From Strength to Strength

Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie have it all wrong. Americans believe in President Barack Obama’s foreign policy competence -- and picking a fight just makes the GOP candidates look lame.

Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie's recent article in Foreign Policy urges the Republican presidential aspirants to attack President Barack Obama more vigorously on his national security record. It's a debate that the president and Democrats should welcome.

At the outset, leave aside the source of the counsel -- listening to top aides to President George W. Bush proffer advice on foreign policy is a bit like hearing Mrs. O'Leary and her cow lecture about urban planning, after they've burned down Chicago.

The real problem with their advice is that it badly misreads both the president's record and how the public assesses it. Americans may be sharply polarized on many issues, but they are relatively aligned on their confidence in Obama as commander in chief. Over 60 percent approve of the job Obama is doing handling terrorism -- and this was true even before the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. According to a February ABC/Washington Post survey, voters trust Obama to handle international affairs more than the Republican Party's likely standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, by an outsized 19-point margin.

What explains these strong ratings?

Historically, Americans are fairly non-ideological on foreign policy. Above all, they want results, and that is what Obama has produced.

Bin Laden is dead, along with 22 of al Qaeda's other top 30 leaders, including Anwar al-Awlaki, who encouraged Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of killing U.S. soldiers at Fort Hood. Obama ended America's war in Iraq, as he pledged, while waging the war in Afghanistan with far greater focus and intensity, enabling the United States to plan for a handover to Afghanistan's own security forces.

The president skillfully supported the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring and helped build a NATO-led force that put an end to Muammar al-Qaddafi's dictatorship. Squarely recognizing the danger Iran's nuclear program poses -- to the United States, Israel, and the entire Middle East -- Obama has persistently worked to put in place the toughest-ever international sanctions on Iran, significantly undercutting Tehran's economic resources and its ability to build nuclear weapons, while also being clear that he is leaving all options, including the use of force, on the table.

Even as military spending falls with the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is ensuring America's military strength remains unrivaled, increasing support for veterans and their families, and using precision drones, Navy SEALs, and other special operations forces to sustain the U.S. military edge against diverse new threats around the globe.

Reliance on foreign oil is at a 16-year low, making it harder for oil producers in the Middle East or elsewhere to hold U.S. foreign policy hostage. And America's image abroad has bounced back from the historic lows it reached under Bush. In declaring America "the one indispensable nation in world affairs," Obama has refuted any notion that he is a declinist or apologist for American strength and leadership.

How voters feel about America's standing in the world is ultimately linked to the strength of the economy, and Obama also has scored accomplishments abroad that should help the economic recovery gain strength. In particular, his administration has reached new trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, which will help expand U.S. exports, while also belying the Republican portrayal of him as a protectionist. Certainly, many voters remain angry that the administration has not done more about China and its trade practices, though Obama will be able to point to an aggressive record of filing trade cases against China in the World Trade Organization.

Given such accomplishments, the Republican candidates' attacks against Obama on national security are likely to have limited resonance. In January and February, our firm and the centrist think tank Third Way conducted focus groups on national security with swing voters in two electoral battleground areas, Cincinnati and Tampa. Like voters nationally, this group was about evenly split on which party does better on foreign policy; many had real qualms about Democrats generically on these issues, due to what they saw as missteps by some past Democratic administrations. But their view of Obama was markedly different and better.

In our focus groups, the swing voters give Obama strong marks not only for what he accomplished abroad, but also how: for assembling a strong, bipartisan national security team, with figures like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates; listening carefully to the counsel of his military advisors; sorting out complex intelligence, as in the bin Laden raid; working through NATO and other alliances when he can, but not hesitating to act alone -- as in ordering the two rescues of Americans from the hands of Somali pirates -- when needed.

We tested arguments that Rove and Gillespie insist will work against Obama -- that he is cutting defense too deeply or doesn't believe in American strength and leadership -- and they generally fell flat. Indeed, after hearing a balanced set of national security arguments from Obama and the Republican candidates, these participants by a three-to-one margin feel Obama has the better case. The main reason is that the president's record speaks for itself. As one older woman in Tampa said about Obama, "He has done a lot.… He has proven himself." And when it came to Obama on national security, these middle-of-the-road voters repeatedly use the phrase "pleasantly surprised."

But the Republican candidates aren't only struggling against Obama's solid national security record. They also face two other obstacles of their own making.

The first is the disastrous legacy of the Bush administration, which has cut deeply into the GOP's historical image as the party of national security. Voters in our groups continue to criticize Bush for taking the United States to war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, for mismanaging the war once he started it, and for a general sense of "arrogance in the world," as a Cincinnati man put it. In part because of that Bush record, when these voters hear statements from Mitt Romney or the other Republican contenders calling for a more bellicose approach abroad, such as in Iran, many of them worry that another Republican president would disregard facts, underuse diplomacy, be "trigger happy," and mire the United States in another avoidable and expensive war. Only the most die-hard Republican primary voters seem to be looking for a return to the Bush foreign-policy playbook.

Second, when it comes to national security, Republicans are struggling with incoherence and deep divisions among their own candidates. Romney calls for a huge expansion of U.S. military forces and spending, while Ron Paul calls for giving up virtually all of America's military bases abroad. Various Republican contenders criticize Obama for winding down the war in Afghanistan (and the one in Iraq), but none has offered a plan for how to achieve a better outcome.

Rove and Gillespie are right on one point, though. Even at a time when voters are chiefly concerned about the state of the economy, foreign policy will still play a big role in the coming presidential contest. Americans know that the world remains dangerous, that the terrorist threat remains, and that U.S. efforts abroad do much to shape opportunities at home.

