own governance," Obama said. "But I was pretty certain and continue to be pretty certain that there are going to be bumps in the road because, you know, in a lot of these places, the one organizing principle has been Islam. The one part of society that hasn't been controlled completely by the government. There are strains of extremism, and anti-Americanism, and anti-Western sentiment."
Republicans have seized on the "bumps in the road" remark, with Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul, saying "After nearly four years in office, President Obama is eager to make excuses for his failed policies at home and abroad by declaring ‘bumps in the road.'" Former candidate Newt Gingrich was more blunt, tweeting, "It is disgusting to have Obama describe the killing of an ambassador and three other Americans as 'a bump in the road' on 60 minutes." White house spokesperson Jay Carney countered that suggestions that the president was referring to the killing of Stevens in his remarks were "desperate and offensive."
The State Department began a review this week into the circumstances of the Benghazi attack and what security lapses may have occurred. Critics have asked why the ambassador was in such a lightly defended compound in a city where militant violence had recently occurred on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. FBI investigators finally arrived in Benghazi on Thursday, three weeks after the attack and after the site had already been picked over by looters and reporters. Some officials have suggested that the State Department dragged its feet in securing a security escort for the agents, though the administration blames the Libyan government for the delay.
When will Syria be an issue?
The crisis in Syria showed worrying signs of inflaming the wider region this week when Turkey shelled targets within Syria in retaliation for a Syrian Army mortar attack that killed a woman and three children in Akcakale, Turkey. The Turkish parliament has authorized further military action, though it does not appear likely that there will be a larger military response for the time being. NATO called an emergency meeting to discuss the issue, though there has been no discussion yet of invoking Article 5, which would obligate the alliance to come to the aid of member state Turkey. The U.S. State Department called Turkey's actions "appropriate" and "proportional" and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed outrage at the Syrian mortar attack.
The possible internationalization of the conflict raises the question of whether the Syria crisis will become more of an issue in the campaign. The Romney campaign has accused the president of having "dragged his feet" in response to the crisis and a "lack of leadership" but Romney has provided few specifics on how he would handle Syria differently other than being "more assertive." In his Wall Street Journal article, Romney noted that, "In Syria, tens of thousands of innocent people have been slaughtered" but didn't address the crisis further.
Looking ahead to the VP debate
The major political event of next week will be Thursday's vice presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Democrats are hoping for a strong performance from Joe Biden to stop the GOP's momentum. In the debate, which will include both foreign and domestic policy, Paul Ryan may be looking to establish his national security bona fides in a debate with the more experienced Biden. Ryan has lately been taking up the attacks on the administration's handling of Benghazi, telling radio host Laura Ingraham, "We've seen a confused, slow, inconsistent response to what is now very clearly known as a terrorist act."
The latest from FP:
Uri Friedman looks at the 10 best foreign-policy moments from debates past.
John Norris lists 6 campaign gaffes that really mattered.
David Rothkopf says it's time to start thinking about 2013.
Aaron David Miller slams Romney's Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Michael Cohen says the Pentagon doesn't actually care about the national debt.
Issac Stone Fish imagines what would happen if U.S. political hacks covered China's horse race.
This week brought two related pieces of news. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that the U.S.-Russian "reset" cannot "last forever" and suggested that the two sides "update the software" to avoid a "program failure." And U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic reported that the international body will hold a debate in mid-November on whether to upgrade the Palestinians' U.N. status to an "observer state."
What's the connection between the two developments? Both leaders suggested that action would be deferred on these issues for the same reason: the U.S. presidential election. "It is evident that some important things will have to be postponed until after the election marathon in the U.S., Lavrov observed. "The electoral rhetoric beyond the ocean will soon subside to give way to meticulous day-to-day work." Jeremic was more cryptic. "There are electoral and political calendars in many parts of the world," he pointed out in explaining why the United Nations was scheduling the debate when it was.
Even the new leader of Georgia appears to have gotten the message. On Wednesday, Bidzina Ivanishvili announced that his first foreign visit will be to the United States -- but not right away. "Although I have already been invited," he added, "I have asked to postpone the visit until after the [U.S.] presidential election."
