How Foreign Policy Came to Matter in This Election

The race was supposed to be all about jobs, jobs, jobs. What happened?

It was not supposed to be this way. Foreign policy was not supposed to matter in this election. Not only were the American people primarily concerned about their economic futures, but the president of the United States was, not too long ago, seen as having such a solid foreign-policy record that it seemed implausible Republicans could do much damage to him on that front. After all, the president was the hero who gave the order that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.

GM was alive. Bin Laden was dead. Game over. It all seemed so simple.

But somewhere en route to Monday night's foreign-policy debate, the conventional wisdom landed squarely on its behind. Three factors drove this unceremonious upending of pundit expectations. (Which included my own. See here for my own timely "Dewey Defeats Truman" assertion that this race was over weeks ago. It was published so close to the instant that it was no longer true that physicists have concluded the only way to produce something with a shorter half-life would require use of the linear accelerator at CERN in Switzerland.)

One reason the conventional wisdom became unstuck was the president's lackluster performance in the first debate. Had Obama won the debate easily, given his lead in the polls at the time, GOP leaders might have started to distance themselves from their nominee, focus on House and Senate races, and start planning long romantic dinners with Marco Rubio or potentially even longer ones with Chris Christie with an eye to 2016. And the two remaining debates -- including the foreign-policy debate -- would have mattered less.

Another reason foreign policy and Monday's debate came to matter more was that the conventional wisdom about foreign policy not mattering in debates is one of the great indefensible canards of cable TV-grade political analysis. Forget what the polls say: Foreign policy has been centrally important to almost every election of the past 40 years in the United States. See Vietnam, Ford's Poland gaffe, the Iran hostage crisis, the centrality of Cold War victory to Reagan's "Morning in America," the end of the Cold War, the "great sucking sound," the "War on Terror," and getting out of Iraq as examples.

But the biggest reason Monday's debate is going to matter is that over the past few weeks, the tide of international events has turned against the president. At first, it seemed Mitt Romney would assist Obama in bucking that tide. Late in the summer, his Global Gaffe Tour distracted from bad news on Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, the international economy, and elsewhere. When the attack in Benghazi first took place, Romney stepped on it with an ill-considered, badly timed critique that came out roughly as America was learning that its envoy to Libya and three others had been murdered.  Had Romney simply remained silent, Benghazi would have been a blot on the president's record.

But turnabout is fair play. And the Obama administration returned the favor to Romney by mishandling the communications surrounding the Benghazi incident in such a way that it kept it alive. Their decision to stick to the story that the deaths resulted from protests associated with the offensive anti-Muslim video that circulated on YouTube and provoked protests elsewhere -- even after compelling evidence emerged that the attacks were anticipated and had nothing to do with the video -- kept the story alive. This opened the door to further scrutiny of embassy security or rather, the lack thereof. But it also did something much more damaging. It re-opened the issue of national security competence that the Obama administration thought was closed.

In fact, the Benghazi story proved damaging in multiple ways. First, it was not well handled, and it revealed operational errors of judgment. But next, it poked holes in two core Obama foreign-policy narratives. The first was that the Libya intervention was a success for American policy. Under the glare of the media spotlight, Libya's post-Qaddafi reality looks a lot like chaos. The Benghazi violence also underscored the roiling instability of the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, resonating with continuing problems from Egypt to Syria to Yemen, and allowed the GOP to fairly ask whether Obama's response to the biggest geopolitical challenge of his time in office had been as adequate as his administration claims.

The worst consequence of Benghazi for Obama's campaign, however, was the fact that on the anniversary of 9/11, another terrorist attack took more American lives, possibly an attack that had an al Qaeda component to it. This cast in a new and unsettling light the primary foreign-policy argument Obama had to offer: He had not only killed Osama but in doing so he had made big strides in reducing the terrorist threat to America. Bin Laden may have been dead, but al Qaeda and likeminded extremists are not, and troubling stories throughout the region -- from Taliban attacks against innocents and American troops to al Qaeda activity in Yemen, infiltration in Syria, and Hezbollah drone probes of Israel -- suggested that new threats were emerging.

Benghazi was thus not just an attack on American diplomats or the United States, it also shook the foundations of Obama's argument that he was competently and safely getting America out of the Middle East.

