In Afghanistan, 87,000 US troops are fighting a war. In the last month alone, the war cost $8 billion and 41 American lives. America is also fighting a war in Pakistan — the true cost of which is unknown publicly, along with the number of personnel involved — though the numbers definitely pale in comparison to the expenditures across the Durand Line.
These wars are minor factors in another billion-dollar war: the battle between President Barack Obama and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney for the White House. Americans are tired of the war in Afghanistan. The majority do not support it. But their fatigue has not translated into meaningful political action to bring it to an end.
America’s wars are being fought by professional soldiers in lands far away. Meanwhile, American civilians are fixated on their depleting bank accounts, not the battles abroad. Financial security has taken precedence over physical security as the US economy slowly recovers from the great recession of 2007-2009. America is in the midst of one of its cyclical phases of looking within.
Nonetheless, foreign policy is a key wedge issue in the US presidential election. President Obama uses the unilateral Osama bin Laden raid to testify to the strengths of his leadership. But Romney presents the president as weak on the world stage, seeking to “lead from behind”, guilty of abandoning historic allies, and non-believing in American exceptionalism and founding values.
As Romney left for Britain, an adviser said that President Obama lacks appreciation for America’s “Anglo-Saxon heritage”. Romney then visited Israel and Poland in a large part to reach out to Jewish and Catholic swing voters in battleground states such as Florida and Pennsylvania.
Romney’s audiences abroad were as white as the crowds he speaks to back at home. But the world and, more importantly, the G-20 is rather colourful. If he becomes president, Romney will most certainly have to engage the leaders of Brazil, Mexico, South Korea, and Turkey — US allies whose economies far exceed in size those of Israel and Poland.
What is being said on the campaign trail offers little insight into US foreign policy from January onward. At heart, Romney is not an ideologue. He is a pragmatic, northeastern Republican. But for the time being, he must cater to a Republican party that has taken a mad turn to the right, at odds with the material needs of the average American and the trajectory of a world in flux. It is a mob that has chosen to direct its anger at the wrong people and on the wrong issues.
A Romney administration would likely continue many of the Obama Administration’s current policies. Romney, like President Obama, has said that he will leave all options on the table when it comes to stopping Iran’s nuclear programme. He has also proposed an Afghanistan policy that is largely consistent with President Obama’s, save for his distancing from the 2014 withdrawal date.
There is also a high probability of continuity when it comes to Pakistan. Indeed, there is a bipartisan consensus in Washington on South Asia: Afghanistan is seen as a waste of American lives and money, Pakistan is a danger in the short and long terms, and India is a strategic counterweight to China, a democracy whose economic and military rise should be encouraged.
A Romney administration would probably include the likes of Ashley Tellis, an Indian-American, who helped shape the US-India civil nuclear agreement. Tellis, who could get a senior South Asia position at the State Department or on the National Security Council, has taken a hard line against the Pakistani military, though he has been an advocate of supporting civilian democrats. But Tellis’s voice would only be one of many and it could be drowned out by pragmatists in the administration, including Romney himself. A bottom line that they all might agree on is that Pakistan’s civilian democrats are still worth supporting.
What is far more uncertain is whether a Romney administration would continue talks with the Afghan Taliban. My guess is that it would attempt to engage a more moderate potential splinter group until it is mugged by reality and has to deal with the Taliban prime. But one wonders whether by then it would be too late.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 2nd, 2012.