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US Election: The International Puzzle

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US voters are presented with a stark contrast between the foreign policies of the two candidates. Each has pros and cons, but what is the best approach for Australia and Israel?

Colin Rubenstein

Australian Jewish News - November 1, 2012

Tuesday's US election, which pits incumbent Democrat President Barack Obama against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, is more than a poll on who Americans believe would serve their interests best on domestic issues. It also asks voters to choose between candidates with two very different approaches to foreign policy, including policies of specific interest to the Jewish community of Australia - those pertaining to our region as well as Israel and the Middle East.

Asia-Pacific issues have been a bright spot for the Obama Administration. As a native Hawaiian who lived for a time in Indonesia, the President prides himself as Pacific-minded, and this has been reflected in his policies. His agreement with the Gillard Government last year to rotate Marines through Darwin stands out as a strategic move that will have a constructive impact on US-Australia relations as well as broader security in the region.

For his part, Romney has shown good instincts on Asia-Pacific issues in policy speeches and debates and has limited his criticism of Obama on regional issues to his handling of China and North Korea.

While Romney has vowed to be tougher with China on trade, and on North Korea in general, at the same time he has stressed the importance of avoiding conflict while promoting co-operation in Asia.

Regarding Israel and the Middle East, it should come as no surprise that the single greatest issue facing the next president will be how to stop Iran's illicit nuclear weapons program.

Obama and Romney agree that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is a core US interest, and presents a dire threat to regional and global stability, and is not merely an issue affecting Israel alone.

Crucially significant however - Romney, like Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has set his red line on Iran at nuclear weapons ‘capability' - acquiring the components for a bomb - while Obama has thus far studiously avoided using rhetoric that sets any ultimatum short of acquiring the bomb itself.

Obama and Romney have also disagreed on how Washington should handle the Middle East volatility triggered by the "Arab Spring". Obama's ethos of "leading from behind" has been criticised by Romney as failing US interests.

In Romney's view, the US must be prepared to be more proactive to ensure US-friendly governments emerge in countries where ruling regimes have been overthrown. He also supports supplying weapons to Syrian rebels "who share [US] values" in order to hasten the end of the Assad regime, and thus deprive Iran of an important ally.

In contrast, Obama opposes the US taking regional action without United Nations or NATO support as a matter of principle. This policy was best exemplified by his approach to Libya.

However, that is only part of the story. Obama's handling of the Arab Spring is a byproduct of a broader policy that aims to cut back America's involvement in the Middle East, which had expanded under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

This was evident in his withdrawal of troops from Iraq and planned withdrawal from Afghanistan - a move, it should be said, that Romney substantively agrees with - but it goes beyond a simple military draw down and into the realm of ideology.

The tone of Obama's several speeches to the countries in the region may have left open the interpretation that American military intervention in the Middle East under Bush was in no small part a contributing factor behind anti-American terrorism, and not the response to it.

This was the crux of Romney's accusation that Obama had embarked on a Middle East "apology tour".

While this description is exaggerated, it is certainly fair to say that Obama felt strongly the need to distance himself from Bush's policies, which he suggested had harmed America's image abroad.

Romney, while differentiating himself from Bush's approach, believes that the US has liberated, not dictated to, countries in the region, and would be likely to take steps to reassure US Gulf allies, like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, that they can continue to rely on Washington, especially in the face of Iran's nuclear threat.

Significantly, Obama prefers US foreign policy be validated by the UN, while for the most part Romney is a UN sceptic, unwilling to allow a dysfunctional UN to veto or unduly influence US foreign policy decisions.

This difference between the candidates may have crucial implications regarding the Iran issue in particular, regarding how the US would go about confronting Teheran militarily, if it came to that last resort.

Finally, Obama - who virtually banned the use of the term "Islamist extremism" by Administration officials as the motivation for terrorism and as a political threat to America abroad - stands in sharp contrast to Romney, who has not shied away from using the term when appropriate.

Regarding Israel itself, one view is that whoever wins, in either the US or Israel for that matter, common interests and values will ensure the relationship stays solid. Yet, while true up to a point, differences between the candidates clearly do matter.

The strain that has typified the relationship between Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been counterbalanced somewhat by the solid, expanded military ties between Israel and the US during his presidency.

On the other hand, Obama has had trouble answering Romney's criticism that he's acted on his strategy to establish "daylight" between the US and Israel in order to pressure Jerusalem to make one-sided concessions to the Palestinians. Romney also criticized Obama for failing to visit Israel during his first term, something Romney said sent the wrong message to Israel's neighbours. While Obama insists US-Israel ties are "unshakeable" and have never been stronger behind the scenes, Romney has promised a demonstrably closer relationship with Israel in the public eye.

Rounding out the issues for Israel is the peace process and America's stance vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Since 2009, the Palestinian strategy has been to avoid negotiations with Israel and instead seek to force Israeli concessions through international pressure.

Obama's early focus on a "settlement freeze" proved to be a totally counterproductive misstep which inadvertently complicated peace efforts, though his steadfast opposition to Palestinian attempts to unilaterally declare a state at the UN sent a pointed message to Ramallah that the US would not support the circumvention of negotiations.

It follows that the priority for the next US administration should be to make peacemaking with Israel the path of least resistance for the Palestinians. This means creating disincentives for them to hurt Israel in the UN and other international forums.

Implementation of this policy has crystallized as an imperative for both Obama and Romney. By now they both understand that while a volatile Middle East and fractured Palestinian politics is hardly conducive to imminent negotiations, they nonetheless agree that a two-state peace outcome between the Israelis and Palestinians is an important US interest.

 

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