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Hichem Karoui: Foreign policy unavoidable
October 21, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Does foreign policy matter in the US elections? According to the opinion polls, foreign policy and national security are far overshadowed by the economy among the United States’ top problems. This is quite understandable, when we remember the mess that George W. Bush left behind him, at the end of his second term.

In four years, Barack Obama could hardly find a magic solution to the unbelievable failure trail that continued to drain the US economy for two years. As most experts say, it is difficult to make an objective assessment of the work the Obama administration did in this respect, for much of the data needed to give a good retrospective analysis of Obama’s first term won’t be available until the end of 2013 or early 2014. Yet, as we know, the situation was tragic when Obama entered the White House.

It continued to deteriorate, because any treatment would take a while before showing its effects. Thus, some reports say the total number of jobs lost in the last recession was unprecedented for the post World War II era. More jobs were lost between January 2008 and January 2010 than in any other period since the end of 1945. Now, the Republicans, of course, would throw the responsibility of those painful losses on Obama, which is completely inaccurate and dishonest.

One should remember that George W Bush lost a total of 13,000 jobs in his first term. However, this was nothing compared to the mess he made before he left: 3.5 million jobs were lost in Obama’s first six months alone! That was the “gift” Bush presented to Obama. Nonetheless, there was no miracle; but according to the experts of the Bureau of Labour statistics, more people have already been employed in the private sector during Obama’s presidency than during the entire eight years under George W Bush!

To be sure, this is a major issue in the presidential race, not to say, it is The Issue. People would vote probably based on how they perceive the ability of Obama or Romney to find fast and viable solutions to their problems. The majority of the US citizens are not assumedly initiated in the big debate about foreign policy issues. Many of them may even not accord to it any importance.

However, a debate about foreign policy is expected this week. For the average US citizen, foreign policy may seem like a remote game, or a puzzle. If that citizen is not directly or indirectly connected to it (e.g. a son, a husband, a relative, sent away to a foreign country, with the troops); and if that citizen has not been somehow touched by an event originating in a foreign land, why should he (her) feel concerned with the problems of peoples hundreds of miles away from the US?

Some of the US elite — not the decision makers — may even find it hard to understand why some US policies, say in the Middle East for example, are made the way they are. How could you expect the elite to explain the unexplainable to the average citizens? I am hinting at recent developments in the field of political studies, foreign policy and Middle East studies, which show that more and more US academics, experts, journalists, artists, etc… criticise the biases of their foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. They link those biases to some tragic consequences, which befell their country.

People now are not afraid to say that, after all, who created Al Qaeda? Osama Bin Laden? And who created Osama Bin Laden and the Jihadists of Afghanistan? Ask the CIA!

So, what would a debate on foreign policy bring to the campaign of both parties? Many of the important issues are consensual. Yet, there are the details, and “the devil is in the details,” says the proverb.

In all that concerns the Middle East, we already know how the Obama administration fared. It has been confronted with the unexpected upheaval of the Arab Spring, the consequences of which may still last for decades. Yet, nothing has been decisive so far. The concerned Arab countries are going through a transition period and nobody knows how or when it would end and whether the emerging situation would then stabilise the relations with the USA or destabilise them. These topics are the subjects that matter in any forthcoming debate on the Middle East.

To reduce them to an issue of “terrorism” and “security” threats, would definitely undermine any future US political contribution to the peace and stability in this region of the world. Indeed, some of the problems that occurred recently, especially in Libya, need more urgency and perspicacity in dealing with them. The US response to the killing of a US ambassador and other staff should be thoughtfully measured so not to upset or destabilise the new still frail government in Libya. This subject has been ill-exploited by Romney and his campaign, to stress that US National security is more at risk with the Democrats at the head of the country.

However, we know that 9/11 happened under the nose of a neoconservative Republican administration, and it was not thousands of miles away, but at home. Romney stopped short of blaming Obama for the killing of the US ambassador, yet he accused the White House of lying: “There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration or actually whether it was a terrorist attack. And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack, and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people.”

Anyway, on this level, “Romney is faring far worse against Obama than did John McCain, who made national security a centerpiece of his campaign,” says a report of the Pew Research Center, which finds that “the former Massachusetts governor trails Barack Obama by eight points among registered voters as the candidate best able to handle foreign policy and 12 points as best able to defend against terrorist attacks.”

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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