Utilizing ‘smart power’

Most in the media are again asking the wrong question about whether President Obama’s foreign policy successes will matter in the 2012 election. That line of thinking ignores the fact that “honest and trustworthy,” “shares my values,” along with likability, are key sentiments on which voters base their electoral decisions. Foreign policy is the one area where the American people have a mostly unobstructed view of Obama and what is possible, because it’s the one place Republicans can’t obstruct. Therefore the question that will matter most as Americans compare two very different visions of America’s role in the world and what that means for us here at home is: What do these foreign policy successes tell us about President Obama as a leader?

After 10 years of war, a doctrine of pre-emption and “go-it alone,” Americans are acutely familiar with the cost of a president’s incompetent foreign policy. As our fears were stoked and our sense of pride manipulated with “Mission Accomplished” banners, for a time we were distracted from the tanking American economy. Many of the same Republicans in Congress now attacking Obama (as they praise the French and British) actively supported the Bush strategy of hiding the actual costs of war by treating those expenses as emergency, “as needed” spending, thus sidestepping the normal budget process. Under Obama and congressional Democrats, we have a more honest “on budget” picture, inclusive of the costs abroad and care for our wounded when they return home.

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As the Arab Spring has unfolded, the Obama administration’s policy reflects the reality of our economic situation, our security interests in the region and the significant cultural, political and religious complexity within each country. That understanding, and the work done over the previous two years to repair America’s diplomatic relationships, enabled America to lead an unprecedented multilateral effort that has resulted in victory for the Libyan people. At the same time, Obama never took his eye off the ball when it came to his promise to get Osama bin Laden and bring troops out of Iraq in accordance with agreements signed by President Bush.

Obama has also understood that while America must continue to be engaged on the world stage, protecting our security and economic interests requires a new way of thinking, utilizing “smart power,” leaving more resources — financial and human — to invest here at home. In 2007 alone, the Iraq war cost to U.S. taxpayers was $137.6 billion — money that could have been used to provide more than 39 million people with healthcare or built more than 1 million units of affordable housing.

A closer look at the numbers says it all. In a recent memo, American Priorities compared the costs of taking down evil dictators in Libya and Iraq under Obama versus the GOP approach. (It goes without saying that our military, diplomatic, intelligence and foreign-service teams, as well as the Iraqi and Libyan people, deserve tremendous credit.) While Libya cost American taxpayers about $1 billion, Iraq is currently estimated to be $1.9 trillion; Libya has not cost a single American life, while we’ve lost more than 4,400 brave Americans in Iraq; Libya took about seven months, as compared to eight and a half years in Iraq. Cowboy diplomacy alienated many of our longstanding allies; in Libya, the U.S. gained respect around the world and gratitude from the Libyan people. And as it rebuilds, Libya has the resources to repay our costs and create business opportunity and jobs for American companies.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.