US Election Foreign Policy Debate: UK Editorials on the Role of the US

Josh Watts, 6 November 2012

Categories: USA | US Elections | Israel | Middle East | Iran |

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In a strongly-worded endorsement for Barack Obama in its pre-election issue, the editors of The New Yorker1 write that the 'flawed and complicated' 'human being', Obama, 'has sometimes struggled to convey the human stakes of the policies he has initiated'. This is undoubtedly relevant in regards to foreign policy. Having come 'into office speaking the language of multilateralism and reconciliation', 'Perhaps inevitably, the President has disappointed some of his most ardent supporters, with some 'question[ing] the morality of the persistent use of predator drones'. Nevertheless, 'Obama has renewed the honor [sic] of the office he holds', and his re-election 'is a matter of great urgency'.

Whatever one makes of The New Yorker's position, foreign policy is a sensible barometer from which to judge candidates, given the ramifications of the actions of the United States, which is, in the words of oppositional Republican candidate Mitt Romney, ‘the hope of the earth’ and which he sees as having ’freed other nations from dictators’.2

Let us, then, look briefly at the pre-election editions of two particular publications in the British media - The Economist and the New Statesman - comparing their content with the words of Obama and Romney on the third and final televised debate that took place on 22 October, centred around foreign policy.

The Use of Drones

President Obama’s foreign policy ‘count[s], on balance, in his favour’, according to the leader in The Economist. Though an ‘aloof, disengaged man [who] is no master diplomat’, he ‘has refocused George Bush’s “war on terror more squarely on terrorists, killing Osama bin Laden, stepping up drone strikes (perhaps too liberally[) . . .] and retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan (in both cases too quickly for our taste)’.3 The editors, clearly, then, favour the use of drone strikes. The New Statesman meanwhile, considered them ‘a form of warfare that is neither just nor efficacious’, pointing out how Obama ‘has vastly expanded the use of predator drones in Pakistan’, though failing to note the use of drones in (for example) Yemen, or exactly why their use is ‘neither just nor efficacious’.4 Perhaps this is down to the repeated civilian deaths resulting from strikes, the violation of the sovereignty of the nations in which they are launched, or the anger and resentment their use inspires. As villages are destroyed, the rule of law disregarded, and innocent lives lost, ‘Pilots of attack drones, sitting in air-cooled bases in Nevada’, exclaims veteran journalist Jonathan Steele, ‘never even touch the terrain on which they kill’.5


In the eyes of the New Statesman, ‘A victory for the Republican candidate . . . would greatly increase the chances of war with Iran’. To the editors of The Economist, ‘Mr Romney seems too ready to bomb Iran’. Given that ‘Mr Romney [must be] decisively rejected’, in the words of the New Statesman, we may interpret the ‘greatly increase[d]’ chances of war with Iran to be a negative prospect. On the contrary, though, Romney being ‘too ready’ to drop bombs on Iran seems to suggest that, as far as The Economist is concerned, there is a time to do so, but the governor simply wants to do so sooner that the editors would prefer. In the final debate, Romney continuously emphasised his belief that Iran was 4 years closer to acquiring a nuclear bomb, adding that he considered such a scenario, ‘the greatest threat that the world faces, the greatest national security threat’.6 In the words of The Economist: ‘Iran has continued its worrying crawl towards nuclear weapons’. In Foreign Affairs we are treated to the thoughts of Dr. Matthew Kroenig, who, from July 2010 to July 2011, ‘was a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in the Department of Defense, where he worked on the development and implementation of U.S. defense policy and strategy in the Middle East’, and whose work ‘as a strategist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’ in 2005 ‘was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Award for Outstanding Achievement’.7 Kroenig, an author and assistant professor of Government at Georgetown University, believes that ‘A nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit freedom of action in the Middle East. With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war, forcing Washington to think twice before acting in the region’.8 This certainly would curtail the United States’ ability to, as Obama remarked, ‘project [its] military power overseas’.9 Kroenig argues for a pre-emptive strike against Iran, and for arming regional allies with nuclear weapons, in order to deter Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb:

[The] security threats [posed by a nuclear-armed Iran] would require Washington to contain Tehran. Yet deterrence would come at a heavy price. To keep the Iranian threat at bay, the United States would need to deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come. Alongside those troops, the United States would have to permanently deploy significant intelligence assets to monitor any attempts by Iran to transfer its nuclear technology. And it would also need to devote perhaps billions of dollars to improving its allies' capability to defend themselves. This might include helping Israel construct submarine-launched ballistic missiles and hardened ballistic missile silos to ensure it that can maintain a secure second-strike capability. Most of all, to make containment credible the United States would need to extend its nuclear umbrella to its partners in the region, pledging to defend them with military force should Iran launch an attack.

