Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Obama's foreign policy on trial

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
October 22, 2012 -- Updated 1746 GMT (0146 HKT)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
HIDE CAPTION
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
158
159
160
161
162
163
164
165
166
167
168
169
170
171
172
173
174
175
176
177
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: Debate may end up between two versions of Obama's foreign policy
  • He says recent turmoil has taken shine off his accomplishments; record will be questioned
  • He says Obama got bin Laden, managed Libya, ended Iraq war, Afghanistan ending soon
  • Rothkopf: Romney will hit on unstable Mideast, Israel, but his own plan must be questioned

Editor's note: David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(CNN) -- For the presidential campaign's main event Monay night, the billing should be changed to read Obama vs. Obama. Because at its heart, the climactic face-off between the candidates may end up being a confrontation between two versions of the president, good Obama and bad Obama, the foreign policy master versus the man who leads from behind when he leads at all.

Obama will no doubt try to reinforce foreign-policy campaign themes that his supporters feel are among his strongest credentials. But Mitt Romney will almost certainly try to lay out the narrative that Obama has weakened America and left it more vulnerable.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

That there could even be a meaningful debate over foreign policy in the campaign seemed unlikely until relatively recently. Just a couple of months ago, it was widely assumed that this president had done the impossible and inoculated himself against a traditional GOP line of attack against Democrats.

Republicans have over the past several decades sought to present themselves as the party of foreign policy competence and national strength.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



They have sought to portray Democrats as weak, anti-military and too inclined toward multilateralist mumbo jumbo, foreign policy approaches that give too much influence to allies, rivals ... foreigners. Furthermore, Romney had gotten off to a bad start on foreign policy mixing gaffes with blunt-instrument policy proposals that sounded like a neocon greatest hits album.

But in the past few months, several fissures have opened up in the strong facade of the administration's foreign policy. Syria has festered. The Iran nuclear standoff has re-entered the spotlight -- most recently this weekend with the curiously timed revelation that was later even more curiously denied by all involved concerning the possibility of opening new talks between the U.S. and Iran.

Relations with Israel soured, and both sides had to scramble to limit the damage. The situation on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan has deteriorated. And then there was Benghazi.

Join CNN for the presidential debates
Watch CNN's coverage of Monday's final presidential debate starting at 7 p.m. ET on CNN TV, CNN.com and via CNN's mobile apps. Clip-and-share your favorite debate moments on Facebook and Twitter, join the discussion on our live blog and get comprehensive coverage on our debates page. Need other reasons to watch the debate on CNN's platforms? Click here for our list.

Not only were the murders of the U.S. ambassador and three others a tragedy that raised questions about diplomatic security and the administration's candor, the attack had another important political consequence.

By far the most resonant of the president's foreign policy achievements was the killing of Osama bin Laden. But that achievement is only of something more than emotional significance if it also supported the administration's argument that they had dramatically weakened al Qaeda, the extremist threat in general and thus made Americans safer. But Benghazi provided palpable evidence that terrorists targeting Americans and our allies were still a reality and in fact, were morphing into new, dangerous forms across the Middle East.

Combined with the continuing violence by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, it is hard to make the case that the threat has been reduced even if, as is undoubtedly true, the Obama administration has been extremely effective in decapitating and dismantling much of al Qaeda's leadership structure it had targeted in the AfPak region.

Certainly the president, who was re-energized in the second debate and in speeches since Denver, will forcefully reiterate his considerable achievements on the international front. He ended America's long, costly and damaging involvement in Iraq. He has America on track to exit Afghanistan by 2014. He not only got bin Laden, but the U.S. military and intelligence community under his leadership also got a broad array of top al Qaeda lieutenants, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, and Moammar Gadhafi.

In Libya, he found a way to engineer its dictator's ouster in collaboration with our allies and without sending American troops. He oversaw a restoration of America's reputation after the excesses of George W. Bush's "war on terror." He oversaw a successful foreign policy team led by a widely admired secretary of state. He recognized and prioritized finding a way to deal with the rise of new powers. His Cairo speech was a remarkable act of outreach to the Muslim world. His Prague speech committing the U.S. to the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons was inspiring.

