David Ignatius opened his column yesterday with a curious statement:
President Obama begins his reelection campaign with something almost nobody would have predicted four years ago: a sense of success and political advantage in the foreign-policy areas that have often spelled trouble for Democrats.
I’m not sure that “almost nobody” would have predicted this. Obviously, no one in 2008 knew with certainty what would happen during Obama’s first term, but for the most part his foreign policy turned out to be what Obama presented to the public as a candidate. It has proved to be reasonably popular, because an important part of it has involved disentangling the U.S. from some unnecessary overseas commitments. Obama already had the political advantage on foreign policy back in 2008 (if only by default thanks to McCain), so it isn’t too surprising that he retained it four years later against an even weaker opponent. Obama’s campaign is right to be “almost dismissive” of Romney on foreign policy, provided that they don’t make the mistake of spending too much time dwelling on Romney’s lack of experience. Running on foreign policy is a waste of Romney’s time and can only hurt him, but Obama shouldn’t treat his advantage on this as a crutch or a distraction from what interests most voters.
Obama has been helped in building up his foreign policy advantage enormously by the determined efforts of his Republican opponents to make sure that he is more trusted on foreign policy than they are. Hawkish Republicans have done this by making mostly nonsensical or groundless criticisms while providing no coherent alternative of their own, except perhaps for a reversion to the worst habits of the previous administration. Two excerpts from Ignatius and a criticism of the column illustrate what I mean. Ignatius writes:
Obama is hoping to do business with Putin, whom he sees as the ultimate transactional leader. The White House has had indications since last weekend that Putin would skip the Group of 8 meeting this month and doesn’t seem perturbed, recognizing that the Russian leader has big problems to address at home. The two leaders will meet at the Group of 20 meeting next month in Mexico.
Based on what I was discussing earlier, this seems to be a sober, correct assessment of the G-8 decision. This correctly understands that Putin is willing to cooperate with the U.S. provided that cooperation will deliver concrete benefits to Russia. As I was trying to say in my column yesterday, Putin is a transactional leader, and recognizing the opportunity this presents is important for advancing shared U.S. and Russian interests.
Right on cue, we have Will Inboden’s reaction to Ignatius:
On Russia, the hope is expressed that Obama can “do business” with the “transactional” Putin. One wonders if that is the most sophisticated assessment the White House can offer after investing so much diplomatic capital in Medvedev and the failed “re-set” policy, and after seeing Putin’s conspiratorial and belligerent campaign directed at the U.S.?
What we have here is a boilerplate talking point about the failure of the “reset” that could have been delivered at any time in the last three years. Inboden mocks the sophistication of the assessment of Putin, and then offers the most simplistic reading of U.S.-Russian relations imaginable. This ignores that Putin and Obama are going to meet at the G-20 summit, and it simply dismisses the real gains for both sides from the “reset” as if they never happened. As ever, critics of the “reset” aren’t upset because the “reset” failed, but because it succeeded in improving relations with a Russian government they would rather antagonize and provoke. No wonder the Obama campaign is feeling confident on this issue.