WASHINGTON: It’s embarrassing when President Obama’s risk-averse refusal to engage foreign-policy issues becomes so obvious that it’s a laugh line for the president of Iran.
“I do believe that some conversations and key issues must be talked about again once we come out of the other end of the political election atmosphere in the United States,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said cheekily in an interview last Sunday.
I hate to say it, but on this matter the often-annoying Iranian leader is right.
Less than six weeks before the election, the Obama campaign’s theme song might as well be the old country music favorite Make the World Go Away. This may be smart politics, but it’s not good governing: The way this campaign is going, the president will have a foreign affairs mandate for … nothing.
The “come back after Nov. 6” sign is most obvious with Iran. The other members of the P5+1 negotiating group understand that the U.S. doesn’t want serious bargaining until after the election, lest Obama have to consider compromises that might make him look weak. So the talks with Iran that began last May dither along in technical discussions.
Ahmadinejad and some of his aides let slip during their visit to New York that they may be willing to offer a deal that would halt enrichment of uranium above 5 percent. Is this a good deal or not, in terms of U.S. and Israeli security? Sorry, come back later.
Will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keep his gun in the holster until after the polls close? The White House certainly hopes so. But someone should check the odds with Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who is one of Mitt Romney’s biggest financial backers.
The Obama arm’s-length approach is evident with Egypt and the other nations that are convulsed by the Arab uprising. The U.S. is launching an innovative economic-assistance program to help President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government. But you don’t hear much about it this election season. Nor is there much public discussion of the covert U.S. effort to aid the Syrian rebels, or the war in Yemen, or the god-awful mess in Iraq.
And though Obama was eloquent in his speech to the United Nations on Tuesday in eulogizing Christopher Stevens, America’s brave ambassador to Libya, the administration has been reluctant to talk about resurgent al-Qaida operations in that country. One senses a desire to keep the lid on this explosive subject in the State Department’s effort to suppress CNN’s reporting of Stevens’ private diary, along with a commendable effort to protect the family’s privacy.
I’m told that the talk in the Libyan underground is about a “global intifada” like what the new al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been preaching for the past five years. But ask U.S. officials about that subject and you get a “no comment.”
To be blunt: The administration has a lot invested in the public impression that al-Qaida was vanquished when Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. Obama would lose some of that luster if the public examined whether al-Qaida is adopting a new, Zawahiri-led strategy of interweaving its operations with the unrest sweeping the Arab world. But this discussion is needed, and a responsible president should lead it, even during a presidential campaign.
Perhaps the most disheartening example of a topic that has been deep-sixed during campaign season is the war in Afghanistan. This month marked the end of the surge that President Obama ordered in December 2009, and troops are now back to the pre-surge level of about 68,000. How fast will that number decline over the next year? Here again, we probably won’t know until after Election Day. Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces in Kabul, is preparing his recommendations now, but officials say this process of review will take … well, at least six weeks.
The president hasn’t really made any bones about his wait-till-later approach. He put it frankly to Dimitry Medvedev, then president of Russia, back in March when he thought the microphone was off: “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
This strategy of avoiding major foreign policy risks or decisions may help get Obama re-elected. But he is robbing the country of a debate it needs to have — and denying himself the public understanding and support he will need to be an effective foreign-policy president in a second term, if the “rope-a-dope” campaign should prove successful.
Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.