Special Report

The New National Security Party

Can Obama actually win an election on foreign policy?

If there is one piece of conventional wisdom that defines the 2012 campaign cycle thus far it is that well-worn nugget from the 1992 race, "It's the economy, stupid." In a year in which unemployment will remain high and economic growth will continue to stagnate, foreign policy and national security is assumed to be low down on the list of voter concerns.

Not so fast. Foreign policy and national security -- though likely not the decisive issue -- has the potential to play an important role in the 2012 race. While voters may not cast a ballot because they're overjoyed with Obama toppling Muammar al-Qaddafi, getting out of Iraq, or killing Osama bin Laden, foreign policy can help to shape the narrative of the 2012 race and the images of the two candidates. Passing the commander-in-chief test, especially for a GOP field as weak on foreign policy as it is, could make more of a difference this year than it has in decades. And in a cycle in which a Democratic president has perhaps the shiniest collection of foreign policy accomplishments in decades, it might be a bit too soon to write off foreign policy and national security altogether.

To be sure, rare is the presidential election in which foreign policy and national security are the dominant issues. But it does happen. In 2004, the first presidential campaign held after 9/11, George W. Bush's edge on national security -- combined with an edge on so-called cultural issues -- gave him a decisive advantage. Similarly, in 1968, issues of war and peace were crucial as Lyndon Johnson was forced to withdraw largely because of dissension in his own ranks over the war in Vietnam.

The norm, however, is that foreign policy and national security issues affect general elections along the margins. They are central far less in their policy elements and more in how they build an image or specific narrative around a candidate. How presidential aspirants are perceived on foreign policy and national security can become something of a Rorschach test for how they are perceived as presidential timber (think: Dukakis in the tank). As Alex Cole, a political communication strategist, said to me, "people look at a leader in their totality; if they see them taking decisive action in one area it speaks to their larger character."

In the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy hammered Richard Nixon and the Eisenhower administration over its lack of toughness in confronting the threat from the Soviet Union. While he didn't win because of this, Kennedy's focus on national security helped to minimize his vulnerability as the less-experienced candidate -- and actually put Nixon on the defensive in the one area where he should have had a clear advantage. In 1964 and 1972, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were each hurt by their views on national security. Goldwater for being too hawkish; McGovern for being too dovish. And in 1980, Jimmy Carter's problem was certainly the economy; but it was also, if not even more so, his dismal foreign policy performance (particularly in light of the Iranian hostage crisis).

For 2012, the foreign policy and national security discussion starts from an unusual jumping off point: both issues are a net plus for the Democratic candidate. Since the late 1960s (one could go even further back, to the "who lost China?" debate of the 1950s), the reigning stereotype of Democrats in national politics is one of weakness and fecklessness.  For decades, Democrats have bent over backwards to neutralize that image by trying to sound as tough as Republicans on national security and occasionally supporting inadvisable foreign wars for fear of being attacked as weak (see: Vietnam, Iraq). But not since the 1940s, has foreign policy performance or acumen been seen as a Democratic advantage. This year it is.

Obama's greatest foreign policy edge might be not that he has a good story to tell, but that his opponents don't. Not that this will stop Republicans from trying to portray the President as an un-exceptionalist, apologist for American power.  But there are dangers in such an approach. As Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt wrote a few weeks ago, the "GOP simply doesn't have any foreign policy issues on which to attack him without sounding either ignorant or unhinged." If you don't believe the good professor, check out last Saturday's national security debate.

Moreover, Obama's success in wiping out the top echelons of al Qaeda, ending the unpopular war in Iraq, winding down the conflict in Afghanistan, and helping topple Qaddafi can be used to bat away GOP attacks -- and perhaps be a rationale for why the president deserves four more years. 

National security is actually one of the few areas where Obama's poll numbers provide glimmers of hope for the White House. The country generally gives him high marks for being a strong leader, for confronting terrorism, and for keeping Americans safe.  Voters can expect to see campaign ads depicting the president's foreign policy and military successes in a way that will provide them with a more comprehensive and positive impression of Obama's performance as commander-in-chief.

