WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., October 24, 2012 — As President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney traded jabs in the third and final debate, the underlying message of the discussion was that foreign policy is far more complicated than many realize. Allocating troops and resources to foreign problems not only requires diverting spending from domestic issues, but also involves real people, real families and real lives.
There are also the complex issues of Muslims versus jihadists and enemies turned friends turned enemies and supporting democracy at the risk of losing allies. There is the quandary of favoring democratic change, as in the case of the Arab Spring, at the expense of security. Removing dictators can leave power vacuums easily filled by Islamists or terrorists or another dictator rather than creating opportunities for true democracy.
And every situation can change very quickly.
When the United States was fighting the cold war, the enemy was Communism. We fought the spread of the evil empire and we understood the clear fight between freedom and democracy and the Communist threat.
Now, the waters are muddied and often difficult to navigate. Sometimes it is difficult to judge friends or enemies or to differentiate between the two. With no standing foreign policy, the United States is forced to react to actions rather than pro-actively plan a strategy.
In the final debate, the candidates touched on Libya, Syria and Egypt. All three are wonderful examples of the complicated foreign policy issues that will present themselves to our next president.
Libya used to be easy. Muammar Gaddafi was a bad guy, a really bad guy, who not only supported terrorism but also admitted complicity in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Gaddafi hated the United States and the United States hated Gaddafi.
But then a funny thing happened in 2003…Gaddafi, in a completely surprising turn-around, renounced Libya’s nuclear program and offered compensation for the families of Pan Am 103. The UN lifted sanctions against the country and in 2004, the United States and Libya normalize bilateral relations. Gaddafi may not have become our best friend, but by 2004, he was no longer our enemy.
In 2011, the Arab Spring came around and rebel forces sought to remove Gaddafi from power. With the help of NATO air strikes, the rebels succeed, killing Gaddafi and ending his control over the country. NATO air strikes helped deal the deathblow to the Gaddafi regime. They also killed and wounded numerous civilians.
The question, of course, is now what? The National Transitional Council, made up of former rebels, set up a largely ineffective government hampered by lack of legitimacy and infighting. It failed to consolidate democracy, write a constitution or hold national elections. Independent militias, well armed from the uprising against Gaddafi, operated with little regard for the national government or the national army, exercising control over territories. Regional and tribal alliances remained strong. The central government of the unelected National Transitional Council was largely paralyzed domestically, although it received enthusiastic international support.
In July, the country held elections for a General National Assembly, which will act as a government until national elections and oversee writing a constitution. Initial news from the election seemed positive for the United States: the liberals under ex-interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril won the most seats in the Assembly. However, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly moved to unite the opposition to counter the liberals. No bloc succeeded in gaining or organizing a majority, so most of the members of the 200-member body are independents, with regional or tribal affiliations.
This lack of any overarching ideology means that decision- making in the Assembly will be difficult at best.
The Assembly dismissed Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur in early October, after he failed to form a cabinet to run the country. He was replaced by Ali Zeidan. Ten days later, Mr. Zeidan has failed to put together a cabinet, raising questions about how long he will remain in his position. The country has not even started the process of writing a constitution, which it must complete before holding elections.
The government has failed to disband the militias, Salafist militants attacked the US consulate, and violence is a serious problem in the country. Despite oil wealth, investors are hesitant to jump into Libya because of the political uncertainty and violence.
Although the country continues its march toward democracy, it is incredibly slow, with numerous landmines along the way, which could completely derail the process.
Syria has quickly devolved into a bottomless quagmire. The pro-democracy demonstrators, who first started agitating for change, wanted to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power, but with some reforms. Assad responded to the protests with violence against the demonstrators, sparking an all-out rebellion against the repressive regime.
The situation in Syria is confused by the fact that there are several opposition groups fighting Assad, which claim to be the legitimate opposition. The groups do not work together and do not share the same goals beyond removing Assad. They frequently bicker and overtly disrespect each other.
Moreover, the fighters inside Syria have resorted to human rights abuses against prisoners that make many wary of the likelihood they would protect the rights of minorities – especially Assad’s Alawite sect – if they came to power. Further complicating the issues is the fact that jihadists have poured into Syria to help overthrow Assad.
There is a military stalemate in Syria, with both sides set on a military victory and neither side winning the upper hand. This creates a situation of more bloodshed, more deaths and more destruction.
What would a post-Assad government look like? Would Assad’s departure create a power vacuum? Would Islamists, who are currently garnering still more weapons from the fighting, be positioned to take over the country? Would the disparate opposition groups fight each other for the country?
Additionally, the country has been decimated by the heavy fighting, ruining the financial centers and the infrastructure, which will require huge investments to rebuild.
More than 7,500 people have died in Syria’s uprising. How many more would die if foreign countries provided military support to the rebels?
Hosni Mubarak was a brutal dictator, who ruled Egypt for 30 years. He ruled the country with an iron fist and jailed dissidents and detractors.
Mubarak was also pro-Western, friendly toward the United States and fiercely afraid of Islamists. Because of this fear, Mubarak officially banned the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, although it continued to operate and gain influence. Its spreading power prompted Mubarak to ban any religious-based political party.
After Egypt’s revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood swept into power by winning both parliament and the presidency. That victory was short-lived, however, when the Constitutional Court voided the parliamentary election and dissolved parliament. Mohammed Morsi, who won a very close run-off presidential election, resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party after taking office in a unsuccessful effort to heal the country.
The country has not yet scheduled new elections, but plans to hold them after an Assembly writes a constitution. That document, although not officially released, is already causing major debate over the amount of Sharia Islamic law that will rule Egypt.
As of right now, there is a possibility that once-secular Egypt will have a Muslim Brotherhood President, a parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and a constitution based on Islamic law.
Meanwhile, Egypt is suffering from soaring unemployment, a potential balance of payments crisis, and rifts between Islamists and secularists. Even soccer teams marched on the presidential palace last week to protest the suspension of the premier league season.
Morsi, meanwhile, has failed to make major domestic improvements or move the country toward democracy. He has visited Iran, condemned the Assad government and expressed support for an independent Palestinian State.
The question on all of this is where it leaves the United States. How do we as a country support democracy and stability or protect our interests while respecting each country’s right to self-determination? How do we encourage rights for all people, protect minorities and ensure a world free of tyranny?
Perhaps the more basic question is whether it is even our job; when do we act and when do we observe and what is the right approach to take in world affairs?
Some analysts like to compare running the country with running a corporation. The reality is there are vast differences between the job of President and almost any other job.
No other position decides foreign policy. Making good foreign policy decisions requires excellent intelligence, strong advisors and intuition.
Foreign policy involves far more than candidates can present in a debate while posing for cameras. Armchair foreign policy pontificating is easy. Making real world decisions that impact real people, real countries, real families, real cultures, is a very different situation. It is, as an understatement, not easy.
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