To varying degrees, presidential elections have always thrown sand in the gears of U.S. foreign policy (the most famous example is Iran releasing U.S. hostages shortly after Ronald Reagan's election). And we've known for awhile now that some of the most critical global issues facing the United States would be in a holding pattern as the race heated up. There was President Obama telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March that he would have "more flexibility" on missile defense after the election. And Congress leaving town in August without acting on a slew of agenda items -- from looming defense cuts (so-called sequestration) to Russia-related bills on trade and human rights.
But in recent weeks we've gotten one reminder after another of the magnitude of the deferred decisions that will greet the next president of the United States. In an interview with the Washington Post's David Ignatius in late September, for example, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested that Iran would only be able to strike a deal with world powers on its nuclear program after the U.S. race. "Experience has shown that important and key decisions are not made in the U.S. leading up to national elections," he argued. "I do believe that some conversations and key issues must be talked about again once we come out of the other end of the political election atmosphere in the United States."
During a U.N. General Assembly speech several days later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to back away from the possibility of striking Iran's nuclear facilities in the lead-up to the U.S. election, asserting that Iran's nuclear development wouldn't cross his "red line" until the spring or summer. Netanyahu, however, has denied that the U.S. contest influences his decision-making. "What's guiding me is not the election in the United States but the centrifuges in Iran," he recently told an Israeli newspaper, adding that the latter don't stop spinning just because America is choosing a new leader.
Earlier in September, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that the 2012 campaign might explain why the United States hasn't supported more aggressive action in Syria such as implementing a no-fly zone or arming the Syrian opposition. "Maybe it's because of the elections -- maybe it's because of the pre-election situation in the States," he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "Might be the root cause of this lacking of initiative. Nobody has spoken to us about their reasons, and they are not obliged to state anything."
Abdulbaset Sieda, the leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, has gone further -- accusing the United States of forsaking the Syrian rebels because of domestic politics. "We would like to say to President Obama that waiting for election day to make the right decision on Syria is unacceptable for the Syrians," he declared in July. "We cannot understand that a superpower ignores the killing of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians because of an election campaign that a president may win or lose."
There's also been speculation that the Obama administration is lobbying eurozone leaders to keep Greece in the monetary union until after November, in an effort to avoid shocks to world markets. Last month, Reuters reported that an EU-IMF report on Greece's precarious debt situation might be delayed because of the U.S. campaign. "The Obama administration doesn't want anything on a macroeconomic scale that is going to rock the global economy before November 6," an unnamed EU official informed the news agency. But a Greek official later denied the report, and a U.S. official said the communications with EU leaders were intended not to secure Obama's reelection but rather to protect America's fragile economic recovery.
So there you have it: critical global issues such as the Syrian crisis, U.S.-Russian reset, U.N. debate on Palestine, and Iranian-Israeli nuclear standoff all in limbo as Americans head to the polls. That's a pretty daunting set of challenges for the next president. And we haven't even mentioned the fiscal cliff.
Kent Nishimura-Pool/Getty Images
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.
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Update: Spaniards woke up today to the news that Mitt Romney had decided to single out their country for fiscal irresponsibility, and many are not happy. María Dolores de Cospedal, the secretary-general of the ruling People's Party, told the radio service RNE that "Spain is not on fire through and through as some on the outside would have us believe," noting that Romney's remarks "upset me deeply" and that Spain "has also been a model for economic recovery." She conceded that "our image has been damaged and regaining confidence is very difficult" but added that Spain "is in the eye of the hurricane" for a reason -- "there are many people who have a lot of interest in the euro not being stable and there are some who believe that the easiest thing to do is to attack Spain." (Cospedal was also responding to a recent New York Times article on widespread poverty in the country.)
Other Spanish leaders have lashed out at Romney as well. José Manuel García-Margallo, the minister of foreign affairs and cooperation, said it was "very unfortunate" that Romney had made "tenuous analogies" without "understanding the reality of countries" like Spain. Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, the justice minister, didn't catch the debate but pledged to "correct misperceptions" about Spain.