Such a prospect is terrifying, and though these instances aren’t discussed within the leaders in question, the significance and potentially catastrophic consequences which could follow such actions outlined by Kroenig, surely merit their inclusion in this commentary. It is worth pointing out also, that others believe that actions by the US are pressuring Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb, in order to deter attacks on it by enemy states, such as the United States and Israel.10 Indeed, both candidates made their position clear (on Iran and the United States’ relationship with Israel). Said Obama:

Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel. ... I will stand with Israel if they are attacked. … [W]e have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history. ... [A]s long as I'm president of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.11

Romney: ‘. . . when I'm President of the United States, we will stand with Israel. And if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily. That's number one. ... [A] nuclear-capable Iran is unacceptable’.12

Two heads of the United Nations humanitarian program in Iraq – Denis Haliday and Hans C. von Sponeck – resigned from their positions in protest at sanctions imposed on the country following the Gulf War, labelling them ‘genocide’.13 The sanctions devastated the society and its infrastructures, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths from, for example, a lack of necessary medical supplies and malnutrition. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote in his memoirs that ‘While the main objective [of the sanctions] was to ensure that Iraq was disarmed of all weapons of mass destruction, the sanctions mostly hurt the people as opposed to the regime’, and ‘Even as sanctions crippled the economy of Iraq and resulted in widespread malnutrition among its children, Saddam’s grip on power was strengthened - as any opposition was weakened and the limited sources of wealth increasingly became concentrate in the hands of regime loyalists’.14 Despite such accounts of the effects of sanctions, neither The Economist nor the New Statesman commented upon sanctions imposed on Iran which have reduced its economy to, in Obama’s words, ‘a shambles’. Furthermore, the president seemed proud of the fact that the sanctions where ‘the strongest sanctions against Iran in history’, which have ‘crippl[ed its] economy’: ‘Their currency has dropped 80 percent. Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in a shambles’.15 For Romney, who ‘would tighten those sanctions’; ‘tighten those sanctions further’:

crippling sanctions are something I called for five years ago, when I was in Israel, speaking at the Herzliya Conference. I laid out seven steps, crippling sanctions were number one. And they do work. You're seeing it right now in the economy. It's absolutely the right thing to do, to have crippling sanctions. I would have put them in place earlier. But it's good that we have them.16

The Middle East

To Romney, ‘what we're seeing’ in the Middle East, following the Arab Spring, and recent developments, ‘is a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region’.17 It is, as he frequently stressed, ‘a region in tumult’ with old clients, such as Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, deposed. Romney wants to see ‘progress throughout the Middle East’ – presumably towards the stability that existed before the Arab Spring.18 Indeed, as Noam Chomsky has described, Western elites would rather maintain a system composed of ‘dependable clients’, who are goaded with ‘advanced weapons provided to them to recycle petrodollars and ensure obedience’, in exchange for an inhibited access to cheap resources, primarily oil.19 The stability of such a system necessitates, as historian Gabriel Kolko has described, ‘the tak[ing of] a stand against every political and economic movement in the world designed not even to revolutionize national societies but merely to shift the distribution of the world’s wealth away from American borders’.20 And as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan remarked, ‘new forces, even if they begin with moderate opinions, always seem to drift into violent revolutionary and strongly anti-Western positions’21 – thereby inhibiting the West’s ‘confident access to raw materials’ (Kolko22). Thus, ‘[t]he general threat’, writes Chomsky, ‘has always been independence’.23 The problem is, Romney says, that ‘we can't kill our way out of this mess’. Chomsky reflects that ‘the world of oil is rarely far in the background’ and ‘provides useful guidelines for Western reactions to the remarkable democracy uprisings in the Arab world’, pointing out how:

An oil-rich dictator who is a reliable client [Gaddafi] is granted virtual free reign. There was little reaction when Saudi Arabia declared on March 5 [2011], “Laws and regulations in the Kingdom totally prohibit all kinds of demonstrations, marches and sit-in protests [and prohibits] calling for them as they go against the principles of Shariah and Saudi customs and traditions.” The kingdom mobilized huge security force that rigorously enforced the ban.

In Kuwait, small demonstrations were crushed. The mailed fist struck in Bahrain after Saudi-led military forces intervened to ensure that the minority Sunni monarchy would not be threatened by calls for democratic reforms by the Shiite majority and others.24

The rehashing of such details highlight the lack of comment – in both The Economist and the New Statesman - on such interpretations of US policy (long documented, meticulously, by commentators such as Chomsky). Rather, to The Economist, certain ‘problems’ – Israel-Palestine; Russia; Iran – ‘could have been anticipated’ whilst ‘The Arab Spring could not’. We may ask if, in this view, the Arab Spring is considered as no more than a ‘problem’. It undoubtedly is in the context of US policy outlined above. Regardless, ‘Mr Obama can point to the ousting of tyrants in Egypt and Libya’, despite the fact that – in a comment presumably intended to add balance to the curious prior assertion - ‘he has followed events rather than shap[ed] them’. If Obama is with one hand pointing to ‘the ousting of tyrants’, is he with the other pointing to aid and acquiescence offered the same tyrants before the uprising?

