The Stakes in Tonight’s Foreign Policy Debate

by Bruce Thornton

FrontPage Magazine

Foreign policy, the topic of tonight’s debate, was suddenly thrust into the voters’ consciousness by the murder of 4 Americans, including our ambassador, in Benghazi on the anniversary of 9/11. Intensifying the fallout of this event has been the Obama administration’s incoherent, clumsy, duplicitous, and rapidly unraveling attempt to blame the terrorist murders on a YouTube movie trailer lampooning Mohammed, in order to downplay the strength of the heavily armed jihadist outfits, some connected to al Qaeda, now swarming in Libya as a result of our overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi.

If Governor Romney wants to succeed, he must focus on the Benghazi attack and subsequent misdirection not just to highlight the administration’s increasingly obvious attempt to spin a carefully planned terrorist attack into a spontaneous reaction to an offensive video. More importantly, Romney must use the attack to emphasize its real significance: the political expediencies, character flaws, and dubious ideological assumptions behind Obama’s foreign policy failures.

The evidence of this failure is obvious throughout the Middle East. Start with Libya, the country most in the news. Eighteen months after US air power facilitated the overthrow of Gadhafi in Libya, a weak central government is dominated by hundreds of heavily armed militant Islamist bands, some with links to al Qaeda, of the sort that killed our ambassador. Before his death, ambassador Chris Stevens reported that black al Qaeda battle-flags were flying over government buildings in Benghazi. This is consistent with an August 2012 report from the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, which documented al Qaeda’s influence in Libya and concluded, “The Libyan Revolution may have created an environment conducive to jihad and empowered the large and active community of Libyan jihadists, which is known to be well connected to international jihad.”

Elsewhere in Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is active across a broad swath of North Africa, and is suspected of complicity in the Benghazi attack. Al Qaeda-linked militants control territory in northern Mali the size of France, and are applying Sharia law, including punishments like stoning, amputation, and public beatings.  In Nigeria the jihadist group Boko Haram, whose real name is “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad,” is also linked to AQIM, with whom it shares training, funds, and explosives. Boko Haram has been murdering Christians and others, 650 in this year alone, in order to fulfill the mandate of its name. And in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to battle the government and to plot terrorist attacks. Contrary to Obama’s claims, al Qaeda’s leadership may have been degraded, but the franchise continues to be strong and active.

Likewise in the Middle East, where the jihadist Muslim Brothers have come to power in Egypt, the region’s most populous country, thanks to Obama’s abandonment of the brutal but reliable Hosni Mubarak, who had kept them in check. Even as al Qaeda terrorists have stepped up attacks in Iraq in the wake of our withdrawal, that country is strengthening its ties to Iran, allowing the Iranians to cross Iraqi air space in order to deliver arms to Syria’s Bashar al Assad. In Syria, numerous jihadist groups fighting Assad are gaining valuable battlefield experience in tactics and weapons, including surface-to-air missiles probably acquired from Gadhafi’s looted arsenals. The Taliban in Afghanistan are surging in anticipation of Obama’s announced 2014 withdrawal, with US-trained Afghan security forces turning their weapons on coalition troops, killing 51 this year. Given the weakness of the corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai, there is a very good chance that the Taliban will reestablish itself as a major power in Afghanistan after US forces withdraw in 2014.

Most dangerously, Iran continues its march to the acquisition of nuclear weapons with which it can “wipe Israel off the map,” as President Ahmadinejad has threatened. According to a recent DEBKA report, Iran’s “nuclear program’s high-speed uranium enrichment plant has now been entirely sequestered in the fortified underground Fordo site near Qom,” which means the Israelis will not be able to destroy the site completely without America’s help. DEBKA continues, “The Iranians are preparing to change the ‘active formation’ of the Fordo centrifuges and adapt them for refining uranium up to the 60 percent level, a short step before the weapons grade of 90 percent. The conversion is expected to be ready to go in the second half of December or early January 2013.” Yet despite this fast approaching point of no return, the Obama administration has refused to back up non-lethal sanctions with a credible threat of force, leaving the Iranians to calculate correctly that they have enough time to reach nuclear capability.

Finally, Obama has chilled relations with our one reliable ally in the Middle East, Israel. He has accepted the specious pretext that “settlements” are the roadblock to peace, claimed that negotiations must start with the indefensible 1967 armistice line, snubbed and insulted Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, and worst of all, refused to back vigorously and unequivocally Israel’s attempts to eliminate the existential threat represented by a nuclear-armed Iran. Indeed, his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said of an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran, “I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.” Such hostile talk has emboldened the Iranians and disheartened not just Israel, but other allies like Saudi Arabia who know what sort of disruptions and dangers will follow the mullahs’ getting the bomb.