Beyond the official responses, the Spanish press is chewing over Romney's comments as well. Headlines include "The Prescription for Spain's Bad Image Is Self-Esteem" and "Romney Didn't Speak the Truth About Spain." Spain is "in bad shape," blogger Martí Saballs admitted at La Expansión, but "to make it an example of a country that the United States shouldn't imitate strikes me as an extraordinary frivolity."
Original post: It may be early morning in Spain right now, but news outlets in the country quickly seized on Mitt Romney's warning during the presidential debate on Wednesday night that if the United States didn't get its fiscal house in order, it could end up like Spain, which is currently grappling with sky high unemployment and steep borrowing costs, and may soon receive a European bailout.
"Spain spends 42 percent of their total economy on government," Romney noted, veering away from the European cautionary tale he most often trots out on the campaign trail: Greece. "We're now spending 42 percent of our economy on government. I don't want to go down the path to Spain." Here's the clip, via Slate:
Within minutes of Romney's remark, Spain's major news outlets lit up with the news. Here's El Pais, with the headline, "Romney: 'I don't want us to go down the path of Spain.'"
And El Mundo, with the banner, "Mitt Romney: 'I don't want to follow the path of Spain.'"
And ABC, with the headline, "Romney: 'Spain spends 42 percent of its economy on government. I don't want to be like Spain.'"
Romney didn't specify his source for the statistics, but he may have gotten his numbers from the Index of Economic Freedom, which the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, publishes each year in partnership with the Wall Street Journal. According to the 2012 Index, America's government expenditure as a percentage of GDP is 42 percent and Spain's is 46 percent (Greece's is 53 percent, which perhaps explains why Romney landed on an ailing European country whose situation was more in line with America's). It's important to keep in mind that government expenditure data in the Index includes federal, state, and local spending.
What are people in Spain making of Romney's remarks? The commentary won't surface until tomorrow, but El Mundo hosted a colorful live blog that included several opinions from its journalists (some of whom are reporting from the States). "Publicizing how well things are going for us," Felipe Sahagún observed drily. "If only for this, it would be better for us to stick with Obama. At least he doesn't stick his finger in our eye."
"Romney has a special obsession with Europe," Eduardo Suárez noted, adding that the GOP candidate has cited Spain before. "He often cites it as an example of everything the United States shouldn't be." Another reporter pointed to IMF statistics on U.S. and Spanish government spending under the heading, "electoral lies."
One commenter on the site had a more pessimistic view. After complaining about the Spanish government's taxes, the reader added, "Well of course you don't want the path of Spain. Who would?"
CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images
In their effort to court undecided voters in industrial swing states like Ohio, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been going to great lengths to demonstrate their toughness on China, hurling attack ad after attack ad at one another.
Romney has pledged to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office and promised to balance the budget by asking whether each federal program is so important that it's worth borrowing money from China to finance it. Obama, availing himself of the power that comes with already being in office, announced a World Trade Organization complaint against China during a campaign stop in Ohio. Cracking down on China's unfair trade practices is a loaded issue -- encompassing jobs, the economy, U.S. foreign policy, and American power -- and it may very well come up during tonight's presidential debate.
So who's making the better case? A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted between Sept. 26-30, indicates that the advantage goes to Romney. When asked who would do a better job "dealing with the economic challenges we face from China," 45 percent of registered voters selected Romney while 37 percent selected Obama (the poll also shows Romney slashing Obama's foreign-policy edge by more than half, from 47-32 in July to 46-40). The NBC/WSJ survey hasn't asked the China question before, but a Bloomberg poll of likely voters, conducted between Sept. 21-24, showed Obama and Romney tied at 43 percent when it came to who would do the best job of "dealing with China on trade" (50 percent of respondents in that survey were skeptical of Romney's pledge to designate China as a currency manipulator). If Romney has indeed opened up a lead on Obama on China, that would be a significant development.
