Henry Forth writes from Westminster: On London’s main drag of government, Whitehall, there’s a meeting of defence analysts scheduled Monday. No big deal perhaps because the same meeting takes place every Monday (dull coffee but very good chocolate biscuits). The agenda is single spaced and doesn’t concern UK policy – directly. It’s entirely about US defence and foreign affairs policy. This Monday it’s the comparison between Romney and Obama on defence and foreign policy.
At first sight – and especially after the convention speeches this past fortnight – it is clear that the Clinton Election Rule Book is not at all outdated: it’s still The Economy Stupid. Accordingly, watching the two presidential candidates – as now they are – in their acceptance speeches, the emphasis on what matters in November when America goes to the polls, was on jobs because jobs are the only tangible indicator of the state of the economy. You got a job, then your personal economy is relatively, relatively stable. The more people with jobs, the more the economy can be trusted to hold. Any way you put it, it’s what Clinton calls the philosophy of arithmetic – do the figures add up?
This is all very well in Continental US and among the central banks in other parts of the world, particularly Europe. Yet there is another aspect of the economy’s arithmetic that means a great deal to the rest of the world: how much defence and foreign policy enforcement can America afford and how much will either man who would be President understand this. There are two sorts of global influence: soft power and hard power. Soft power – you influence the world with trade and diplomacy. Hard power means you kick ass. It’s the latter that gets talked about in Whitehall meetings because what happens in the Oval Office either smells good or stinks in London – America’s continuing most loyal subject.
Let’s take a given at the Whitehall headbang. We know about Obama and he speaks with authority of office. Romney means nothing to us at the moment. Thus he speaks from an empty can of rhetoric and in Tampa, or anywhere else on this election trail, has thus far said nothing to prove that he has the credentials of a world leader other than the fact that he wants the job. Obama’s track record is much better than Republicans suggest and that record of office speaks for itself.
It’s important to understand that an American President’s global credentials will decide or heavily influence foreign and defence policy for more than a quarter of world governments. These governments are America’s natural allies such as the UK and Israel; governments with bi-lateral and multi-lateral treaty obligations such as NATO members; governments with both established and burgeoning commercial agreements including defence equipment deals and remember, those governments opposed to American policy that adjust theirs in response to US postures.
But wait! Have we not agreed that it’s all about the economy? True, but to a significant degree, US economics is nudged in different directions by White House defence and foreign policy and its success or failure is over a long period unlike the markets that only flutter the economy.
Hence the need to see Obama’s global record. To begin with, it might be remembered that when he moved into the Oval Office, the economy was in the worst state since Franklin D Roosevelt arrived at the White House in 1933. From Lehman Brothers to AIG to Bank of America to General Motors and Chrysler, there was a sense that however Obama reacted, his presidency could never recover America’s confidence at home.
Abroad, America’s foreign policy was suffering from the Bush-Blair inspired military hangover in Iraq and the utter impossibility of imposing its will in Afghanistan. Obama had few choices but to follow on from Bush’s priorities. There is no mechanism to get into office and on day one pull out US troops from every nook and cranny trouble spot your predecessor put them in. Military procedures (never mind the politics) don’t allow such drastic turn-abouts.
In the medium term however, decisions on Iraq were easy to make because there was no distinct, certainly no logical option to stay. Americans wanted home, the Iraqis wanted Americans out so they could get on with their cruel and therefore cynical internecine war.
The Iraq surge example devised by General David Petraeus was deployed in Afghanistan without apparently understanding that this was tactical and theatre warfare on a quite different scale; moreover,it was a complex tapestry of kill and burn, low intensity operation and imperial combat. America was totally unsuited to fighting the enemy within Afghanistan surrounded by political contradictions in Pakistan, India, the Central Asian Republics and Iran. Worse, Obama’s advisers did not understand that the war was not to be won.
After the initial Petraeus surge and then the long assessment by the White House, Obama saw what many of his military did not see: the US had to be out. His declaration of a 2014 withdrawal was totally contrary to accepted doctrine of announcing a pull-out, but that mattered not. Obama said Bring Them Home. It was a sensible decision.
In 2011, he – with advice of course – announced that US defence policy would have to reinforce its Pacific interests especially with a major force deployed, not as a threat but as a prudent precaution in the East and South China Seas. The establishing agreement with Australia for a basing arrangement in the Northern Territories was the clearest reminder that NATO, while an important alliance, no longer had America’s full attention.
If global policy were that easy.
The Arab Spring and all that followed (including the racked-up Iran Question) tested US foreign analysis. Obama was fortunate in having one of the most energetic Secretaries of State in generations, Hillary Clinton, and the shrewdest and most trusted of UN Permanent Representatives, Susan Rice. On balance, it’s been a good team.
But at home, the Economy Stupid has remained Public Enemy Number One. That alone has caused the Administration to look at defence procurement and acquisition and cut the budget by a token amount – $500 billion. Romney says it should be increased by $2 trillion – but doesn’t say where the money’s coming from and ignores the reality that the military don’t need that kind of increase.
But the Stupid Economy already means that projects have been delayed, reviewed and cancelled, including part of the F35 program. None of this will weaken the US defence system nor the overall security of the nation: a security system that has been running hard since Harry Truman was in office.
So what’s the reading on Obama and Romney in Whitehall?
Interestingly, Whitehall insiders have a view of Romney that is totally against the one being pushed by Obama and the pro-Democrat media. Whitehall does not see Romney as Right Wing. It says Romney is in fact a moderate. Can that be? Yes it can and it means that many of the Election Policy Statements should be set aside because things such as Look Out Iran Here We Come are without foundation. Nevertheless the US defence policy may do better under Romney but it will not make US defence and foreign policy any more efficient.
Obama? No President gets it right because foreign and defence policy is long term and cannot be switched like monetary or even fiscal policy and market conscience programmes. Thus on balance, the Obama Administration has coped with what it inherited – hence the absolute minimum involvement in Libya, the cautious re-deployment in the Pacific and Australia, the slowly-slowly position on ABM defences in Europe.
Therefore and pork-barrelling aside, whoever takes the poll in November will not inherit a disastrous foreign and defence policy. So it all comes down to who will do better with the bag left in the State Department and the Pentagon. On present evidence, a Democrat White House may handle it better. But it can all be upset by one aspect so well highlighted by a previous British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. You can never be sure what will happen to your policies, he said, because events, events dear boy, will undo them.