From his final hideout in the briny deep, Osama bin Laden has clarified what is wrong with the way foreign policy is addressed in the US presidential campaign. His seized documents tell us that bin Laden had ordered the assassination of President Obama, whom he condemned as “the head of infidelity.’’ But as we know, the boss of all al Qaeda bosses was rubbed out on orders from the White House, and so was Ilyas Kashmiri, the capo who was supposed to carry out the hit on Obama.
Yet Mitt Romney has insisted on portraying Obama as a chief executive who goes around the world apologizing for America. This is an absurd critique of Obama’s statecraft. It recalls an unsubtle bit of dialogue from “The Godfather.’’
Michael Corleone and his bride-to-be, Kay Adams, are strolling along a peaceful street in a New England town on a glowing autumnal day.
Michael: “My father is no different than any other powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.’’
Kay: “Do you know how naïve you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.’’
Michael: “Oh. Who’s being naïve, Kay?’’
Nowadays Romney seems intent on playing the role of Kay Adams. He sounds disconnected from reality when painting Obama as a softie — the same Obama who authorized the killings of bin Laden; senior al Qaeda member Ilyas Kashmiri; Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban; American citizen Anwar al Awlaki, and countless others.
Nevertheless, Obama has made crucial errors of omission in his conduct of US foreign policy. His curious pattern of being quick on the draw but slow to play politics beyond these shores deserves critical scrutiny.
Iraq is perhaps the most obvious instance of the Obama administration playing its political hand badly. The 2010 Iraqi election produced more seats in Parliament for a party led by the secular Shi’ite figure Ayad Allawi than for the Dawa Party of the current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Nonetheless, Maliki came to power with Iranian backing, at the head of a mostly Shi’ite coalition, and has run a corrupt and inefficient state apparatus in an increasingly despotic manner.
The Obama administration failed to use its clout to mold a true power-sharing arrangement between Maliki and Allawi’s Iraqiya Party. In addition, in the summer of 2010, Washington actually backed Maliki for prime minister, allowing him to deny Allawi and his Sunni colleagues a meaningful role while enhancing Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Another missed opportunity came with the egregiously fraudulent presidential election of 2009 in Afghanistan. It was no secret to US officials that President Hamid Karzai’s government was a corrupt criminal enterprise. Yet those officials did nothing to disabuse Afghans of the assumption that Karzai, who first came to power with Washington’s blessing, was still America’s man. Even more fateful was Obama’s failure to reject the massive fraud of the 2009 vote count and insist on an honest election run not by Karzai’s minions but by international monitors.
Less obvious than the missed opportunities in Iraq and Afghanistan, but no less fateful, was Obama’s reluctance to do in Israel what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been doing in America: make a political appeal in the other guy’s backyard.
Netanyahu used addresses to Congress and AIPAC as well as a White House chat with cameras rolling to build political pressure on Obama to comply with Netanyahu’s needs and wishes. That’s his prerogative; it reflects an understanding that foreign policy is politics by other means.
Obama’s mistake is not to have acted on the same premise. In June 2009, when he went to Cairo to deliver a rousing speech to the Arab world, Obama ought to have gone to Israel and addressed the Knesset. That would have been the right time to tell Israelis that he had their back — but also that, like former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, he was convinced that Israel could survive as a democratic and Jewish-majority state only by reaching a negotiated two-state peace with the Palestinians.
Whether or not history would have been altered by such moves, they were the right moves to make at the time.
Romney has it all wrong when he tries to paint Obama as an appeaser or liberal softie. Obama’s major flaw as a statesman has been his failure to use all the soft powers at his disposal to affect politics in countries crucial to US interests.
Alan Berger is a former Globe editorial writer.