In Box

How to Beat Obama

The president is far more vulnerable than he thinks on foreign policy.

In an American election focused on a lousy economy and high unemployment, conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy is one of Barack Obama's few strong suits. But the president is strikingly vulnerable in this area. The Republican who leads the GOP ticket can attack him on what Obama mistakenly thinks is his major strength by translating the center-right critique of his foreign policy into campaign themes and action. Here's how to beat him.

First, the Republican nominee should adopt a confident, nationalist tone emphasizing American exceptionalism, expressing pride in the United States as a force for good in the world, and advocating for an America that is once again respected (and, in some quarters, feared) as the preeminent global power. Obama acts as if he sees the United States as a flawed giant, a mistake that voters already perceive. After all, this is the president who said, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Voters also sense he is content to manage America's decline to a status where the United States is just one country among many. As he put it, his is "a U.S. leadership that recognizes our limits."

The Republican nominee should use the president's own words and actions to portray him as naive and weak on foreign affairs. Obama's failed promises, missed opportunities, and erratic shifts suggest he is out of touch and in over his head. For example, before he was elected, he promised to meet with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela "without precondition." Nothing came of that except a serious blow to the image of the United States as a reliable ally. During the 2008 campaign, he also argued that Iran was a "tiny" country that didn't "pose a serious threat." How foolish that now seems.

At the same time, the Republican candidate should not hesitate to point out where Obama has left his Republican predecessor's policies largely intact. He will be uncomfortable if the nominee congratulates him for applying President George W. Bush's surge strategy to Afghanistan, carrying through on the expanded use of drones, reversing course on the handling of terrorist detainees, and renewing the Patriot Act after previously condemning it as a "shoddy and dangerous law." Such compliments will give the Republican candidate greater ability to be critical of Obama's many fiascoes -- not only his proposed outreach to tyrants in Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, but also the disastrous "reset" with Russia, mismanagement of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, politicized timetables for withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and neglect of important traditional allies such as NATO, Canada, and Mexico, as well as key rising powers like India.

Obama recognizes that he's seen as "cold and aloof," and the Republican nominee should hammer this point home. The president has few real friends abroad (excepting, of course, Islamist Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as he told Time magazine's Fareed Zakaria). The Republican nominee should criticize Obama for not understanding that the U.S. president's personal engagement is essential for effective global leadership. Obama's lack of regular close contact with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which has destroyed relationships with America's erstwhile allies, is simply the most jarring, inexplicable example of this president's hands-off approach.

Because the fall campaign must be devoted to promoting the Republican message on jobs and the economy, the GOP nominee must share his big foreign-policy vision no later than early summer. Giving voters a sense of where he wants to take the country is important to cementing his image as a leader worthy of the Oval Office. Merely projecting the right image is not enough.

The Republican candidate must address at least four vital areas. The most important is the struggle that will define this century's arc: radical Islamic terrorism. He should make the case that victory must be America's national goal, not merely seeking to "delegitimize the use of terrorism and to isolate those who carry it out," as Obama's May 2010 National Security Strategy put it. As in the Cold War, victory will require sustained U.S. involvement and a willingness to deploy all tools of influence -- from diplomacy to economic ties, from intelligence efforts to military action.

Second, the Republican candidate must condemn the president's precipitous drawdown in Afghanistan and his deep, dangerous defense-budget cuts. Both are viewed skeptically by the military: The former emboldens America's adversaries and discourages its allies; the latter is of deep concern to veterans and other Americans who doubt Obama's commitment to the military.

Third, the Republican candidate should focus on the dangers of rogue states, particularly Iran and North Korea. The upcoming three-year anniversary of the stolen June 2009 Iranian presidential election is a particularly opportune moment for the Republican nominee to meet with Iranian exiles and offer a major speech drawing attention to Obama's weakness and naiveté in dealing with this belligerent power.

In part because of how he has mishandled the Iranian threat, Obama has lost much political and financial support in the American Jewish community. His approach to Israel must be presented as similarly weak and untrustworthy. The Republican candidate must make clear the existential threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran -- not only because it will lead to a better policy, but also because it will reduce the president's support among this key voting bloc in the critical battleground states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The fourth line of attack must be about America's fragile economy and how to restore it. Many voters think Obama's stewardship of the economy has been inconsistent and even counterproductive. This makes it imperative for the Republican candidate to make the case for promoting trade and greater international economic engagement. Obama's failure to match other countries in aggressively opening markets for exports and jobs should be tied to his responsibility for high domestic unemployment and an anemic recovery.

Undoubtedly, Obama will attempt to preempt criticism of his foreign policy by repeating endlessly that Osama bin Laden was killed on his watch. By campaign's end, some voters will wonder whether the president personally delivered the kill shot. The best response is to praise the president. In doing so, however, Obama's opponent should be sure to praise all the drama's actors, especially the Navy SEALs whose courageous assault killed the terrorist leader and the tireless CIA analysts whose hunches convinced then-Director Michael Hayden in 2007 to unleash a massive effort that eventually led to the compound in Abbottabad. In the end, voters know that Obama did not kill bin Laden -- SEALs did.

Absent a major international crisis, this election will be largely about jobs, spending, health care, and energy. Voters do, however, want a president who leads on the world stage and a commander in chief who projects strength, not weakness.

A November 2011 survey conducted by Resurgent Republic showed that 50 percent of voters (as well as 54 percent of self-identified independents) think America's standing in the world is worse under Obama, while only 21 percent believe it is better. This represents a sharp drop from April 2010, when 50 percent of voters (and 49 percent of independents) believed Obama had improved America's standing.