That's precisely why the president -- along with the rest of the Democratic Party -- should welcome a fight over national security and foreign policy in this year's campaign. Given Obama's record and deep doubts about the competence of the GOP candidates, what used to be Republican terrain is now an area of growing Democratic strength.

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The Diaspora's Conscience

Does the National Iranian American Council have a moral obligation to speak out against the ayatollahs?

In the epic poem The Book of Kings, the 11th-century Iranian bard Ferdowsi warns of how "Unrighteous thought and the turn of days / Combine to seal one's fate." Ferdowsi's verse expresses the ethical injunction, deeply ingrained in Persian culture, to speak truthfully in times of personal and collective crisis. Today, as the clerical regime in Tehran grows ever more repressive at home and defiant abroad, Iranian-Americans have a special responsibility to speak out clearly on the moral stakes at the heart of the U.S.-Iran conflict.

Unfortunately, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) -- the most visible organization claiming to represent the community -- has never fulfilled this duty. By cynically exploiting Iranian-Americans' deepest fears and by misrepresenting the community's true aspirations, NIAC promotes an Iran policy agenda that shortchanges both Iranians and Americans.

Consider NIAC research director Reza Marashi's recent Foreign Policy article explaining why Iranian-Americans, in contrast with their Iraqi counterparts, are "so keen on dialogue with the mullahs who rule Iran." The first thing to note about this argument is that it is based on false premises. Reflecting on his own limited personal experiences, Marashi argues that though they "deeply resent the Iranian regime, [Iranian-Americans] prefer U.S. policies that emphasize engagement and de-escalation."

Widely available survey data belie these anecdotal findings. A 2011 Zogby poll commissioned by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), a nonpartisan organization that refrains from taking positions on foreign-policy issues, asked Iranian-Americans to identify their two top priorities for U.S. policy toward Iran. An overwhelming majority (63 percent) chose "promotion of human rights and democracy," while 30 percent chose "promoting regime change." In contrast, only 14 percent identified "preventing an American military strike against Iran" as one of their top two priorities. Yet Marashi and his NIAC colleagues have spent most of the last decade raising funds by instilling anxiety among members about the latter.

Marashi also distorts Iranian-Americans' ultimate vision for their homeland, claiming that they "strongly prefer to use the rule of law to alter … the Iranian government's behavior." Marashi's clever choice of words here masks the reality on the ground in Iran, where there is no rule of law as such to accommodate meaningful reforms. As Marashi himself concedes, opposition figures within the Iranian establishment repeatedly sought, throughout the 1990s and during the 2009 presidential election, to liberalize the regime. They failed. Perhaps that's why the Zogby/PAAIA poll found that 67 percent believe that "Iran should be a secular democracy," while only 6 percent believe that "any form of an 'Islamic Republic' would work well in Iran."

To suppress Iranian-Americans' overwhelming appetite for fundamental change in Iran, Marashi resorts to scaremongering. Evoking "the ghosts of America's neoconservative past," he predicts the rise of a new generation of Ahmed Chalabi-style exile politicians eager to lead "foreign armies into the motherland." Marashi thus frames the hundreds of thousands of Iranian-Americans who prefer a more robust U.S. policy toward the Khomeinist regime as national turncoats and opportunists. These smear tactics reveal Marashi's lack of moral imagination. Rather than pursuing policies that would empower a generation of Iranian (and Iranian-American) Vaclav Havels and Aung San Suu Kyis, he is bent on intimidating the community.

NIAC's own political vision is decidedly ayatollah-friendly. Since its founding in 2002, NIAC has consistently endeavored to shield the Iranian regime from Western sanctions and other forms of pressure. Prior to the 2009 post-election uprising, for example, NIAC rarely spoke out on the issue of human rights in Iran and, indeed, repeatedly sought to defund U.S. government programs for promoting democratization there.

Asked at a Middle East Policy Council forum in 2008 about the organization's reluctance to address human rights issues, NIAC President Trita Parsi responded: "NIAC is not a human rights organization. That's not our expertise." NIAC also notably opposed listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps -- the military force that created Hezbollah and is the central lever in the mullahs' vast repressive apparatus -- as a foreign terrorist organization.

Today, the organization continues to advocate against sanctions capable of shifting the mullahs' nuclear calculus. Any significant red lines and credible U.S. deterrents backing them, its leaders insist, are counterproductive to peaceful coexistence with the regime. What's more, NIAC immediately smears any Iranian-Americans who dare to publicly diverge from its line as "neoconservative" warmongers and supporters of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, the bizarre terrorist cult that helped lead the 1979 uprising against the shah but was violently crushed by Khomeinist forces in the revolution's aftermath.

Yet, as the recent signing of broad-based U.S. sanctions on Iran's banking sector and the imposition of a European oil embargo demonstrate, the international community is coming around to the view held by the vast majority of Iranian-Americans all along: There is no peaceful coexistence with the repressive theocrats. NIAC has utterly failed to advance its legislative objectives; the U.S. Senate vote on sanctioning Iran's central bank passed 100-to-0, over NIAC's vociferous opposition. Despite remarkable access to the media, NIAC is an increasingly unrepresentative voice of the Iranian-American community.

As self-appointed ombudsmen, Marashi and his colleagues have a duty to reflect the actual values of their constituents. The statistics are clear: Iranians in the diaspora seek not to substitute President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government with a slightly more accountable one, but to uproot the current theocratic regime in its entirety. Iranian-Americans, sophisticated as they are, may differ on how exactly to achieve that aim. But no amount of obfuscation and alarmism will alter the will of the community. At this eleventh hour, NIAC's leaders must change course rather than drive their organization into further irrelevance.

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