A Changed World

A look back at three major foreign policy claims of the 2012 US Presidential Election and forward to the road ahead, providing letter grades A to F for the candidates predictions.

Issue #1: Iran

Then: The election season of 2012 was a tense time in US-Iran relations. Heated Israeli rhetoric declared repeatedly that a nuclear Iran would be viewed as an existential threat and Israel would use military force if necessary to halt Iran’s nuclear program. The United States Congress responded to the situation by passing harsh sanctions, with President Obama’s approval, designed to drive Iran to the negotiating table. When he first entered office, he looked to achieve a “reset” with Iran; however, Iran ejected IAEA inspectors and steadily plodded forward in its quest for a nuclear weapon. On the campaign trail, Obama cited the strength of America’s alliances and declared Iran would not get a nuclear weapon on his watch. He predicted two options for the Iranian regime: pursue diplomatic negotiations and end its nuclear program, or face a united coalition of nations that would consider all options. Republican candidate Mitt Romney, however, lambasted the president for failing to support Iranian dissidents and allowing Iran to come “four years closer to a nuclear bomb.” Though in favor of diplomatic methods to deter Iran, Romney also declared he would consider an Iranian closure of the Straits of Hormuz to be an act of war. He predicted Iranian stall tactics, claiming they would negotiate and even make a deal, but all the while move unswervingly towards nuclear capability.

Image courtesy of Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America © 2012, some rights reserved.

Now: Though a deal was struck with new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and touted as a diplomatic success by President Obama, it was fairly lenient, easy to cheat on, and did not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program. In this sense, the diplomatic methods employed by President Obama must be seen as a failure. New sanctions have wide bipartisan support in Congress, but Obama has threatened to veto, not wanting to scare Iran from the table. In the timeframe of negotiations, the Iranian regime has executed over seven hundred people without fair trial, enriched enough uranium for two nuclear bombs, and is on track to build a ballistic missile by the end of the year. Obama’s goal is now to restrain Iranian nuclear development, not eliminate it, and his reliance on Iran to shore up Iraq against the Islamic State gives Iran an enormous amount of power in the relationship. The GOP, with their new majority in Congress, are clamoring for more sanctions and the removal of Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad from Syria.

Marks: Obama gets a C for his efforts since 2012. Iran’s power is only growing and Obama seems happy to punt the problem to his successor. Romney earns a B, as he accurately foresaw Iranian stall tactics and showed a willingness to use tougher diplomacy to bring Iran to heel. However, he may have been forced to deal with a similar growth in Iranian influence, depending on how he dealt with Iraq, Syria, and Russia.

2016: In all likelihood, Obama will win a soft deal from Tehran, but Iran will likely ignore the deal and continue to enrich both uranium and plutonium. A Democratic candidate for president will adopt a firm line, but likely continue the sanctions and diplomacy plan, citing the “success” of previous negotiations. A Republican candidate would probably pursue similar methods, though he or she would propose sanctions to truly cripple Iran, enabling the extraction of a harsh deal with penalties for cheating.

Issue #2: Syria

Then: By the time of the election, the civil war in Syria had killed over thirty thousand civilians and Bashar al-Assad clung to power against a diverse and growing opposition. Obama followed his usual tactic of relying on the United Nations and broad sanctions to topple Assad, whose days, he claimed, were “numbered.” Persistently downplaying the idea of military action, he made only one exception: in the case of Assad using chemical weapons, President Obama would authorize a limited military response. Romney agreed, however, he denounced the deference to the UN and wanted more direct American involvement. Syria, he warned, was not an opportunity only for the United States, but also for Iran and jihadist groups, so order should be restored as soon as possible.

Now: Things in Syria have gone from bad to worse, with no clear “good guy” of any consequence. The Islamic State, Assad, and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra group battle for control, while the US and Jordan coordinate an air strike campaign. The US-backed “moderate opposition” controls only the area around Aleppo and is demoralized, disorganized, and on the brink of defeat. Obama’s indecision was on starkest display when his own “red line” was crossed. Assad’s use of chemical weapons did not spur strong American action. Now, Obama pursues a strategy of airstrikes against IS, while arming the flagging moderates. The GOP is demanding decisiveness, with a few hawks even advocating boots on the ground, saying IS cannot be defeated by airstrikes alone.

Marks: Obama’s indecisiveness earns him a C-, and that’s being generous. Annan’s peace plan did not work, the Syrian moderates never stood a chance, Obama’s red line was completely disregarded, and Assad has not been removed. Though the US finally took action, it was unequivocally too little, too late. Romney seemed to understand the urgency of the Syrian situation slightly more, so he can claim a B-, but he was entirely too vague about any plan or solution to be given any more than the benefit of the doubt.

2016: If Aleppo falls, the moderates will be all but wiped out, and the balance of power will continue to be dominated by IS, Assad, and al-Nusra. Any Democratic nominee for president will likely avoid talking about Syria unless pressed, and even then will likely only support air strikes against specific threats to the United States. The GOP will be slightly more hawkish, though it remains to be seen if anyone has the stomach for the deployment of ground troops.

Issue #3: Russia

Then: A cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy, the reset with Russia saw a New START Treaty which promised to bilaterally reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles, though it was diplomatically paid for by the cancellation of an Eastern European missile defense system, much to the chagrin of the partner nations. On the campaign trail, it was clear Obama saw Russia, even under the newly restored Vladimir Putin, as a friend and an opportunity. Trade and nuclear reduction deals were the goal, the president said, and Romney’s assertion that Russia was America’s chief geopolitical threat was not only archaic, but absurd. “In the 1980s,” he quipped at a debate, “they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy.” But Romney was undeterred, citing Russian obstruction in the Security Council, their protection of Assad, and their cheating on nuclear treaties. Europe, he claimed, was too dependent on Russian oil and gas and America must give them an alternative if conflict arose.

Now: It’s hard to believe how wrong the president was. Ukraine’s pro-West revolution prompted action from Putin, who has since blatantly annexed Crimea and given crucial and now overt support to pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Economic sanctions were introduced by Obama and his European allies and have devastated the Russian economy, though it is still unclear if this really matters to Putin and his government. Obama now seems to be taking a harder line. He will consider sending lethal aid to the Ukrainian government, a move that will send cheers through the ranks of his GOP opponents. They have long been pleading for such a move, in addition to the reintroduction of the missile defense shield and the inclusion of Ukraine in NATO.

Marks: The president’s nonchalance towards the Russian threat earns him a D. Though he deserves credit for rallying his allies to introduce sanctions, his initial failures are hard to look past. If he had approved lethal aid to Ukraine in the first place, the civil war might already be over and Putin would’ve had to choose between a true war with the West or backing down in Ukraine. Romney deserves a solid A for his Russian forecast at a time when many were dismissive. His wariness of Putin would’ve enabled a quicker, more decisive response to the Crimean and Ukrainian incursions.

2016: The Russian economy is not going to dig itself out of this hole any time soon. But, for a people used to economic hardship and authoritarian rule, Putin may be seen as their only salvation in difficult times. The civil war in Ukraine will likely remain active, though low-heat, unless the West intervenes. A Democratic presidential candidate will adopt a cool-down policy, slowly pulling back on sanctions and reintegrating Russia into the world community in exchange for less overt Russian support in Ukraine and Syria. The Republicans will likely put forth a more gung ho candidate, calling for military aid and staring down Putin until he blinks.