The closest incumbent analogy one might make to Obama's current plight is that of George H. W. Bush, a commander-in-chief with a sterling foreign policy record and a dismal economy when he faced the voters in 1992. One might assume that Obama would face a similar situation to Bush in seeing his foreign policy record subsumed by high unemployment and a lousy economic outlook. The difference, however, is that as a Republican, Bush was expected to win foreign wars and be competent on national security. His advantage was already baked in. As a Democrat, Obama's success represents the exception -- not the rule -- and provides him with a political boost that wouldn't exist in the same way for a Republican.

Lastly, since Obama doesn't have to worry too much about playing defense, he actually has the rare opportunity to go on the offensive by, ironically, playing up the inexperience of his opponents.  None of the likely GOP nominees has any serious foreign policy background -- and if the most recent Republican national security debate is any indication, with the possible exception of Mitt Romney, this has the potential to make them vulnerable.

To get re-elected with lousy poll numbers and an underperforming economy Obama will have little choice but to make his opponent the focus -- and their lack of foreign policy experience will almost certainly have to play a role in that particular campaign narrative.  As Jeremy Rosner, a political pollster and former Clinton administration National Security Council official said to me: "while one GOP candidate has gotten attention for 9-9-9, none of them has really established their credentials yet on 9-1-1."

If the White House wants to use foreign policy to its advantage, then it is incumbent upon the Obama campaign to play up the contrasts between the president and his rivals. But the extent to which Republican candidates attack Obama from the right or play up the need for more robust American power may do more harm than good. Such approaches run the risk of highlighting GOP policy preferences -- including greater defense spending, an extended stay in Afghanistan, and the return of torture techniques -- that are not necessarily shared by the general electorate (but may be popular among Republican primary voters).

Ironically, the smarter political move for Republicans might be to gloss over their foreign policy differences with Obama rather than accentuate them -- but considering the nature of the GOP's scorched earth campaign against the president that seems highly unlikely. They almost certainly won't be able to help themselves.

Of course, that there is even a discussion about the national security advantages of a Democrat in a presidential election is in itself a sea change. Barack Obama has had more than his share of unusual political accomplishments -- if he effectively can use foreign policy and national security to help get re-elected in this terrible economic climate, it may well be the most impressive one of all.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Special Report

The Not-So-Great Debaters

How did the GOP candidates stack up on the first real foreign policy debate? On incoherence, bombast, and platitudes -- pretty darn well, actually.


One of the chief complaints made about the Republican presidential debates thus far has been the lack of focus by the candidates on foreign policy and national security. If Saturday, Nov. 12's Republican debate, which focused exclusively on the topic, was any indication, be careful what you wish for. It was the first opportunity for the major GOP candidates to talk at length about their visions for America's role in the world, and it wasn't particularly pretty.

While the debate was constricted -- as any 90-minute discussion with eight candidates is destined to be -- what Americans got to hear was a whole lot of Obama-bashing; scaremongering about Iran, China, and terrorism; unqualified backing for America's apparently greatest ally, Israel; some impassioned support for torture (and a few condemnations as well); an abundance of criticism for the approximately 1 percent of the U.S. budget spent on foreign aid; and some rather muddled but occasionally interesting explanations about what the United States should do in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (And there was Herman Cain and his unique brand of foreign-policy stylings.)

All in all it was a pretty mixed bag. But with the next foreign-policy debate only eight days away, the candidates are finally getting their foreign-policy ducks in a row. Let's take a look at how the GOP field did and how they're shaping up. 

Mitt Romney -- The Platitude Man: If, like me, you have watched a number of Republican presidential debates, you might have noticed that Mitt Romney's ability to churn out platitudes is perhaps his most impressive characteristic -- and Saturday night was no different. "We don't negotiate with terrorists." "It's time for the Assad dictatorship to end." "This century must be an American century where America has the strongest values, the strongest economy, and the strongest military." "We have a president right now who thinks America's just another nation. America is an exceptional nation."

