From the White House point of view, this week’s major foreign policy developments – the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and the announced end to US war in Iraq – should be seen as major successes for the United States and, not incidentally, for President Obama.
Obama said as much in his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday. The two events were, he said, “powerful reminders of how we’ve renewed American leadership in the world.”
“I was proud to announce that – as promised – the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of this year,” Obama said. “And in Libya, the death of Muammar Qaddafi showed that our role in protecting the Libyan people, and helping them break free from a tyrant, was the right thing to do.”
That’s surely a matter of opinion.
Not surprisingly, Republicans were quick to take exception. Most derided Obama’s “lead from behind” approach to letting NATO countries Britain, France, and Italy see most of the military action that eventually allowed rebel forces in Libya to topple Qaddafi. Apparently, they did not appreciate the value of getting Arab League and United Nations approval before enforcing a no-fly zone with missiles and bombs (most of which initially came from US ships and aircraft).
And on Iraq, Obama’s presidential election challengers were quick to criticize the decision to remove the rest of US forces there by year’s end.
Mitt Romney called it an “astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq.” Rick Perry accused Obama of “putting political expediency ahead of sound military and security judgment.” Michele Bachmann said it had been a “political decision and not a military one.”
(The GOP candidates seem not to remember that the status of forces agreement between the US and Iraq regarding American troop withdrawals by the end of this year was initiated during the presidency of George W. Bush. One can only imagine what they might have said had Obama capitulated to Iraq and allowed US troops there to be prosecuted under Iraqi law.)
Being charged with weakness on national security issues must be frustrating for Obama. For years, most Americans have opposed the war in Iraq, based as it was on faulty premises – remember Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” and alleged ties to al Qaeda? – and waged at a cost of nearly 4,500 US combat deaths and $1 trillion.
Although he started his presidency with a Nobel Peace Prize (basically, for not being former president Bush) and was very clear about his opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq, Obama has not hesitated to use US military might.
He sent thousands more US troops to Afghanistan, launched many more drone attacks than his predecessor, ordered US Special Forces on risky missions (from the killing of Somali pirates in order to rescue an American sea captain to the successful attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan), and did not hesitate to bomb American citizens tied to al Qaeda.
“A plurality of voters continues to believe the United States is winning the War on Terror, and confidence in the safety of the nation has reached a new high,” according to a Rasmussen Reports survey this month.
But national security and foreign policy issues are low among the political priorities of most Americans.
Asked to name the “most important problem facing this country today,” only 2 percent name terrorism or war, according to a Gallup poll this month. Not surprisingly, the issues of greatest concern are jobs and the economy generally.
That’s no doubt why Obama on Saturday segued from the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to his American Jobs Act.
“As we end these wars, we’re focusing on our greatest challenge as a nation – rebuilding our economy and renewing our strength at home,” he said. “Over the past decade, we spent a trillion dollars on war, borrowed heavily from overseas, and invested too little in the greatest source of our national strength – our own people. Now, the nation we need to build is our own.”