Foreign Policy and the 2012 Elections


Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia.  

Although the 2012 presidential campaign's focus has primarily been on the domestic economy, crises around the world could escalate and move foreign policy to the center of discussion.

AAM sits down with Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress to discuss foreign policy issues coming up in 2012, the Obama administration's record and the Republican critique.


Excerpts from the interview

AAM: The focus for the next presidential election has been primarily on the domestic economy with international issues lagging far behind. Do you think this is good or bad news for Obama who receives much higher ratings for his handling of international affairs than on domestic issues?

BRIAN KATULIS: I think it's good news for the country because it demonstrates that Pres. Obama has performed quite well on foreign policy and is perceived to have done a pretty good job on this. I think in terms of our national debate, it cuts both ways. On the positive side, I think we're likely to have a less politicized election on national security than we did say in 2002, or 2004 or in 2006. Those were elections in which foreign policy issues like Iraq or the war on terror really became deeply partisan issues that were very divisive. I think we may avoid that though there will be politicking on this.

AAM: Mitt Romney seems to be the likely Republican presidential candidate. He's cultivated the perception that he would be a steady and expansive leader with a consistent vision for America. What is his vision for foreign policy?

BRIAN KATULIS: In my view, he's got a lot of rhetoric on foreign policy and a couple of good ideas but he hasn't really clearly distinguished himself from Pres. Obama. When I looked at his speech that he gave in the fall and then [the Romney campaign] put out a white paper, there's a lot of "me-too-ism" when you look at some of the substance of what he's saying. I'll give you an example. Iran will likely to be a very sensitive, difficult and dangerous issue in 2012. If you look at the substance of what he actually says, it's a lot of things that Pres. Obama has already done – in terms of tough sanctions, tough diplomacy, and keeping all of the options on the table.

I think the core of his political critique is that he's going to revive American leadership around the world. He wrote a book called No Apologies. He accuses Pres. Obama of apologizing for America on a number of things. I think when historians look back on this period and if people look at the record of what the Obama administration has done, he's already done a lot of things that a Pres. Romney proposes he would do. There's been a restoration of some confidence in American leadership. It's not completely back to where it was before the Bush administration, but certainly I think we've taken some serious steps in the right direction.

AAM: Where are we now with Afghanistan and what are the next steps in pursuing talks with the Taliban?

BRIAN KATULIS: On Afghanistan right now we're in a very dangerous phase where I think there's some possibilities of diplomatic openings with some elements of the Taliban. There's still continued instability in the country despite how the United States frames it in terms of some success in the south and in other parts of the country. When you look at 2011, it ended up being the deadliest year for Afghan civilians. If that's a core metric by which counterinsurgency or other sorts of strategies that were applied in Afghanistan are measured, we didn't do very well.

My frustration with our Afghanistan policy is that we've often just focused on the simple numbers of boots on the ground. We haven't talked about the questions of power and how do Afghans share power. What's the proper political process? There's the formal election process which I've seen – I've been to Afghanistan for the elections. Then there's the informal processes of negotiations which have been underway and will continue in various forms…

AAM: Is there a place for the Taliban there?

BRIAN KATULIS: I think there might be a place for certain elements of the Taliban there. The Taliban is a diverse and decentralized movement, even more so after Pres. Obama made the decision to triple our military presence and very aggressively go after some elements of the Taliban. I think the choice is up to those elements of the Taliban because I think the ‘red lines’ of the Afghan government first and foremost and in the international community, including the U.S., have been pretty clear. In the end of any negotiation process, they've got to agree to the Constitution as it now stands. They've got to renounce al-Qaeda and they've got to renounce violence.

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