You get the idea. But candidate Romney also wrote checks that a President Romney likely cannot cash. He said that if Barack Obama is reelected, "Iran will have a nuclear weapon," but that if Romney wins, "They will not have a nuclear weapon." Short of a large-scale military intervention in Iran, it's unclear how Romney can deliver on such a promise. But that is a problem for another day; as Romney noted in one of the last debates, he's running for president, "for Pete's sake." And, for that purpose, he has clearly concluded that platitudes and talking points sure to warm the hearts of conservative voters are more useful than fully reasoned policies that might get him in trouble. Romney's approach to running for the Republican nomination appears to be "make no mistake, and let the other folks fumble the ball." Given the implosions of Bachmann, Perry, and Cain, that appears to be an effective strategy. For Romney, Saturday night was just more of the same.

Jon Huntsman -- The Realist: Whenever I watch Jon Huntsman in one of the GOP debates, I feel like this is a guy who got invited to the wrong party. While the candidates generally went out of their way to sound as hawkish as possible, Huntsman is the token voice of moderation and nuance in the GOP. He was the only person, aside from Ron Paul, urging that the United States should get out of Afghanistan. He even channeled his inner George McGovern when he said, "I don't want to be nation-building in Afghanistan when this nation so desperately needs to be built." He made a passionate argument against torture and for engagement with China, where he served as an ambassador under Obama. In short, he sounded like an actual realist Republican with an understanding of the limits of American power and U.S. capabilities. On a related note, he stands at about 1 percent in GOP preference polls.

Michele Bachmann -- The Loose Cannon: I've been having a tough time trying to figure out the nuttiest thing that Michele Bachmann said on Saturday night. Was it when she ludicrously argued that if the president had sent a surge force of 40,000, rather than 30,000, troops to Afghanistan, it would have ensured U.S. success in the war there? Was it when she said the Middle East "table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel"? Was it when she said that Obama is allowing the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to run the CIA (a comment that will undoubtedly come as a surprise to the ACLU -- and the CIA)? Was it when she praised the Chinese communist government because it doesn't have a modern welfare state and, in particular, "food stamps" or an AFDC federal program that the United States hasn't had for 15 years?

No, the nuttiest moment came when Bachmann said that Obama has decided to "lose" the war on terror (a comment that will undoubtedly come as a surprise to a certain resident at the bottom of the Arabian Sea).

Newt Gingrich -- The Bully: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has a rather unusual claim to fame among the various GOP contenders: In a party that cultivates an air of anti-intellectualism and anti-empiricism, he is an actual Ph.D. On Saturday night, however, Gingrich offered a side of the academically advanced that can be a tad off-putting -- a know-it-all attitude.

Although there was less than the usual criticism from Gingrich of the moderators and their "ridiculous" gotcha questions, he did call the Obama administration "dumb" on Iran; said the country "doesn't have a clue" how to resolve the war in Afghanistan; and made clear that if countries want foreign aid from the United States, they need to "explain to me why I should give you a penny." He sided with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak against pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt and even said the United States doesn't have "a reliable intelligence service" -- a comment that is sure to be well received in Langley.

What can one take away from such a series of statements? Perhaps that browbeating rather than diplomacy would be the focus of a Gingrich White House.

Rick Perry -- The Populist: After Nov. 9's epic debate gaffe, the bar for Rick Perry's Saturday performance was pretty low. Every time he spoke, I cringed hoping that he wouldn't forget something.

Instead of getting mired in policy specifics, Perry played the foreign-policy populist. His biggest applause line came when he pledged to reverse the foreign-aid budget for every country back to zero. According to Perry, "It's time for us as a country to say no to foreign aid to countries that don't support the United States of America." What was missing from Perry's analysis is that, of course, sometimes the United States gives money to countries not because they support everything it does but because foreign aid provides the United States an opportunity to further its interests, promote goodwill, and potentially create new allies. But Perry, it seemed, was more interested in playing to the political cheap seats.

