2016 can wait: Key elections are imminent

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 8, 2014 - 7:13 PM

Obama, GOP need to pay attention to multiple May elections.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prepares to casts his vote at a polling station in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Iraqis braved the threat of bombs and other violence to vote Wednesday in parliamentary elections amid a massive security operation as the country slides deeper into sectarian strife.

Photo: Associated Press,

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Will the Republicans retake the U.S. Senate next November? Can any Democrat, let alone a Republican, beat Hillary Clinton in 2016? The breathless Beltway continues to obsess about future U.S. elections, while Monica Lewinsky reminds us of the past.

Meanwhile, current office holders — and the American public — should instead be paying attention to critical May elections in multiple countries and the European Union. Stronger presidential leadership and foreign policy bipartisanship are imperative.

No vote has more direct bearing on U.S. policy than the one taking place in Afghanistan. President Obama was unable to finalize a bilateral security agreement (BSA) with outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the ostensible ally who has proved unreliable and ungrateful to the Americans who liberated his nation from Taliban rule. The top two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, appear headed for a runoff. Either will be preferable to the corrupt and incompetent Karzai, and each has signaled a willingness to sign a BSA that would clarify the U.S. military role after combat operations cease in December.

The outlook isn’t nearly as good in Iraq, where an inability to sign a status of forces agreement contributed to a security vacuum that has once again been filled by nihilistic, sectarian violence. Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki appears likely to win again, but he’s been unable to unify his nation. The destabilization doesn’t stop at the border, but bleeds into Syria, where President Bashar Assad is also campaigning amid carnage he created.

The Obama administration should have more influence in Egypt, recipient of about $1.5 billion of annual U.S. aid. Yet Obama has been characteristically passive in his response to the increasing authoritarianism of military strongman Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who looks to be the sure winner of Egypt’s presidential election. Ever since a military coup brought him to power, el-Sissi has ruthlessly pursued opponents, be they journalists or Muslim Brotherhood members. Obama should more clearly rebalance U.S. values and interests in post-coup Cairo by more directly challenging el-Sissi to make Egypt a democracy instead of another dictatorship.

India, conversely, is a true democracy — the world’s biggest, in fact. More than 814 million people are eligible to vote for the lower house of Parliament, which will select the next prime minister. There are more than 50 regional parties and two truly national parties, but it’s a two-man race between Rahul Gandhi, heir to a family dynasty that’s dominated the Congress Party (and often India itself), and Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), widely considered a Hindu nationalist party.

Voters seem set to jolt India’s sclerotic economy and politics by picking Modi, who is given high marks for economic development but who cannot get a U.S. visa because he allegedly failed to use his office as chief minister of Gujarat state to effectively protect Muslims during deadly riots in 2002.

Obama’s “pivot” policy to Asia is strategically sound, but mostly focused on Northeast Asia in an attempt to temporize China’s rapid rise. India is a counterbalance to China, too, and Washington should maximize its diplomacy there as well.

To the degree Washington has been focused on foreign policy, it’s been because of Russian aggression in Ukraine. It will be another victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin if he can claim Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election was illegitimate. So the West should do everything in its power to facilitate a free and fair vote, which likely will be won by one of two pro-Western candidates — oligarch Petro Poroshenko or former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Neither is untainted by past allegations of corruption, but both would be decidedly better than Viktor Yanukovych, whose corrupt, Kremlin-friendly rule sparked the protests that have plunged Ukraine — and Europe — into crisis.

The E.U. itself faces a crisis if it doesn’t effectively bolster Ukraine. Yet anti-E.U. sentiment seems to be ascendant in Europe and may affect the upcoming elections. A rightward, xenophobic tilt would further fracture the continent, which might further embolden Putin.

No president could or should try to unduly influence these elections. But Obama’s too-timid leadership does not inspire confidence that the United States is well-positioned to react to the ramifications of this month’s votes. Obama may be reflecting an increasingly inward U.S. electorate with his domestic-focused agenda. But with the world facing unusually perilous conflicts, American leadership is needed. And Republicans in Congress should set aside their reflexive opposition on nearly every issue and look for ways to strengthen Obama’s position on the world stage.

The upcoming U.S. elections do not supersede the more immediate need for a unified U.S. foreign policy.

  • THE U.S. ROLE

    “When you think about the issues that are happening around the world, there is a vacuum created by the perceived falling back of the United States.”

    J. BRIAN ATWOOD, professor and former dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs

    • • •

    “Elections aren’t always going to be a silver bullet or even helpful at a given moment in time.”

    MICHAEL O’HANLON, director of research for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution

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