So here we are: Not only is Romney back in the polls, not only has the foreign-policy debate gained significance because it is the last big chance for the candidates to speak directly to an almost evenly divided American electorate, but all of sudden Obama looks vulnerable on foreign policy, his supposed strength. Is he the guy who got America's public enemy No. 1, or is he a guy who just wants out of the Middle East at any cost?

Is he the author of an Obama doctrine that's more effective than anything the last GOP administration came out with, or are we now seeing hints that his approach may unleash regionwide conflagration and losses for our allies and our standing? Does he deserve credit for engineering crushing sanctions against Iran while avoiding letting the United States be drawn into another war in the region, or has he ceded the Iranians more time while bumbling diplomacy, most recently the conveniently timed but confusingly disavowed leak of "news" about "progress" on initiating direct U.S.-Iranian talks after the election.

All of a sudden, foreign policy is central to this campaign. If Romney can maintain his momentum, look statesmanlike, avoid gaffes and make the case that Obama has not, as advertised, made America safer, he can get a bounce from this debate that may give him insurmountable momentum leading up to Nov. 6. If, on the other hand, Obama can both re-establish that he kept the foreign-policy promises that he was elected to fulfill and paint Romney as an amateur whose policies are nothing more than a testosterone-addled longing for four more years of Bush-Cheney-ism, then perhaps the president can reverse the slide in his fortunes that began during that first debate.

In the end, voters may vote their wallets. But they will also do as they always do and vote character and leadership and hope for America's future. The foreign-policy debate will provide a crucible in which those aspects of the candidates will be tested, established, or undone. As a consequence, it could well prove to be one of the decisive moments in recent U.S. political history. And just because a guy who said the election was over three weeks ago said it doesn't mean it isn't true.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

An Army of One

How Malala can lead where America could not.

Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan achieved the near impossible over the weekend. In fact, he did it twice in a single statement. First, he actually made it possible to sympathize for at least one fleeting moment with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. Second, with a single ham-fisted grab at publicity, he distracted from the remarkable story of the reaction of both his country and the world to the Taliban's craven attempt to murder 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the courageous young activist who had the courage to speak out against Taliban efforts to repress education for girls.

Following a visit to the hospital in which Malala was clinging to life -- a clear attempt to tap into the widespread concern throughout Pakistan for the girl's fate -- Khan used the occasion to justify the Taliban's activities in Afghanistan as a legitimate "jihad."

"Whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad," the Guardian quotes Khan saying in what is apparently a line from the Quran. "The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad."

The Afghan Foreign Ministry immediately condemned the comments. Why Khan would choose that particular moment to defend Taliban activities raises profound questions about the judgment of this man who clearly harbors ambitions to lead his country someday. Worse, it resonates in uncomfortable ways with his prior refusal to cite the Taliban by name as Malala's attackers, allegedly for fear that to do so would put his supporters at risk.

Elsewhere, Malala's plight has produced a stunning worldwide reaction that culminated this weekend in an effort involving cooperation between the Pakistani, , British, and UAE governments to have her transferred to a specialized care facility in England. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis rallied Sunday in Karachi to protest her shooting and to show their support for Malala and her cause. Local clerics declared the attack on her as "un-Islamic."

"The attempt on Malala's life was not only an attack on a defenseless child, it was an attack on her and every girl's right to a future unlimited by prejudice and oppression. Her assailants must be universally denounced and brought to justice. Malala bravely confronted extremists in their attempts to ban girls from attending school. We must all stand with Malala in promoting tolerance and respect," said Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in a press release issued by his government.

In an article in the Daily Beast, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leading a global effort to promote education for girls, wrote, "The words ‘I am Malala' -- seen on T-shirts, placards, and websites -- have been adopted by young people everywhere, boldly challenging the Taliban and affirming the right of every single girl to education."

A Pakistani journalist named Owais Tohid offered a glimpse into why Malala has become such a galvanizing figure in an article in the Christian Science Monitor late last week. He met with her to discuss her protests against the Taliban efforts to suppress girls' education in the Swat Valley as well as her (at the time) anonymous blog postings about the violence she was seeing all around her. "I wanted to scream," she told him, "shout and tell the whole world what we were going through. But it was not possible. The Taliban would have killed me, my father, my whole family. I would have died without leaving any mark. So I chose to write with a different name. And it worked as my valley has been freed."

