Politics

Republicans in foreign policy scrum while Obama carries the ball away

By J Brooks Spector 14 November 2011

On Saturday evening, eight Republican candidates for their party's presidential nomination rumbled with each other in yet another of episode of what is fast becoming an almost interminable series of debates – although this session was the first one broadcast over an actual TV network, CBS, in place of previous debates that had to be viewed on one or another of the country's cable channels. The focus for the debate in Spartanburg, South Carolina was foreign policy. Oops. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Importantly, this state hosts one of the early primaries of the 2012 election, and the demographics of this state’s Republican Party make it comfortable ground for any candidate close to the large concentrations of fundamentalist/evangelical Christians and Tea Party-ers in South Carolina – as well as the state’s large population of active duty and retired military personnel and their families. From the whoops and hollers of people attending the debate, it seemed that the place with packed with just those population segments.

In the meanwhile, Barack Obama has had the advantage – and prerogatives – of incumbent presidents; meeting with a whole clutch of foreign leaders from around the Pacific in his home state of Hawaii at the annual Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC, for the highly visual heads of government, funny shirt group photograph, as well as heavy-duty use of the bully pulpit to trumpet trade agreements as national job generators. Then Obama is on to visits in Australia and Indonesia with security as the key theme. And before that, he attended a top-ranked university basketball game – the University of North Carolina/Michigan State University – played on the flight deck of the US aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson, anchored in San Diego’s harbour. It’s a contrast, for sure. (UNC won handily, in case readers are wondering.)

In the Saturday evening debate, this writer tried manfully to concentrate on discussion; even as it has become ever clearer that any real understanding of the difficulties and stumbling blocks in affecting the actual international environment has eluded the Republican Party’s would-be candidates this year. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry advocated a return to water-boarding even as Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman refused to endorse such methods, calling them what they are: torture.

During the evening, those two would-be candidates kept offering the rhetorical equivalent of “Whoa there, big guys, wait a minute, you’re advocating yet another war in the Middle East and South Asia” from the left-and libertarian-wings of their party. The other candidates vied with each other in offering sabre-rattling, cutlass-rattling, kitchen-knife-rattling and every-garden-tool-from-the-garage-rattling – threatening covert operations, support for crippling sanctions and anti-cleric opposition in Iran to engineer “regime change”, raining down direct military threats – or full-on attacks – against Iran (in conjunction with Israel or separately), as Iran apparently advances towards a basic nuclear weapons capability.

In an exercise of pure dog-whistle politicking, Mitt Romney stared at the crowd (and a national television audience) to say he was calling this election a referendum on whether or not Obama should be allowed to permit Iran’s acquisition of nukes. Until that moment, who knew Iran was the crucial fulcrum of the 2012 election? Meanwhile, Rick Perry’s solution to most foreign policy questions was to cut foreign assistance to those ungrateful foreigners – playing to a well-documented popular misconception that foreign aid represents a major share of the federal budget and thereby a significant savings in the budget.

Perhaps the big winner from this latest debate was, surprisingly, Newt Gingrich. The former Speaker of the House, despite well-publicised, ultra-extravagant, major credit accounts with pricey jewellers, Greek island vacations and other assorted public miscues, Gingrich actually commands the vocabulary to wield more than a heavy truncheon in discussing foreign policy and that gains respect – even if one disagrees fundamentally with his ideas. This time around, Gingrich actually sounded like he’d thought about foreign policy topics before a day-of-the-debate-cramming session – although he too chose to pander to the unthinking flag wavers. Damn, there goes another of those ultrasound, political dog whistles.

Meanwhile, across the country, Obama’s White House kicked into overdrive to give the best possible public demonstration of presidential-ness – even with those required APEC funny shirts. Obama and his staff have thoroughly taken on board what the polls have been telling them about what the key issue of the 2012 election is – given the country’s stubborn 9% unemployment rate and weak overall economic growth. It is jobs, of course.

As a result, the domestic takeaway from Obama’s westward trip to his birth state of Hawaii for this year’s APEC summit has been filled with meetings that can be spoken about as important in hot housing job growth in America. In particular, the administration has been trying to parley its three new free trade associations with Panama, Colombia and South Korea (the US now has 20 such treaties worldwide) as the harbinger of a broader Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact Obama has been advocating for at this year’s APEC meeting. As Obama said to reporters, “I am confident we can get this done.” Obama and his troops have been underscoring and reiterating the idea Obama is the Pacific president – looking squarely into the future of global influence, and, in case readers have forgotten, jobs.

Beyond the leaders gathering, Obama also spoke at a business leaders’ forum from corporations involved in trans-Pacific trade and investment, publicly pushing China to participate in new trade-opening initiatives. But why is this push such a priority for the Obama administration in the midst of the ongoing Eurozone crisis?

Logically enough, the key is that the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region is crucial for boosting American exports, economic expansion and a reduction of unemployment. And jobs, in case readers have forgotten. Up until this year’s APEC summit, nine member nations – the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Chile and Peru – have been involved in these talks, but just before the APEC summit commenced, Japan signalled its interest in joining these negotiations as well. If agreement is eventually reached, it would bring into being a regional economic group 40% bigger than the European Union – with or without its problem children nations. Previously, China had yet to express interest in joining these TPT talks, but, just before the APEC meeting convened, Chinese president Hu Jintao restated his nation’s commitment to APEC’s long-term goal of a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific region – a gathering that would include all 21 members of APEC.

Just in case voters have managed to forget that the Obama administration’s strong suit (and its key successes) this past year has been in global security and counter-terrorism, Obama met with both Hu Jintao and Dmitri Medvedev in the inevitable meetings “at the margins” to discuss Iran’s nuclear ambitions and similar international security topics. After APEC, Obama is scheduled for Australia on Monday and then it is on to Bali, Indonesia for more meetings concerned with international security in the Asia-Pacific region. The comparison the media – and voters – draw between the Obama presidential whirlwind and the Republicans’ scrimmage in South Carolina could put pressure on Republicans to come to something approaching a better consensus about what kind of foreign policy they actually do advocate among themselves as an alternative to the Obama administration – as well as whether they still believe there is a common understanding between Republicans and Democrats over the basics of the nation’s approaches to other nations. DM



For more, read:

  • Outlines of pan-Pacific trade deal reached: Obama on Reuters;
  • Obama, Hu pitch different trade agendas on Reuters;
  • Obama Sees Economic Power of Asia-Pacific Region on the AP;
  • Obama sees economic power of Asia-Pacific region on the AP.

Photo: REUTERS

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