Latin America

Whatever one makes of what they might consider ‘a monumental inconsistency between America’s practice and what it advocate[s] as acceptable conduct for the rest of the world’ (Gabriel Kolko25), one cannot argue with the assertion that ‘A US which detains and secretly holds legal and illegal aliens suspected of terrorism and imposes a blanket denial of the Geneva Convention rights on its Afghan prisoners in [Guantánamo Bay,] Cuba, loses its moral high ground as an advocate for human rights and democracy in the world’.26 Regardless, though the New Statesman exclaims how ‘Liberals embraced [Obama] as the man who would close Guantánamo’, it notes banally that ‘Four years on form his election, Guantánamo Bay remains open’. The Economist meanwhile makes no mention of the military base. Perhaps the continuing of illegal detentions and torture of unconvinced prisoners in Guantánamo is what the editors consider to be the positive ‘refocus[ing of] George Bush’s “war on terror”’ by President Obama?

Romney comments that ‘30,000 people being killed by their government [in Syria] is a humanitarian disaster’.27 It is worth pointing out that such a humanitarian disaster did not seem an issue to Romney in the early 1980s, when, seeking start-up capital for investment firm Bain Capital, Romney pandered to Salvadoran oligarchs linked to the right-wing death squads rampant in El Salvador, terrorising, torturing and murdering by their tens of thousands, during its civil war.28 Writes Justin Elliot of Salon: ‘[Romney] said [in 1994] that Bain had checked the names of the Bain investors with the U.S. government. Given the policy of the Reagan administration at the time, though, it’s not clear going to the government would have been the most effective vetting mechanism’.29 The United States, it should not need reiterating - in keeping with its policy for the region - played a critical role in the conflict, arming and training the Salvadoran military, and the ‘ultimate outcome’, wrote Gabriel Kolko in 1988, ‘has already become highly predictable’, complete as it was with an all-too familiar ‘cycle of intensifying violence’30. Neither the New Statesman nor The Economist, though, mentioned this startling detail of Romney’s past.


‘In the Middle East,’ write the New Statesman editors, Obama ‘has been consistently outmanoeuvred by Mr [Binyamin] Netanyahu, who, in violation of international law, has continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank’. The Economist did not condemn continuing settlements, commenting instead how Obama has ‘overreached and underdelivered’ with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’. The Economist’s editors comment that Romney is ‘too supportive of Israel’ – again, similar to the drone issue, one wonders if it is perfectly sensible, natural and correct to be ‘supportive’ of Israel, because illegal settlements can – and are - ignored. Perhaps Romney is ‘too’ supportive in the face of an awkward inconsistency between law and action, which is signified by an – unnamed –issue: that is, settlements. The comments by both Obama and Romney regarding Iran are consistently within the context of an attack on Israel, and demonstrate another feature of both candidates, that goes unnoticed by both The Economist and the New Statesman - their approaches towards Israel, both of which, in the face of a greater threat – Iran - are arguably ‘uncritically supportive’ (The Economist). Also absent from both accounts, is the fact that Israel itself is nuclear-armed, with around perhaps 100 warheads, quite possibly more, as John Cassidy points out.31 (This was noted by Mehdi Hasan in the NS - in large part drawing from Cassidy’s article - yet did not merit comment in the leader itself).32

More detail could be delved into, with regards to these, and other comments made by Obama and Romney, and those found in the leaders of The Economist and New Statesman. Regardless, it is clear that much is left out of the articles. Measuring by foreign policy, at least, prospects are both grim and frightening. The New Statesman concludes that ‘Mr Obama stands in a noble liberal tradition’ – one, it should be emphasised, that continues – and increases – the drone war in the Middle East, adding to the operation also, a personal ‘kill list’.33 Such actions are what determine Obama to ‘ha[ve] made a decent fist of foreign policy’, to The Economist, leading it to ‘stick with the devil it knows, and re-elect him’. ‘Every Presidential election involves a contest over the idea of America’ write the editors of The New Yorker, and the election itself – with or without a tilt towards Obama – is most definitely ‘a matter of great urgency’. One can only hope that whatever idea of America emerges from the election is something towards that portrayed by The New Yorker as ‘Obama’s America’ – that is, one of ‘social justice, tolerance, and equality’ – and furthermore, that such values are realised the world over.


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Categories in which this article appears: USA | US Elections | Israel | Middle East | Iran |

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