The Texas governor took a similar vein when he said the "communist Chinese government" will end up on the ash heap of history because of its lack of "virtues." He also defended torture in perhaps the most bizarre way I've ever heard -- arguing that to not torture in the pursuit of saving American lives would be a "travesty." He also took the even more unique position of arguing that his job as head of the Texas National Guard gave him "hands-on commander-in-chief experience." Granted, this wasn't a stellar debate performance -- and Perry got dinged afterward for suggesting that aid to Israel could actually be reduced -- but at least he didn't spend 53 seconds trying to remember what government agency he wanted to get rid of.

Ron Paul -- The Principled One: Listening to Ron Paul talk about foreign policy is a bit like going to McDonald's -- at least you know what you're gonna get. In every debate, Paul proudly and unabashedly beats the drum of American neoisolationism and lets his libertarian colors fly.

On Saturday he took a similar tact, criticizing the war on terror and pledging to stay out of Syria because it's not a U.S. problem. But he was at his most principled when he said that not only is torture wrong, but that it's un-American -- a clear shot at his rivals who have endorsed such practices. What's more, he criticized Obama's decision to assassinate alleged al Qaeda terrorist and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and made the rather potent argument that every single person on the stage Saturday thinks the government shouldn't run the health-care system but somehow should be given the power to decide to kill U.S. citizens whom the president classifies as an enemy. As Paul said, "You want to live within the law and obey the law. Because otherwise, it's going to be very bad for all of us." Whatever one might think about Paul's views on domestic policy -- or even if one disagrees with him about Awlaki -- the fact that he is the only candidate from either party willing to make a principled stand for the rule of law is admirable (and if you think about it, a little depressing).

Rick Santorum -- The Pragmatist: Rick Santorum may be the most unbending social conservative of the major Republican nominees for president, but he has a pragmatic streak as well -- and it was on full display Saturday night. He noted that victory in Afghanistan would not necessarily entail wiping out the Taliban but, rather, ensuring they are no longer a security threat. It's sort of an obvious point but represents a level of nuance rarely heard from GOP presidential aspirants. On Pakistan, Santorum was even more a realist than Huntsman, arguing that because of its nuclear program, Pakistan "must be a friend of the United States" and that just as the United States engaged with Saudi Arabia after the 9/11 attacks, it must continue to engage with a sometimes recalcitrant and frustrating government in Islamabad.

Of course, there are limits to pragmatism. Santorum also suggested that the United States should work with Israel to take out Iran's nuclear capability and that an important way to stand for freedom in America is by not prosecuting terrorists in civilian courts. Still, with this crowd, we should take policy coherence where we can get it.

Herman Cain -- The Know-Nothing: Anyone who has paid close attention to Herman Cain's campaign knows that he is not exactly a foreign-policy expert (Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan is just the tip of the iceberg). Still, his performance on Saturday was remarkable in its complete lack of substance.

He tried to answer virtually every question by simply suggesting that he would surround himself with smart people (who, let's hope, would know more about foreign policy than he does -- a pretty low bar). He said that one way to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb is for the United States to become "energy independent," a goal that would take decades and would have little bearing on Iran because the United States doesn't actually buy Iranian oil. He said that he would leave the decision of what constitutes torture to the U.S. military -- not presumably actual U.S. or international law -- while saying he supports "enhanced interrogation techniques" that are, in fact, torture. He said that it was "unclear where we stand with Afghanistan," but also that Obama's current strategy of reducing the U.S. footprint there was the wrong one. And he couldn't answer the question of whether Pakistan is a friend or foe, instead offering a tossed word salad that I challenge any FP reader to decipher:

I would ask them what commitment is Pakistan willing to make to assure the United States of America that they are a friend or of -- or a foe. And be specific about that. Will they make commitments relative to the commitment of their military, if we have to make commitments? Are they willing to come to some regional agreement about what we need to do? We need a regional strategy in that area of the world, such that all of our allies work together in order to come up with those things that would be mutually beneficial to everyone. Those are the questions that need to be asked.

This is the worst kind of foreign-policy gobbledygook. But since we're about to go through this whole exercise again in eight days, at least Cain has some time to bone up before then.