Even as President Barack Obama benefits from an improving economy, an arc of crises from Libya to Afghanistan is pushing U.S. foreign policy worries into an election dominated by concern over the American and global economies.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton goes to Capitol Hill today for the first of two days of testimony that will give Republicans a chance to quiz her about Obama’s apology for U.S. troops burning copies of the Koran in Afghanistan and other issues. The Koran incident sparked a cycle of anti-American violence that has claimed the lives of four U.S. soldiers and raised doubts about the administration’s efforts to speed the withdrawal of American combat forces and hand more responsibility to Afghan troops and police.
At a Chamber of Commerce event yesterday in Livonia, Michigan, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum criticized Obama’s handling of the Koran burning. “We should stop apologizing for America and stand up and defend our troops,” he said in one of the few sections of his speech that drew strong applause.
The administration’s challenges aren’t confined to Afghanistan. Obama’s policies also are being tested by a Syria verging on civil war; a political standoff with ally Egypt over trials for 16 American pro-democracy workers; an Iraq struggling to cope with corruption and civil strife following last year’s U.S. troop withdrawal; and, most of all, by the rising tension between Israel and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will fly to Washington tonight for more talks with senior U.S. officials on the Iranian nuclear threat. In less than a week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in the capital and is expected to meet with Obama and address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobby in the U.S.
U.S. intelligence officials who have met with senior Israeli officials concluded that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is increasingly likely, perhaps as early as this spring. Israel’s leaders, according to the officials, said they are prepared to act unilaterally without informing the U.S. in advance. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions with the Israelis.
While polls show that the president has been able to inoculate himself against traditional Republican claims of Democratic weakness on defense, the protests and killings in Afghanistan undermine administration arguments that it eliminated Osama bin Laden and has made enough progress in Afghanistan so the U.S. can leave, said Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Virginia.
“It makes it much more difficult to sell that argument with events like the rioting and instability and then suicide attacks that have all come together,” said Jones, who worked for the U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan last year.
The “national security wild card” is a conflict with Iran over its nuclear activities, “which is certainly a possibility and could sharply raise energy prices,” Anthony Cordesman, a defense policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview.
“If Israel attacks Iran, and the price of gas rises by $2 a gallon, you can see this linking back to the economy and election politics,” Caroline Wadhams, a senior fellow on national security policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington research group with close ties to the administration, said in an interview. “With Afghanistan, it’s hard to imagine it would ever become a dominant issue.”
Iraq and Afghanistan
Obama has delivered on the foreign policy issues the White House thinks voters care most about: the elimination of bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and a timetable for a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, said two administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment.
Republican pollster Ed Goeas said his party’s candidates may not have much to gain by criticizing Obama’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan.
“Today, as much as a year ago, as much as two years ago, voters are primarily looking at things through an economic prism,” said Goeas of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Tarrance Group, who conducts the nationwide Battleground Poll, a bipartisan survey of voter attitudes. Obama “gets a certain amount of credit on fighting terrorism and foreign affairs.”
‘Pretty Strong Teflon’
Obama “has coated himself with some pretty strong Teflon,” Martin Indyk, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an interview. “I don’t think he has much of a foreign policy vulnerability from all these untoward events as long as he sticks with his basic approach: to be tough on terrorism but to be ending the wars in the greater Middle East and bringing the troops home.”
So far, foreign policy barely registers as an issue in public opinion polls. Asked for “the single most important issue in your choice for president,” 51 percent of respondents said the economy and jobs while 2 percent said terrorism and national security, according to a CBS News Poll conducted Jan 12-15. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Asked whether Obama “will keep America safe,” 61 percent of respondents said “very well” or “somewhat well” describes the president, according to an Associated Press-Gfk poll conducted Feb. 16-20. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
No Wedge Issue
Republicans have yet to find a “wedge issue” on foreign policy, said former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana, a veteran voice on foreign policy and now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University in Bloomington.
While Republicans have accused Obama of “apologizing” for America, most recently after the Koran burning, he said, “I don’t think it’s a cutting-edge-type issue that will resonate in the general election.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in a Feb. 24 policy speech in Detroit, said Obama hasn’t been tough enough on trade disputes with China and has been slow to ramp up sanctions and other pressure on Iran to avoid having “our future and our kids’ future threatened by a nuclear Iran.”
The Iran situation “is the toughest one for the president, and the one that could explode before the election,” Hamilton said. “His Israeli policy has floundered. Iran is going to stay on the front burner because of the nuclear program.”
Oil surged to the highest level in almost 10 months on Feb. 24 as escalating tension with Iran threatens supplies and signs that a global economic recovery will boost demand. Iran, OPEC’s second-biggest crude producer, has threatened to block shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, a transit route for about a fifth of the world’s globally traded crude, if its exports are blocked.
Oil for April delivery fell $1.21 yesterday to settle at $108.56 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices have increased 9.8 percent this year.
An improving job market along with an 8.75 percent surge in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index this year are helping keep Americans optimistic in the face of rising gasoline prices. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index rose to the highest level since April 2008 in the week ended Feb. 19.
The unemployment rate declined in January to 8.3 percent, the lowest since February 2009, and employers added 243,000 workers to payrolls, the most in nine months. Builders broke ground on more homes last month, and sales of existing houses climbed in January to the highest level since May 2010.
“By the time the election comes, Obama could be facing worse problems than high gasoline prices,” said John Kilduff, a partner at Again Capital LLC, a New York-based hedge fund that focuses on energy. “There could be a full-blown war in the Middle East.”
The turmoil in Afghanistan demonstrates how unforeseen events can put the administration’s plans in doubt.
Marine General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, recalled all coalition advisers from Afghan ministries in and around Kabul over the weekend after two American officers were shot in the back of the head in the heavily guarded Interior Ministry. Those deaths and two others a few days earlier in the country’s east, cast a shadow on the future of the training and mentoring effort that’s a key part of the U.S. strategy to wind down the war.
The democracy movement that the administration embraced as an “Arab Spring” has become increasingly problematic with the rise of Islamists in Egypt following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, a growing death toll in Syria and ethnic and sectarian strife in Iraq and feuding militias in Libya.
Despite the annual $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt at stake and Clinton’s two meetings with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr in recent days, 16 American democracy workers -- including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood -- are facing trial April 26 for operating without proper registration and accepting foreign funds, charges the U.S. rejects.
In Iraq, the prospect of a flourishing democracy built on eight years of U.S. investment of money and lives is fading. Just a few months after the last U.S. soldier left, “the country has become something close to a failed state,” Ned Parker of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York wrote in an analysis in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
Most pressing is Syria, a neighbor of Israel, where violence is spiraling into civil war. President Bashar al-Assad’s military forces have killed about 8,500 people, according to the Arab Organization for Human Rights.
Clinton returned on Feb. 26 from an inaugural “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia, which demanded Assad immediately stop the shelling, allow humanitarian workers into the country and adhere to an Arab League plan that would have him hand power to a deputy to create a unity government. Assad responded the same day with a speech on State TV declaring his confidence in victory.
The Obama administration has rejected a replay of Libya, where air power by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization helped rebels topple Qaddafi. Republicans “may try to use the Syria case as another example of the United States not using its power effectively,” said Wadhams. “But Americans are exhausted with war.”