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.