Still, there are some caveats to these numbers. Democratic pollster Fred Yang pointed out on MSNBC today that Republicans in past elections have enjoyed even greater advantages on China. And while Romney has narrowed the gap with Obama in swing states such as Florida and Virginia, he's still far behind the president in Ohio -- a state where the Republican candidate's message on China should have particular resonance (indeed, a recent Zogby poll commissioned, fittingly, by Death by China Productions found that likely voters in Ohio trust Romney more than Obama to crack down on unfair Chinese trade practices). If Romney is in fact winning the China argument, it's not yet clear that the achievement will translate into electoral success.
Even so, Obama would probably like to have that eight-point lead on China. After all, all he got for his tough line on Beijing is a lousy (if legally shaky) lawsuit.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Mitt Romney's gaffe-filled overseas tour this summer served up lots of comedic fodder for Democrats. Senator John Kerry noted that for Romney, "an overseas trip is what you call it when you trip all over yourself overseas." Referencing the Republican candidate's criticism of London Olympics organizers during his visit to the United Kingdom, President Obama observed that "you might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can't visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally." Now, it seems, Ed Miliband, Britain's Labour Party leader, is getting in on the action. In an address to a party conference this week, Miliband reflected on his meeting with Romney in London:
You may have noticed that doing this job you get called some names, some of the nice, some of them not so nice. Let me tell you my favorite; it was when Mitt Romney came to Britain and called me ‘Mr Leader.' I don't know about you but I think it has a certain ring to it myself, it's sort of half-way to North Korea. Mitt, thanks a lot for that.
Here's a clip of Romney calling Miliband 'Mr. Leader' back in July (Miliband stays straight-faced):
The joke fell pretty flat, apparently. The Independent reports that it "did not work, partly because he rushed the timing" (the Guardian actually timed the length of applause -- a paltry three seconds). I imagine Romney wouldn't appreciate it either.
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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.
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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
Autumn in New York
Both candidates were in New York earlier this week as world leaders gathered for the U.N. General Assembly. In his address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, Barack Obama defended the principle of free speech following this month's riots in the Muslim world over an anti-Islamic video made in the United States. "The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech -- the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect," he said. After the speech, Barack Obama was quickly back on the campaign trail, a move that was criticized by some as the president chose not to meet with other world leaders during the week, leaving most of the face-to-face diplomacy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Obama and Mitt Romney both addressed the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) that same day. Romney, who joked after being introduced that "If there's one thing we've learned this election season, it's that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good," devoted his speech to a critique of foreign aid as its currently conducted, calling for a more market-based approach. "Nothing we can do as a nation will change lives and nations more effectively and permanently than sharing the insight that lies at the foundation of America's own economy -- free people pursuing happiness in their own ways build a strong and prosperous nation," he said.
In his CGI speech, Obama announced a new set of initiatives aimed at combating human trafficking, including new training for law enforcement and tighter restrictions on companies that receive federal contracts. "It ought to concern every community, because it tears at the social fabric. I'm talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name -- modern slavery," Obama said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provided the U.N. General Assembly's most memorable moment with a speech during which he drew a literal "red line" on a cartoon bomb, meant to signify the point at which Iran would have nearly enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon, necessitating an Israeli military strike. Though Netanyahu has been accused in recent weeks of barely concealed campaigning for his old friend Romney, he had kind words in his speech for Obama's own warnings to Iran, saying, "I very much appreciate the president's position, as does everyone in my country."
The red line in Netanyahu's speech, which he predicted would come in "by next spring, at most by next summer," seemed to indicate that Israel is not planning to attack Iran this year -- minimizing the chances of an "October surprise" before the U.S. election. On the other hand, Netanyahu's statement still seems to be at odds with the White House's position by suggesting that it is unacceptable for Iran to even have the capacity to build a weapon.
