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Obama’s Advantage In Foreign Policy Is Real, It Just May Not Be Enough

Daniel Larison calls attention to this piece by Julian Zelizer warning that a foreign-policy-centered campaign by Obama could backfire. His reasoning is fourfold: (1) foreign policy is fickle, throwing up new crises all the time, and you never can tell how those will turn out; (2) bragging about foreign policy makes you look like you’re ignoring domestic problems; […]

Daniel Larison calls attention to this piece by Julian Zelizer warning that a foreign-policy-centered campaign by Obama could backfire. His reasoning is fourfold: (1) foreign policy is fickle, throwing up new crises all the time, and you never can tell how those will turn out; (2) bragging about foreign policy makes you look like you’re ignoring domestic problems; (3) foreign policy issues aren’t as clear-cut as they were during the Cold War; (4) Obama’s base may be turned off if he runs as too much of a hawk.

There’s some truth in all of these points, but their truth depends on one overwhelming assumption: that Americans are not going to be concerned about foreign policy in the upcoming election. Which may be true – certainly I don’t expect it to be the top concern, or even the second or third concern for most people. But if this isn’t quite 1944 (or 1980), neither is it quite 1992. And to the extent that it’s an issue at all, it’s an issue on which the President has a decisive advantage, and he’d be foolish not to use it.

Yes, foreign policy is fickle – but it’s fickle whether you run on it or not. Jimmy Carter didn’t run primarily on foreign policy expertise in 1980, though he did try to scare people about Ronald Reagan’s extremism. But foreign affairs still contributed mightily to his defeat. Had Operation Eagle Claw succeeded, Carter would have been mad not to have made it one of the key themes of his campaign.

Yes, bragging about foreign policy can make you look out of touch, and President Obama would be well advised to avoid sounding like he’s bragging (or begging for credit) in any area; confident people don’t need to brag or beg. Yes, the centerpiece of Obama’s campaign needs to be a domestic agenda, just as the centerpiece of Romney’s campaign has to be. But foreign policy has a role to play in establishing what is inevitably going to be a central Obama campaign claim about domestic affairs: that one reason things are so bad is that the Republican Party has opposed every plank of his domestic agenda out of ideological extremism. Without going into my views on the truth of such a claim, foreign affairs is one area where the President operates almost entirely without Congressional fetter. If President Obama convinces the American people that he’s doing a great job where he has exclusive authority, and a less-good job where he has to compromise with an opposition Congress, that bolsters his claim that Republican obstructionism deserves a big chunk of the blame for the domestic situation.

Yes, foreign policy issues are muddier than they once were. But inasmuch as the public is concerned about foreign policy at all, I believe Obama has found the political sweet-spot. (That’s not to say I agree with all his decisions by any means – that’s to say that I think they are, in broad strokes, political winners.) Obama can simultaneously say that he’s reduced the scope of American ambitions, and reduced the exposure of our troops, and that he’s been extremely vigilant about “taking out” the bad guys. The Osama bin Laden ad is very smart politics, which enables Obama to attack the GOP from the right and the left simultaneously, arguing that the Republicans placed less of a practical priority on counter-terrorism because of a neoconservative emphasis on state-based threats (which is absolutely true as a critique of the Bush Administration, and if Romney wants to argue that he disagrees with the Bush approach, he should say so explicitly).

As for Obama’s base: in practical terms, this is an argument that Obama should worry about the Gary Johnson campaign. I hope he does have to do something to win back possible defecting voters in this direction – I’d love to see the Obama Administration reconsider its drug policy posture, rediscover civil liberties, etc. The least-likely, and least politically necessary area for him to tilt more in a libertarian direction, though, is on the overall conduct of foreign policy.

When Obama was elected, I compared his political position to that of President Nixon. (Speaking of whom, do check out Scott Galupo’s piece elsewhere on the site.) That comparison has continued to pay dividends for me over the years. Obama’s objective in Afghanistan has, from the beginning, been “peace with honor,” and the elimination of Osama bin Laden and much of the rest of the al Qaeda leadership infrastructure makes it increasingly plausible to declare victory and come home. Whether or not you think Obama has followed an optimal policy for getting there – and I certainly think there’s ample room to criticize – that’s where the American people has wanted to go, and I suspect that political criticisms that amount to “I would have gotten there faster and cheaper” will come off as so much Monday morning quarterbacking.

President Obama has had a basically successful foreign policy within the boundaries of the foreign policy consensus. Were there mistakes and missed opportunities? Absolutely. My personal list of same would include:

  • A pointless, destabilizing and dubiously legal war in Libya;
  • Staging a confrontation with Netanyahu, then backing down abjectly, thereby setting back the cause of achieving a settlement in Israel/Palestine rather than advancing it;
  • Framing our policy in Iran in such a way that he may be backed into military conflict if non-military pressure fails to create a diplomatic breakthrough;
  • Failing to reassess the centrality of American drug policy in our relationship with Latin America;
  • Failing to take any dramatic action vis-a-vis American nuclear stockpiles to advance the cause of nuclear anti-proliferation.

On the other hand, I think he’s handled relations with our East Asian allies very well, has managed at least a modest improvement in relations with Russia and Turkey, has not been manipulated into intervening in Syria, kept an appropriate distance from the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, etc., and has backed down from some of his mistakes (such as offering to mediate the dispute over Kashmir) with alacrity.  He has made counter-terrorism a foreign policy priority, which, I suspect, will be judged by history to be an over-reaction but is what Americans want to see done and is certainly preferable to invading half the planet as a counter-terrorism strategy.

The mystery isn’t why President Obama is running (partly) on foreign policy. The mystery is why Romney is. There is just no percentage in attacking Obama from the hawkish right on foreign policy except with hard core Republican base voters, and the record-free Romney runs more risk of seeming “out of touch” by harping on anything but the economy than the President does in running on his record. A Jeffersonian “come home, America” campaign, meanwhile, might be good for the soul of the Republic, but I strongly suspect it would be a losing campaign politically. The best we could hope for, I suspect, is to have somebody run as a prudential custodial of the foreign policy consensus, who then in office seeks to bend that consensus away from militarism and hegemony and towards a more restrained and cooperative international stance. That’s what I hoped we were getting in Obama, and I’m disappointed that it isn’t what we got – but we did get a reasonably prudent (with exceptions) custodian of the foreign policy consensus. And Romney is running on ditching the prudence.



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