For the presidential campaign’s main event Monday night, the billing should be changed to read Obama vs. Obama. Because at its heart, the climactic face-off between the candidates may end up being a confrontation between two versions of the president, good Obama and bad Obama, the foreign policy master versus the man who leads from behind when he leads at all.
Obama will no doubt try to reinforce foreign-policy campaign themes that his supporters feel are among his strongest credentials. But Mitt Romney will almost certainly try to lay out the narrative that Obama has weakened America and left it more vulnerable.
That there could even be a meaningful debate over foreign policy in the campaign seemed unlikely until relatively recently. Just a couple of months ago, it was widely assumed that this president had done the impossible and inoculated himself against a traditional GOP line of attack against Democrats.
Republicans have over the past several decades sought to present themselves as the party of foreign policy competence and national strength.
They have sought to portray Democrats as weak, anti-military and too inclined toward multilateralist mumbo jumbo, foreign policy approaches that give too much influence to allies, rivals ... foreigners. Furthermore, Romney had gotten off to a bad start on foreign policy mixing gaffes with blunt-instrument policy proposals that sounded like a neocon greatest hits album.
But in the past few months, several fissures have opened up in the strong facade of the administration’s foreign policy. Syria has festered. The Iran nuclear standoff has re-entered the spotlight—most recently this weekend with the curiously timed revelation that was later even more curiously denied by all involved concerning the possibility of opening new talks between the U.S. and Iran.
Relations with Israel soured, and both sides had to scramble to limit the damage. The situation on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan has deteriorated. And then there was Benghazi.
Not only were the murders of the U.S. ambassador and three others a tragedy that raised questions about diplomatic security and the administration’s candor, the attack had another important political consequence.
By far the most resonant of the president’s foreign policy achievements was the killing of Osama bin Laden. But that achievement is only of something more than emotional significance if it also supported the administration’s argument that they had dramatically weakened al-Qaeda, the extremist threat in general and thus made Americans safer. But Benghazi provided palpable evidence that terrorists targeting Americans and our allies were still a reality and in fact, were morphing into new, dangerous forms across the Middle East.
Combined with the continuing violence by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, it is hard to make the case that the threat has been reduced even if, as is undoubtedly true, the Obama administration has been extremely effective in decapitating and dismantling much of al-Qaeda’s leadership structure it had targeted in the AfPak region.
Certainly the president, who was re-energized in the second debate and in speeches since Denver, will forcefully reiterate his considerable achievements on the international front. He ended America’s long, costly and damaging involvement in Iraq. He has America on track to exit Afghanistan by 2014. He not only got bin Laden, but the U.S. military and intelligence community under his leadership also got a poad array of top al-Qaeda lieutenants, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, and Moammar Gadhafi.
In Libya, he found a way to engineer its dictator’s ouster in collaboration with our allies and without sending American troops. He oversaw a restoration of America’s reputation after the excesses of George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” He oversaw a successful foreign policy team led by a widely admired secretary of state. He recognized and prioritized finding a way to deal with the rise of new powers. His Cairo speech was a remarkable act of outreach to the Muslim world. His Prague speech committing the U.S. to the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons was inspiring.
Wonks admired his national security process. The public admired his steely cool and decisiveness. His Obama doctrine of fighting terror and enemies such as Iran through the use of covert means, cyberwarfare, special operations and unmanned drone operations seemed a more cost-effective, sound alternative to shock and awe.
The Romney team, however, sees an opportunity to offer another credible narrative. It is that the administration has frequently dithered—in its convoluted and unsatisfying Afghanistan process and in responding to Iran’s “Green Revolution” and the Arab Spring.
It is certainly hard to argue that the Middle East today is safer or more stable than it was four years ago, or that our enemies are weaker. Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon. Terrorists are active. Unrest and uncertainty threaten key allies from Egypt to Jordan. Yemen teeters. The Israel-Iran face-off is more dangerous than ever. Syria’s war rages on, innocents die and it threatens to ignite other regional conflicts.
Iraq’s U.S.-backed leaders are now aiding our Iranian enemies in their support of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Iraq itself is more fragmented than ever. In Afghanistan, our allies increasingly act like enemies, and the possibility of social and political chaos after our departure is high. Europe’s economy is in tatters, and we have been sidelined in those discussions. Cyberthreats threaten from East and West. China grows more influential. Russia continues to confound our plans despite our vaunted “reset.” And the U.S. seems no closer to solving the long-term economic problems that remain the biggest threats to its strength.
Fortunately for Obama, this is a two-way race and thus only two narratives will compete on that stage.
Because there is a third critique of his foreign policy that he will not hear on Monday: one from the left. That one is troubled by his serial violation of the sovereignty of other nations, his “kill lists” and use of drones and cyberattacks in defiance of international law, near-abandonment of the G20 as a fairer mechanism for coordinating global initiatives and his failures on battling climate change and reforming financial markets.
More than all of these, the greatest critique from the left centers on the president’s ill-considered decision to “double down” in Afghanistan for apparently political rather than long-term national security reasons.
The foreign policy debate will be much, much more central to determining Obama’s fate than anyone could have predicted just weeks ago. It could well focus more attention on his undeniable missteps than on his differences with Romney. That would be a pity, because the American people would also benefit from a thorough airing of Romney’s truly dubious foreign-policy proposals, such as increasing defense spending that we can’t afford and don’t need, and substituting nostalgia for foreign policy, favoring feel-good platitudes of the Ronald Reagan era over the new thinking needed in a dramatically different world.
The president would be wise, therefore, to ensure that Romney, too, is a subject of Monday’s conversation.