That's because Obama has failed to become a strong international leader, and the Republican nominee must reinforce this message -- one most Americans already believe. Foreign policy is a weakness for this president, not a strength.


In Box

Hotels for Hacks

Six of the world's most notable "war hotels," in the words of journalists who spent time cooped up in them.

"Every war has its hotel," the New York Times's Thomas Friedman wrote of his stay at Beirut's infamous Commodore during some of the heaviest fighting of Lebanon's vicious 1975-1990 civil war. From Baghdad's Al Hamra to Sarajevo's Holiday Inn, here are six of the most notable "war hotels," remembered by the correspondents who briefly called them home.


Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

"In the early hours of [April 28, 1975] the runways and terminal buildings at Tan Son Nhut Airport were pounded by the big artillery guns that the communists had dragged down from the mountains. The shell fire woke the city. I tumbled out of bed at the Caravelle as the first shells landed at 4 a.m., and ran to the hotel roof, where a few colleagues had already gathered. Aircraft and buildings were burning. As a smoky dawn rose over Saigon's rooftops we saw that many residents were watching, as we were, a few brave aircraft dueling with gunners on the ground, their miniguns spitting sheets of flaming steel as surface-to-air missiles flew up toward them. I saw two aircraft fall from the sky. I phoned [George] Esper [Associated Press bureau chief in Saigon] from the Caravelle's bar. We agreed that the shelling would probably end the evacuation at the airport and activate Option 4, the final pullout."

--Former AP reporter Peter Arnett in his book Live from the Battlefield

Beirut, Lebanon

"It wasn't just the parrot in the bar, which did a perfect imitation of the whistle of an incoming shell, that made the place so weird; it wasn't just the front desk clerk, who would ask registering guests whether they wanted a room on the 'shelling side' of the hotel, which faced East Beirut, or the peaceful side of the hotel, which faced the sea; it wasn't the way they 'laundered' your hotel bills by putting all your bar charges down as 'dry cleaning.'… It was the whole insane atmosphere."

--Thomas Friedman in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem 

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

"About halfway up the 11 flights to my room in the ozone layer of the Holiday Inn, I ran into my friend Jamie Graff from Time magazine, bounding down the glass-strewn stairwell in the opposite direction. 'I'm getting an omelet in exchange for a bath,' he declared gleefully, brandishing the immersion water heater that would be his part of the deal. The uninitiated might assume the coiled metal rods Graff was carrying had something to do with the omelet, as the device looks like an oversized egg beater. But any journalist who has holed up at Sarajevo's Holiday Inn to cover the war in Bosnia instantly recognizes it as a means for heating water and knows its incalculable value. At the tail end of a brutal winter in a hotel that has no running water, heat or intact windows, anything that can help you get warm or clean is a desirable barter good in the media's daily flea market of favors, talents
and information."

--Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

"I stand in the illuminated lobby of the Montana Hotel, space-warped into an après-beach party, gawking at the throng of media celebs, the Eddie Bauer tropical-fashion show, the crush of machos at the bar in shorts and network caps, looking as if they've spent their day playing softball. On the patio, CNN is feeding a satellite; in the lounge, a big-screen TV broadcasts the Michigan-Colorado game.… Souvenance, the restaurant of choice for the capital's aristocracy of crisis (the politicians and millionaires, the well-heeled gangsters, the diplomats and journalists), is booked up, so we settle for the gastronomic artistry of the chef at La Plantation, where the clientele can fill their glasses with the best French wines to toast the continuing -- and, in some cases, karmically inexplicable -- miracle of their survival."

--Bob Shacochis, Harper's

Baghdad, Iraq

"Even shortly after the 2003 invasion, journalists recall their comrades sunning in bikinis and waging impromptu water polo games in the pool. Barbecues could stretch long into the sultry nights.… The Hamra itself offered large rooms and reasonable comfort for a war zone, even if it had settled into a dreary midlife -- with a bucking, defiant elevator, worn carpets and sometimes balky water supply. The constantly groaning generators would have been more maddening, but everyone understood they were all that stood between the hotel residents and Baghdad's punishing heat. Reporters looked from their rooms over a cityscape of endless beige. But the large, rectangular hotel pool below their windows somehow always glimmered like a sapphire."

--James Rainey, Los Angeles Times

Tripoli, Libya

"The luxury Rixos, with its pillared lobby and opulent decor, had always seemed like a gilded cage set amid the eucalyptus trees. Even before the rebel assault, correspondents were prohibited from venturing out of the hotel on their own.… [A]s gunmen kept the 35 reporters, photographers and television crew penned up in the hotel, it dawned on us that we were pretty much being held hostage and could become human shields.… Camaraderie saw us through the ordeal. We set up an impromptu cinema one day while we were camped out in the basement, but the screening of Point Break on someone's laptop was interrupted by fighting that broke out near the hotel. Nevertheless, spirits flagged as things wore on and we wondered when we would be freed. On a desk in a room that had been occupied by government minders, we found printouts of private emails sent by us journalists -- apparent evidence that the correspondence had been monitored. Wednesday morning dawned after another tense night that brought only a few hours of sleep for most of us and hours of discussions. A bout of shouting with our armed guards in the lobby ended suddenly when the [Red Cross] team rushed in the door and to our rescue. We didn't wait to settle the bill."

--Missy Ryan, Reuters