Romney's terrorism advantage
There's little to celebrate in the poll numbers for Romney. Even Fox News' polls have the GOP candidate trailing nationwide, and a Bloomberg poll released this week found that he has even lower favorability numbers than former President George W. Bush, who has been largely shut out of the campaign due to his lingering unpopularity. On the other hand, the same poll found that Romney currently enjoys a 48 percent to 42 percent advantage over Obama on the question of which candidate Americans would trust more to fight terrorism. The poll is one of the first to come out since the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya and Egypt, suggesting that the president has been damaged by the violence in the Middle East and the mixed signals from the administration over whether the incident in Benghazi was actually a terrorist attack. On the other hand, Romney was also criticized for what was seen as a rushed and overly partisan response to the events in Benghazi and Cairo, which may be one reason he's mostly keeping silent about them.
Ohio v. China
Barnstorming through the crucial state of Ohio, both candidates have sought to portray themselves as tougher on China. Campaigning at a factory in Bedford Heights, Romney again promised, "One thing I will do from day one is label China a currency manipulator. They must not steal jobs in an unfair way." Speaking at Bowling Green State University, Obama countered "He says he's gonna take the fight to them, he's going to go after these cheaters, and I've got to admit, that message is better than what he has actually done about this thing.... It sounds better than talking about all the years he spent profiting from companies that sent our jobs to China." Last week, Obama announced that the United States was filling a new case against China at the World Trade Organization while campaigning in Cincinnati.
Not everyone in the Buckeye state has responded well to the China-bashing, however. Toledo mayor Michael Bell, who has sought to attract Chinese investment in his struggling rust belt city, told the Financial Times he wishes both campaigns would cut it out. "I have to say, the campaign is really hindering us. The Chinese people we invited here are asking, ‘Why are you picking on us?'" he said.
French socialists for Obama
French Prime Minister Francois Hollande stopped short of endorsing a candidate in the U.S. election while visiting New York this week, but from his response it seemed pretty clear who his favorite was. "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. Hollande also defended Obama's decision not to meet with other leaders, saying, "I think everybody fully understood that Barack Obama is carrying out his campaign and he came to make a speech, one which met the expectations of the United States."
The latest from FP:
James Traub wonders if the Clinton Global Initiative speech revealed the real Romney foreign policy.
Paul Bonicelli on Romney's aid ideas.
Amy Zegart looks at why more Americans support Bush-era counterterrorism policies.
John Norris asks if America is ready for a male secretary of state.
An FP Slide Show looks at Hillary Clinton's busy week in New York.
John Moore/Getty Images
This year's presidential election has featured a long-running feud about which countries represent America's most dangerous foes (Iran? Russia? China?) and most treasured allies (Great Britain? Israel?) -- and how to characterize nations that occupy the murky middle ground between these two extremes.
On Thursday, the nonpartisan Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) released a poll that infuses some data into the debate, and the findings are particularly relevant in light of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's U.N. speech yesterday on red lines for Iran's nuclear program.
We know from several recent surveys that many Americans believe Iran poses a grave danger to the United States (a CNN/ORC poll in April, for example, found that concern about Iran today is more widespread than concern about the Soviet Union in 1985). But most of these surveys have asked respondents to assess the severity of the Iranian threat (in the case of the CNN/ORC poll, alongside the threats posed by North Korea, Russia, and Syria).
FPI took a different approach, asking participants an open-ended question: "If you had to single out one country, which country do you think presents the most danger to American national security interests today?" The results are unequivocal. Forty-five percent of respondents selected Iran. China, the distant runner-up, clocked in at 8 percent, with Afghanistan right behind at 6 percent (Russia, which Mitt Romney once called "America's number one geopolitical foe," mustered a mere 1 percent). More than 60 percent of respondents supported preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons even if that meant using U.S. military force -- a finding that tracks with previous surveys. When it comes to America's geopolitical enemies, Iran and its nuclear program are clearly top of mind.
Even with these results, however, it's unclear how seriously Americans take threats from other nations these days. When FPI asked participants what represented the "largest threat to American national security interests today," for example, only 3.5 percent chose Iran -- well behind "terrorists" (17 percent), "Barack Obama/admin" (8 percent), and several other answers. Yes, you read that right: more respondents selected Obama than Iran.
