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Foreign Policy in the 2012 Election

Philip Klein considers the role of foreign policy in the 2012 election:

At the same time, criticisms of Obama’s handling of international affairs have generally not gained much traction outside of the conservative media or foreign policy establishment.

The lack of a massive, pressing, national security crisis has kept America’s attention on pocketbook issues, and Obama’s image got a boost from his ordering the raid that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

It’s true that Obama’s hostile stance toward Israel likely cost Democrats a congressional seat in New York in a special election this year, but he generally hasn’t suffered politically for any foreign policy decisions.

Even when his approval rating was at its lowest, Obama polled relatively well on foreign policy and national security questions.

Notice that Klein doesn’t mention the wildly unrepresentative nature of the New York seat that was lost in the special election. His description of Obama’s position as “hostile” is also completely false. Klein’s description of some other foreign policy issues is similarly misleading or tendentious. The “mismanaged pullout” from Iraq was fairly well managed as far as U.S. forces were concerned, and Iraq’s deteriorating stability is a testament to the disastrous consequences of the decision to invade Iraq and use it as the subject of a political experiment. Short of keeping a large American presence in Iraq indefinitely (and against the wishes of most Iraqis), it is unclear what this or any other administration could have done that would address these problems. Iran isn’t moving towards a nuclear a weapon, because its government hasn’t decided to build one, so the clock on an Israeli strike isn’t ticking, and the open dissent of leading Israeli security officials on the wisdom of attacking Iran suggests that there won’t be any strike.

There is no effort in the piece to account for why Obama’s handling of foreign policy and national security might poll well. Perhaps the public is aware of the broad outlines of Obama’s foreign policy record and agrees with most of the decisions Obama has made? There is likewise no attempt to explain why “criticisms of Obama’s handling of international affairs” have not gained much traction with the public. Perhaps because most of these criticisms have been as inaccurate and reflexive as Klein’s? One possible vulnerability for Obama is Libya, but it isn’t significant enough to have much impact on the election and Romney won’t be able to attack him for intervening there when Romney was a supporter of the war. Obama’s Libyan war had very little public support, but there were also no American casualties, the fiscal cost was relatively small, and post-war Libya matters as little to most Americans as Libya before the war. Because the U.S. had nothing at stake in Libya, it is difficult to imagine how a post-war Libya will matter very much to the U.S. under its new government.

On the main foreign policy issue with which Obama is identified, which is bringing the Iraq war to a formal end and taking U.S. forces out of Iraq, he has the support of the vast majority of the public. He is likely going to be able to campaign on achieving the same result in Afghanistan in his second term, and Romney will be firmly opposed to any scheduled withdrawal, which will put Obama closer to what the majority of the public desires than his opponent. To the extent that foreign policy does matter in the 2012 election, it is unlikely to work in favor of the Republican nominee, so Republicans should hope that foreign policy is irrelevant next year.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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