The Candidates and The World

Transition 2012

A guide to foreign policy and the 2012 U.S. presidential transition.

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What They’re Saying: Syria a Bigger Blunder Than Benghazi

by Newsteam Staff
October 15, 2012

Two members of the Free Syrian Army stand on a tank as they gesture "V" for victory October 12, 2012. (Eyad Garood/Courtesy Reuters) Two members of the Free Syrian Army stand on a tank as they gesture "V" for victory October 12, 2012. (Eyad Garood/Courtesy Reuters)


On Syria:

Amid the ongoing criticism of President Obama over the consulate attack in Benghazi, Jackson Diehl writes in the Washington Post that “when historians look back on Obama’s mistakes in the last four years, they will focus on something entirely different: his catastrophic mishandling of the revolution in Syria.”

The deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi were a calamity — but those losses were mainly the result of poor security decisions by mid-level State Department officials, not policy choices by Obama. The president’s handling of Syria, on the other hand, exemplifies every weakness in his foreign policy — from his excessive faith in “engaging” troublesome foreign leaders to his insistence on multilateralism as an end in itself to his self-defeating caution in asserting American power.

The result is not a painful but isolated setback, but an emerging strategic disaster: a war in the heart of the Middle East that is steadily spilling over to vital U.S. allies, such as Turkey and Jordan, and to volatile neighbors, such as Iraq and Lebanon. Al-Qaeda is far more active in Syria than it is in Libya — while more liberal and secular forces are turning against the United States because of its failure to help them. More than 30,000 people — most of them civilians — have been killed, and the toll mounts by the hundreds every day.

In a counterpoint, Fareed Zakaria tells CNN that even though GOP nominee Mitt Romney is making an effort to distinguish his views on Syria from the president’s by proposing tougher actions and more U.S. involvement, their policies aren’t actually all that different:

[Arming the rebels] is a very difficult policy to enact. The Syrian insurgency is really an uprising of 100 armed militias all over Syria that are not particularly well connected to one another, so you wouldn’t know whom you were arming, you wouldn’t understand what the goals of the people you are arming is, and there is a danger that some of this would blow back in just the way it did in the Afghan case where the people we armed turned into terrorists.

But I would guess that a President Romney would confront many of these same dilemmas and would be quite cautious, which is why, even in his rhetoric, he doesn’t say, “We should arm the Syrian rebels.” If you read that paragraph of his speech, it’s quite convoluted. He says we should work with our allies and make sure that the rebels get the weapons they need, which sounded to me like he’s saying, “We should allow the Saudis and the Qataris to provide more assistance, not arm them ourselves.”

This CFR Issue Tracker looks at both candidates’ stances on democracy promotion in the Arab world.

On Foreign Policy in the Americas:

Mary Anastasia O’Grady criticizes President Obama’s policies toward South and Central American nations in the Wall Street Journal, saying that current policy “couldn’t get much worse.” O’Grady writes: “On Mr. Obama’s watch, America’s friends have been stiff-armed while those who would do the U.S. harm have been given a pass—and sometimes even encouraged.” On U.S.-Venezuela relations, she writes:

In April 2009, in the midst of his now-famous apology tour, Mr. Obama warmly greeted Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez at the Summit of the Americas in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. It was a painful moment for the victims of the military dictatorship. Businesses in the once prosperous South American nation had lost their right to earn a profit, owners had been stripped of their property, free speech and pluralism had been quashed.

On Colombia:

The White House has treated another U.S. friend, Colombia, with similar disdain. Mr. Obama opposed ratification of the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement that had been negotiated and signed by George W. Bush. Mr. Obama claimed to be outraged by violence against organized labor even though President Alvaro Uribe’s policies had made all Colombians, including union leaders, far safer than they had been for decades. It took Mr. Obama nearly three years to send the trade agreement to Congress for a vote. He did so only grudgingly, and under intense pressure from Democrats like Montana’s Sen. Max Baucus, whose farmers and ranchers were losing market share in Colombia.

Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times on the separation between perception and reality regarding Mexico in the campaign:

They say elections have consequences. But it is doubtful November 6 will have much impact on the biggest trend facing the US – its transformation into a Latin American country. Not only is the difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney incidental to the tides of US demography and regional integration. But the debate between the two is irrelevant to them.

Consider this: Mexico is fast turning into America’s most important trading partner – and is already its second-largest export market. Yet the only context in which the country is mentioned on the campaign trail is drugs or illegal immigration. It is rare that reality and politics so sharply diverge.

On Energy:

In a piece for Politico, Charlie Melancon urges the campaigns to depoliticize energy policy, saying that there are no “Democratic solutions” or “Republican solutions”:

But there is a right way and a wrong way to determine which products are best for American families, the environment and our economy. The right way is to allow energy producers to develop their products in the open market. The wrong way, and the one we have seen too often in recent months, is to insert political pressure and try to paint one solution as the only way to move our country away from our dependence on foreign energy.

To put it more simply: We cannot solve our energy problems based on the prevailing political winds. If government creates policies that give one industry a distinct advantage over another, the end result will be an inferior product at a higher price.

This CFR Issue Tracker looks at both candidates’ stances on energy policy.

–Contributing Editor Kirsti Itameri

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