The survey contains lots of other interesting findings. In another open-ended question about "America's best ally," 54 percent of respondents mentioned Great Britain and 16 percent cited Israel. Those who feel the country is headed in the wrong direction tended to have an unfavorable view of China, suggesting, in part, that concern about American decline goes hand-in-hand with wariness about China (it may also simply mean that those who are worried about China also oppose Obama). And nearly half of respondents view Greece favorably, even though Romney has used the country as a punching bag on the campaign trail (typical sound bite: "I think you're going to see America on the road to Greece unless we change course"). The poll is worth checking out in full here.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Earlier this month, when Mitt Romney swiftly denounced President Obama's handling of the attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya as news of the deadly Benghazi assault was still developing, the Republican challenger was showered with criticism from both sides of the aisle.
"Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go," conservative columnist Peggy Noonan argued. A Pew poll released last week found that 45 percent of respondents who followed news about the attacks approved of Obama's handling of the crisis, while only 26 percent supported Romney's condemnation of the president's actions.
In a provocative column today, the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer argues that Romney should issue a sweeping indictment of Obama's foreign policy in light of the president's response to the violence in Libya, especially as the administration shifts its position on whether the incident constituted a terrorist attack.
Earlier this week, Romney briefly criticized Obama for referring to the Mideast unrest as "bumps in the road" and for not classifying the Libya assault as a terrorist attack. But when it comes to foreign policy critiques, Romney has spent much more time this week on pending defense cuts and unfair Chinese trade practices. Conservative pundits and the Republican National Committee (and now even some Democrats) have been far more relentless in hammering Obama on Libya.
Here's Krauthammer on Romney's missed opportunity on Libya:
Here was a chance to make the straightforward case about where Obama's feckless approach to the region's tyrants has brought us, connecting the dots of the disparate attacks as a natural response of the more virulent Islamist elements to a once-hegemonic power in retreat. Instead, Romney did two things:
He issued a two-sentence critique of the initial statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on the day the mob attacked. The critique was not only correct but vindicated when the State Department disavowed the embassy statement. However, because the critique was not framed within a larger argument about the misdirection of U.S. Middle East policy, it could be - and was - characterized as a partisan attack on the nation's leader at a moment of national crisis.
Two weeks later at the Clinton Global Initiative, Romney did make a foreign-policy address. Here was his opportunity. What did he highlight? Reforming foreign aid.
Yes, reforming foreign aid! A worthy topic for a chin-pulling joint luncheon of the League of Women Voters and the Council on Foreign Relations. But as the core of a challenger's major foreign-policy address amid a Lehman-like collapse of the Obama Doctrine?
I'm not sure I agree with Krauthammer's critique of Romney's foreign aid speech; the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) wasn't exactly the right forum to proclaim the spectacular failure of the Obama doctrine. Obama, after all, devoted his CGI address not to championing his counterterrorism record or celebrating his commitment to ending America's wars but rather to discussing human trafficking.
But I also wonder whether Krauthammer's larger assessment is accurate. Is Romney's decision not to seize on the mounting controversy over the Libya attack a strategic blunder -- a sign that Mitt has a self-destructive preference for small ball? Or has the GOP candidate heeded Noonan's advice and concluded that silence is the best policy as the administration contends with a gathering storm of criticism?
A Fox News poll released on Friday shows that 39 percent of registered voters approve of the Obama administration's handling of the situation in Libya -- down from 48 percent in a Fox News survey in August. That's a trend the Romney campaign may not want to meddle with.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
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.
Over the weekend, without much fanfare, the Romney campaign opened up a new front in its foreign-policy attacks on Barack Obama: space exploration. During a stop at the University of Central Florida, roughly an hour away from the Kennedy Space Center, Paul Ryan blasted the president for scrapping NASA's moon and space shuttle programs (the Obama administration has suggested sending NASA astronauts to an asteroid and Mars, and encouraged private companies to assume some of the agency's past responsibilities).