Obama, in short, has reversed the famous aphorism of the Roman general Sulla: under his foreign policy, America has become no better enemy, no worse friend. Our retreat and weakness have diminished America’s stabilizing role in the region, creating a vacuum other countries are eager to fill. As Amir Taheri recently wrote, “For six decades American power acted as the pole that kept the tent [regional stability] up. Over the past four years, however, Barack Obama has pulled that pole away, allowing the tent to sag and, in parts, collapse. As opportunist powers, Russia, Iran and Turkey are trying to fill the vacuum created by America’s retreat. Thus, Russia has just returned as a top supplier of weapons to Iraq, clinching a $4.2 billion contract, partly thanks to lobbying by Iran.” Under Obama, the United States now has little influence over events, even as our own national interests, values, and security are put in jeopardy by these developments.

If Romney wants to gain the upper hand tonight, he needs to highlight this litany of failure. More important, he has to identity the flaws of character and ideology that have led to foreign policy disaster. The political needs of reelection, of course, have shaped Obama’s reactions to events. He staked his foreign policy success on the narrative that our major problem was al Qaeda, so all we needed to do was kill bin Laden and use drone strikes to degrade al Qaeda’s leadership. Hence Obama’s recent assertions that “Al Qaeda’s on its heels” and  “Al Qaeda is on the run.” Couple the war on al Qaeda to “democracy promotion” in the region, and all our terrorist problems would disappear. As Obama said on “60 Minutes,” follow this policy and “over the long term we are more likely to get a Middle East and North Africa that is more peaceful, more prosperous and more aligned with…our interests.”

That narrative explains Obama’s clumsy attempt to attribute the Benghazi attack to the “disgusting” YouTube video and the “spontaneous reaction,” as UN Ambassador Susan Rice said five days after the attack, that the video provoked, thus supporting the “al Qaeda on its heels” claim. But as we’ve seen above, al Qaeda is not just active, but growing. It is the mother ship of numerous other jihadist outfits with whom it cooperates and coordinates. But Obama’s admission that the attack was a carefully planned lethal celebration of the 9/11 attacks would perforce have repudiated the linchpin of his alleged foreign policy success, and it would have shown that contrary to his “60 Minutes” assertions, during his administration the region has become less peaceful and less aligned with our interests.

But equally important are the failures of Obama’s character, particularly his grandiose estimation of his world-historical significance. Believing that Muslims would react positively to his Muslim name and Muslim roots, Obama thought that all he had to do was show up, and all these countries would forget their national interests and religious beliefs. Of course that arrogant assumption has failed miserably, as surveys of the region show. According to the Pew Research Center, confidence in Obama exceeds 25% only in one country, Lebanon. And those numbers are significantly lower than they were when he took office in 2009. These data should not surprise anyone who knows that nations base their policies on their own culturally specific beliefs and national interests, not on other leaders’ charm or efforts at ingratiation. All Obama’s solicitous “outreach” has achieved is to create the impression that America is a weak enemy and an unreliable ally.

But more than anything else, the widespread self-loathing, self-doubt, and guilt over America’s presumed historical crimes like colonialism, racism, and imperialism have undermined our foreign policy by projecting weakness and a lack of confidence in our own principles and way of life. We saw this in Obama’s infamous 2009 Cairo speech, in which he extolled — before an audience including Muslim Brothers sitting in the front row — the mythical superiority of Islamic culture, and implicitly apologized for “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” Given this history of exploitation and oppression, Muslim terrorism thus must be understood as a response to these historical injustices, a reaction to our sins rather than the expression of religious beliefs.

This progressive reflex to blame America first explains why Obama spent so much time after the Benghazi attack talking about the obscure YouTube video. In his remarks on September 12, rather than explicitly linking the murder of Americans to terrorist jihadists and defending the First Amendment, he harped on the video and thundered, “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” In his UN speech, again he referred 6 times to the video, and said nothing specific about jihadist terror, not to mention failing vigorously to defend the central human right of free speech enshrined in our own First Amendment. Indeed, the producer of the video has been jailed on a minor probation violation, creating that “chilling effect” the ACLU usually frets over, and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Dempsey personally called a marginal pastor and counseled him to refrain from exercising his First Amendment rights. Worse yet, the administration produced an ad shown in Pakistan once more professing our love of Islam and castigating the video, even as across the region Christians and other religions are murdered, brutalized, and driven into exile.

This betrayal of a quintessential political right and the de facto validation of the “malevolent culture of Islamic supremacism,” as Andy McCarthy writes, illustrates the delusional ideologies that have created Obama’s foreign policy now threatening our security and interests. They have made America look weak and exhausted, a civilization of unparalleled military and economic power but crippled by abject moral poverty, one more terrorist attack away from capitulation and retreat. That is the point Romney needs to hammer home tonight if his priority is to expose Obama’s foreign policy failure.

©2012 Bruce S. Thornton

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