Inadvertently, of course, Khan's reprehensible remarks underscored Malala's power and the wave of support she is triggering. "Whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad" clearly applies more directly to the young woman in intensive care than it does to the Taliban thugs who have twisted Islam to justify violence and repression -- whether in the Swat Valley or Afghanistan.

It also resonates uncomfortably with the discussion of America's involvement in the region that resurfaced again during last week's vice presidential debate. Whatever the strengths of his impassioned performance, Vice President Joe Biden underscored the tragic emptiness of America's involvement in Afghanistan when he emphasized that the United States would be leaving by 2014 no matter what. It seemed to say that the U.S. goal there was to get out regardless of the consequences. No matter that the government America leaves behind is weak and corrupt, and the Afghan forces we have trained are unlikely to vouchsafe any true security to that country: We are going, despite more than 2,000 lives lost and hundreds of billions of dollars spent -- and with little to show for the effort beyond the heads of Osama bin Laden and a few of his henchmen. The Taliban know this and are just biding their time. Although their resurgence will be a bad development for Afghanistan, it will almost certainly be much worse for its women.

Leaving is not our mistake. The U.S. military should have left long ago. We should only have gone in to seek out and kill the perpetrators and enablers of the 9/11 attacks. We should not have gotten sucked into the hopeless job of nation-building in a mountainous, land-locked country thousands of miles away. But we did, and so the bigger question in Afghanistan and Pakistan and throughout the greater Middle East is "What now?" What should America's policies be in the wake of our failures in this fractured, unsettled part of the world? What should our policies be if we have no more appetite for wars?

Strangely, these questions have yet to arise in the debates. Instead we have a simplistic, dueling-bumper sticker conversation about how to be stronger and tougher and which way we can kill more bad guys, fly our flag higher. From Tunisia to Pakistan, this a region in the midst of the most profound kind of upheaval, and yet we have no new thinking, no coherent policy that can be communicated to the American people or the world. As one Arab diplomat observed to me last week, other than National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, he wouldn't know who to call if he wanted to reach someone senior in the U.S. government who wakes up each day with the sole responsibility of addressing these complex, interlinked problems.

But perhaps there is an answer in that. Of course, the United States will have to be involved. We will continue to have to strike out against bad actors that threaten us periodically, and we should certainly seek to use our economic and diplomatic clout as best we can to support those in the region who share our goals. But perhaps the lesson of Malala and the response to her is much like the lesson of Neda, the symbolic martyr of Iran's Green Revolution, much like the lesson of the youth leaders in Tahrir Square -- and yes, despite often very different political agendas and philosophies, much like the lessons of the UAE leaders sending that airborne ambulance to Pakistan or the Gulf countries acting together with Turkey against Assad in Syria.

Perhaps the answer to that Arab diplomat's question is: Why are you calling us? Maybe it's time to realize that the answers to the problems of these interconnected states, regions, and peoples will and can only be written by them. These won't be exactly the transformations we might have hoped for, or even the ones the people of the region need most. They won't be tidy. And they will contain big reversals. But only homegrown changes will ever take root. And despite all the evidence that entrenched forces of corruption, intolerance, and violence remain widely in place, we also have to acknowledge that the Malalas are proliferating, gaining strength, and shaping the debate in ways that hitherto we would have thought would be impossible.

We in the West can support them. Even as our troops leave Afghanistan it is critical we do not shirk such responsibilities. Indeed, the highest honor we can pay our troops is to do what we can to support efforts on behalf of the women of the region, on behalf of education, on behalf of tolerance, on behalf of the creation of real, home-grown opportunity for all. And, we must acknowledge that there are some ways in which even our well-intentioned support or intervention might set matters back. We will have to be strategic, patient, and tolerant of the uneven nature of the progress involved. We must find trusted allies among activists and the more moderate leaders of the region and weave together a new alliance not led by foreign powers, but supported by them.

But we also must acknowledge that Malala and Neda and the thousands in Tahrir or in Karachi Sunday have done more to change this part of the world for the better than our trillions and our sacrifices and the collective armed forces of our various alliances could hope to muster. If we take away that lesson, then not only will our efforts not entirely have been in vain, but the future of this troubled region may be just a little brighter than before.