Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie's recent article in Foreign Policy urges the Republican presidential aspirants to attack President Barack Obama more vigorously on his national security record. It's a debate that the president and Democrats should welcome.
At the outset, leave aside the source of the counsel -- listening to top aides to President George W. Bush proffer advice on foreign policy is a bit like hearing Mrs. O'Leary and her cow lecture about urban planning, after they've burned down Chicago.
The real problem with their advice is that it badly misreads both the president's record and how the public assesses it. Americans may be sharply polarized on many issues, but they are relatively aligned on their confidence in Obama as commander in chief. Over 60 percent approve of the job Obama is doing handling terrorism -- and this was true even before the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. According to a February ABC/Washington Post survey, voters trust Obama to handle international affairs more than the Republican Party's likely standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, by an outsized 19-point margin.
What explains these strong ratings?
Historically, Americans are fairly non-ideological on foreign policy. Above all, they want results, and that is what Obama has produced.
Bin Laden is dead, along with 22 of al Qaeda's other top 30 leaders, including Anwar al-Awlaki, who encouraged Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of killing U.S. soldiers at Fort Hood. Obama ended America's war in Iraq, as he pledged, while waging the war in Afghanistan with far greater focus and intensity, enabling the United States to plan for a handover to Afghanistan's own security forces.
The president skillfully supported the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring and helped build a NATO-led force that put an end to Muammar al-Qaddafi's dictatorship. Squarely recognizing the danger Iran's nuclear program poses -- to the United States, Israel, and the entire Middle East -- Obama has persistently worked to put in place the toughest-ever international sanctions on Iran, significantly undercutting Tehran's economic resources and its ability to build nuclear weapons, while also being clear that he is leaving all options, including the use of force, on the table.
Even as military spending falls with the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is ensuring America's military strength remains unrivaled, increasing support for veterans and their families, and using precision drones, Navy SEALs, and other special operations forces to sustain the U.S. military edge against diverse new threats around the globe.
Reliance on foreign oil is at a 16-year low, making it harder for oil producers in the Middle East or elsewhere to hold U.S. foreign policy hostage. And America's image abroad has bounced back from the historic lows it reached under Bush. In declaring America "the one indispensable nation in world affairs," Obama has refuted any notion that he is a declinist or apologist for American strength and leadership.
How voters feel about America's standing in the world is ultimately linked to the strength of the economy, and Obama also has scored accomplishments abroad that should help the economic recovery gain strength. In particular, his administration has reached new trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, which will help expand U.S. exports, while also belying the Republican portrayal of him as a protectionist. Certainly, many voters remain angry that the administration has not done more about China and its trade practices, though Obama will be able to point to an aggressive record of filing trade cases against China in the World Trade Organization.
Given such accomplishments, the Republican candidates' attacks against Obama on national security are likely to have limited resonance. In January and February, our firm and the centrist think tank Third Way conducted focus groups on national security with swing voters in two electoral battleground areas, Cincinnati and Tampa. Like voters nationally, this group was about evenly split on which party does better on foreign policy; many had real qualms about Democrats generically on these issues, due to what they saw as missteps by some past Democratic administrations. But their view of Obama was markedly different and better.
In our focus groups, the swing voters give Obama strong marks not only for what he accomplished abroad, but also how: for assembling a strong, bipartisan national security team, with figures like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates; listening carefully to the counsel of his military advisors; sorting out complex intelligence, as in the bin Laden raid; working through NATO and other alliances when he can, but not hesitating to act alone -- as in ordering the two rescues of Americans from the hands of Somali pirates -- when needed.
We tested arguments that Rove and Gillespie insist will work against Obama -- that he is cutting defense too deeply or doesn't believe in American strength and leadership -- and they generally fell flat. Indeed, after hearing a balanced set of national security arguments from Obama and the Republican candidates, these participants by a three-to-one margin feel Obama has the better case. The main reason is that the president's record speaks for itself. As one older woman in Tampa said about Obama, "He has done a lot.… He has proven himself." And when it came to Obama on national security, these middle-of-the-road voters repeatedly use the phrase "pleasantly surprised."
But the Republican candidates aren't only struggling against Obama's solid national security record. They also face two other obstacles of their own making.
The first is the disastrous legacy of the Bush administration, which has cut deeply into the GOP's historical image as the party of national security. Voters in our groups continue to criticize Bush for taking the United States to war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, for mismanaging the war once he started it, and for a general sense of "arrogance in the world," as a Cincinnati man put it. In part because of that Bush record, when these voters hear statements from Mitt Romney or the other Republican contenders calling for a more bellicose approach abroad, such as in Iran, many of them worry that another Republican president would disregard facts, underuse diplomacy, be "trigger happy," and mire the United States in another avoidable and expensive war. Only the most die-hard Republican primary voters seem to be looking for a return to the Bush foreign-policy playbook.
Second, when it comes to national security, Republicans are struggling with incoherence and deep divisions among their own candidates. Romney calls for a huge expansion of U.S. military forces and spending, while Ron Paul calls for giving up virtually all of America's military bases abroad. Various Republican contenders criticize Obama for winding down the war in Afghanistan (and the one in Iraq), but none has offered a plan for how to achieve a better outcome.
Rove and Gillespie are right on one point, though. Even at a time when voters are chiefly concerned about the state of the economy, foreign policy will still play a big role in the coming presidential contest. Americans know that the world remains dangerous, that the terrorist threat remains, and that U.S. efforts abroad do much to shape opportunities at home.
That's precisely why the president -- along with the rest of the Democratic Party -- should welcome a fight over national security and foreign policy in this year's campaign. Given Obama's record and deep doubts about the competence of the GOP candidates, what used to be Republican terrain is now an area of growing Democratic strength.