Peter Feaver calls on Republican candidates to make better foreign policy criticisms:
Republicans must come to terms with the fact that this will be the strongest Democrat incumbent on national security and foreign policy they have faced in decades. This has more than a whiff of damnation with faint praise, since both President Clinton and especially President Carter were hobbled with substantial national security baggage during their reelection campaign. But for precisely that reason, I think Republicans have sometimes settled for an intellectually lazy critique because, given how weak the opposing party’s record is, that seems to have sufficed.
Feaver is partly right about this. National security and foreign policy are not political liabilities for Obama. Obama’s approval on these issues has always been fairly high. As hard as it is for hard-liners to grasp, Obama’s biggest vulnerabilities on foreign policy are the overseas wars that he has escalated or started, and the likely Republican nominee is in no position to attack him on Afghanistan or Libya (and most of the public has already forgotten about Libya even though they were against it). My guess is that most hawkish Republicans will not accept Feaver’s statement of fact. For one thing, they have spent the last three years inventing a mythical Obama foreign policy with little or no relation to what he has done in the hopes that they can portray Obama as the new Jimmy Carter c. 1980, and many of them seem to have convinced themselves that their myth is reality. This has made them a virtually useless opposition party when they were needed to provide coherent criticisms of Obama’s mistakes, and now it will likely make their election-year attacks fall flat as well.
I’m not sure that it’s true that Clinton’s re-election bid was hobbled by “substantial national security baggage.” I disliked Clinton’s foreign interventions at the time, and many Republicans and conservatives were unenthusiastic about the interventions in Haiti and Bosnia, but as I recall the main criticism that Dole used in the ’96 campaign was that Clinton conducted an “ad hoc foreign policy.” This was not a very powerful criticism then, and it obviously didn’t create many doubts about Clinton’s record among persuadable voters. Even if Clinton had vulnerabilities because of foreign policy, Dole was poorly suited to exploit them, since Dole was largely in agreement with most of Clinton’s major decisions.
What does Feaver recommend as a smarter, sharper foreign policy criticism of Obama? Prepare to be underwhelmed:
Obama’s foreign policy successes have come when he has followed Bush policies; his failures have come when he has struck out on his own.
This is an argument that flatters Republicans committed to defending Bush’s legacy, but it’s not clear that there is any more truth to it than there is to the other attacks. This is admittedly a more subtle attack than saying that Obama is a weak appeaser, but it is not less intellectually lazy. It is nothing more than saying, “We’re always right, you’re always wrong, except when you agree with us.” That’s a slogan, and not a very interesting one. It’s also not true that all Obama initiatives have failed. I don’t think there are many votes that will be decided by arms control agreements or improved relations with Russia, for example, but the fact that Republicans have opposed these initiatives doesn’t make them failures. A fair criticism of administration policy towards Pakistan would say that it has contributed to making Pakistan more unstable than it was before, but that is hardly an endorsement of Bush-era neglect.
There has been a great deal of continuity between Bush and Obama policies. Inasmuch as the public still dislikes Bush, this could be a problem for Obama with voters that expected more significant policy changes. It could create problems for Obama on those issues where his supporters expected specific actions and Obama has failed to deliver. On the other hand, drawing attention to continuity in policy also shields Obama from attacks that he has simply governed according to an “anything but Bush” principle. Bush loyalists can tell themselves that Obama has vindicated many of the previous administration’s decisions, but that still isn’t going to benefit the Republican nominee.