"[W]e are conceding our global position as the unequivocal leader in space," Ryan declared. "Today, if we want to send an astronaut to the space station, we have to pay the Russians to take him there. China may someday be looking down on us from the moon. That's unacceptable." The vice presidential candidate's comments came on the same day that the Romney campaign published a white paper on space policy -- one that invited some finger-wagging from Newt Gingrich, who, during the primary, pledged to establish an American colony on the moon by the end of his second term. "Romney is better than [President] Obama on space but could be bolder and more visionary," the former House speaker noted in response to the plan.
What's remarkable about the white paper is how closely it hews to the Romney team's larger critique of Obama's foreign policy. There's the charge that the president has diminished U.S. power by alienating allies and emboldening rivals:
Unfortunately, President Obama has failed to deliver a coherent policy for human space exploration and space security. As a result, he has created uncertainty and confusion within U.S. industry and the international community. The President's disjointed collection of scientific project slack guiding principles, plausible objectives, or a roadmap for long-run success. They also have left American astronauts to hitch rides into space on Russian spacecraft. America's capabilities are eroding, and with each passing year will become more difficult to rebuild.
The accusation that Obama is weak on national security:
In addition to the troubles at NASA, there are less publicized problems surrounding our national security and commercial space communities. Many of our national security space programs are significantly over budget and behind schedule, and many are designed to meet yesterday's threats.
And the argument that the president doesn't believe in American exceptionalism and apologizes for America, while refusing to lead (the politics aren't straightforward here; as Space Politics noted last year, polling suggests that the public wants the United States to be a leader in space exploration but doesn't want to pay for it):
Today we have a space program befitting a President who rejects American exceptionalism, apologizes for America, and believes we should be just another nation with a flag. We have been put on a path that cedes our global position as the unequivocal leader in space.
What's odd about the earnest (if still vague) plan is that Romney ridiculed Gingrich's moon colony plan during the primary ("If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired'"), while Ryan voted against the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. Neither has discussed space exploration much on the campaign trail until now. Perhaps Romney and Ryan have had a change of heart. Or they've decided that if they're going to portray Obama as weak and declinist, they better go all out.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
In his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday night, Mitt Romney offered an interesting response to Scott Pelley's question about what sacrifices he would ask the American people to make in his effort to balance the budget. He argued that those sacrifices would depend on the extent to which he is willing to go hat in hand to China, the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.
I'm going to look at every federal program and I'll ask this question, "Is this so -- program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?" And if it doesn't pass that test, I'm going to eliminate the program because we just can't afford to keep spending more money than we take in. This is, this is something which is not just bad economics. I think it's immoral.
Romney didn't specify exactly how he'd determine whether a federal program passes the China sniff test, but the line, which the Republican candidate hasn't used much yet on the campaign trail, is attractive for several reasons. For one thing, it draws a straight line between two top issues for Republicans: the swelling national debt and a perceived loss of America's geopolitical power. As Paul Ryan declared during a PowerPoint presentation on the debt over the weekend, "We are now relying on other governments to basically cash-flow our government. And when you rely on other countries to lend you their money to run your country, you lose your sovereignty."
The line also plays into Romney's larger argument that Obama has been weak on China and failed to stop Beijing from "cheating" by manipulating its currency and engaging in unfair trade practices -- an argument the campaign hopes will play well in swing states like Ohio, which depends on the auto industry (during a campaign stop in Ohio last week, Obama announced a WTO complaint against China over its subsidies for exports of cars and auto parts).
In the latest installment of the Obama-Romney ad wars on China, the Romney campaign released an ad today accusing China of "stealing American ideas and technology" and Obama of failing to take action against Beijing (Obama has filed several trade cases against China, though he's never labeled the country a currency manipulator) -- just as Romney and Ryan begin a bus tour in Ohio (the Obama campaign retorted that Romney's 2011 tax returns included Chinese investments).
Given that Romney has repeatedly called the Chinese cheaters and pledged to label Beijing a currency manipulator on his first day in office, I'm getting the sense that federal programs would have to have a whole lot going for them to pass Romney's litmus test for balancing the budget.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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