Wonks admired his national security process. The public admired his steely cool and decisiveness. His Obama doctrine of fighting terror and enemies such as Iran through the use of covert means, cyberwarfare, special operations and unmanned drone operations seemed a more cost-effective, sound alternative to shock and awe.

The Romney team, however, sees an opportunity to offer another credible narrative. It is that the administration has frequently dithered -- in its convoluted and unsatisfying Afghanistan process and in responding to Iran's "Green Revolution" and the Arab Spring.

Fareed's Take
Previewing the presidential debate
Candidates prepare for final debate
Romney's CEO take on foreign affairs

It is certainly hard to argue that the Middle East today is safer or more stable than it was four years ago, or that our enemies are weaker. Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon. Terrorists are active. Unrest and uncertainty threaten key allies from Egypt to Jordan. Yemen teeters. The Israel-Iran face-off is more dangerous than ever. Syria's war rages on, innocents die and it threatens to ignite other regional conflicts.

Iraq's U.S.-backed leaders are now aiding our Iranian enemies in their support of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Iraq itself is more fragmented than ever. In Afghanistan, our allies increasingly act like enemies, and the possibility of social and political chaos after our departure is high. Europe's economy is in tatters, and we have been sidelined in those discussions. Cyberthreats threaten from East and West. China grows more influential. Russia continues to confound our plans despite our vaunted "reset." And the U.S. seems no closer to solving the long-term economic problems that remain the biggest threats to its strength.

Fortunately for Obama, this is a two-way race and thus only two narratives will compete on that stage.

Because there is a third critique of his foreign policy that he will not hear on Monday: one from the left. That one is troubled by his serial violation of the sovereignty of other nations, his "kill lists" and use of drones and cyberattacks in defiance of international law, near-abandonment of the G20 as a fairer mechanism for coordinating global initiatives and his failures on battling climate change and reforming financial markets.

More than all of these, the greatest critique from the left centers on the president's ill-considered decision to "double down" in Afghanistan for apparently political rather than long-term national security reasons.

The foreign policy debate will be much, much more central to determining Obama's fate than anyone could have predicted just weeks ago.It could well focus more attention on his undeniable missteps than on his differences with Romney. That would be a pity, because the American people would also benefit from a thorough airing of Romney's truly dubious foreign-policy proposals, such as increasing defense spending that we can't afford and don't need, and substituting nostalgia for foreign policy, favoring feel-good platitudes of the Ronald Reagan era over the new thinking needed in a dramatically different world.

The president would be wise, therefore, to ensure that Romney, too, is a subject of Monday's conversation.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
A Scottish vote for independence next week could trigger wave of separatist tension in Europe, says Frida Ghitis.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2212 GMT (0612 HKT)
You couldn't call him a "Bond villain" in the grand context of Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. They were twisted visionaries of apocalypse whose ideas were to be played out at humanity's expense.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1705 GMT (0105 HKT)
As a Latina activist I was hurt to hear the President would delay executive action to keep undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from getting deported.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
Stevan Weine says the key is to stop young people from acquiring radicalized beliefs in the first place.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Lisa Gilbert says a million people have asked the SEC to make corporations disclose political contributions.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0455 GMT (1255 HKT)
Christi Paul says unless you've walked in an abused woman's shoes, don't judge her, help her get answers to the right questions: Why does he get to hit her? And why does nobody do anything to stop him?
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1932 GMT (0332 HKT)
Mel Robbins says several other NFL players arrested recently in domestic violence are back on the field. Roger Goodell has shown he is clueless on abuse. He must go.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a remarkable opportunity Wednesday night to mobilize support for a coalition against ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0041 GMT (0841 HKT)
The Texas senator says Obama should seek congressional authorization for a major bombing campaign vs. ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT