Then there were two. With Tuesday's announcement by Rick Santorum that he is suspending his presidential campaign, the November election title bout is now set. In the Democratic corner, hailing from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, wearing the blue trunks ... Barack Obama! In the far-right corner, from the great state of Massachusetts, wearing the red trunks ... Mitt Romney!
While the economy will almost certainly be front and center for the next seven rounds (er, months) of campaigning, foreign policy is likely to play an important, even decisive, role. So as the general election campaign kicks off and the two candidates prepare to go mano-a-mano, here are the five issues most likely to shape the foreign policy narrative of the 2012 campaign -- and who's got the advantage thus far.
It's not 2004 anymore, when terrorism and the threat from al Qaeda was front and center in American politics, but that doesn't mean the issue will be off the radar screen in 2012 -- particularly if the Obama camp has anything to say about it. With the killing of Osama bin Laden (an issue that featured prominently in Davis Guggenheim's recently released short film about the Obama presidency) and, even more important, the lack of any serious terrorist incident since Obama took office, this is perhaps the killer foreign policy uppercut for the incumbent.
Indeed, by one measure, it is the single issue on which Obama earns the strongest marks from voters -- 63 percent of Americans approve of the manner in which the president has handled terrorism. For Obama, his effectiveness at "fighting terrorism" is more than just an issue advantage, it's a key validator of his foreign policy performance, his leadership, and his fortitude in keeping America safe (or at least that's how the White House will spin it). His continued ramping up of the drone war only reinforces the message that he's not about to waver in the fight with al Qaeda or its affiliates and while there's certainly criticism to made of the president over his failure to close Guantanamo Bay or his lack of fealty to protecting basic civil liberties -- these are hardly place in which a Republican nominee not named Ron Paul is going to try and jab him. In short, Romney will have few opportunities to lay a glove on Obama on the issue of terrorism; the less he says about it, probably the better.
Ending America's wars:
Generally speaking, a Democrat incumbent who ended one war and wound down another during his presidency might be considered vulnerable to traditional Republican attacks of foreign policy weakness. Not this cycle. Let's face it, Americans don't agree on much these days. If Barack Obama says the sky is blue, a Republican might be inclined to argue "no, in fact it's green ... and blue is a socialist plot." The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are two notable exceptions. By wide margins, Americans are supportive of the U.S. pull out from Iraq and the beginning of the drawdown from Afghanistan -- even a majority of Republicans supported the president on the full withdrawal from Iraq. On Afghanistan, a majority of the country wants the United States to get out now, even before completing its current training mission of the Afghan Army. Another 60 percent now believes the war "was not worth fighting." Amazingly, these data points have not really dented Obama's approval on this issue -- which is just under 50 percent. That the president has escaped such little blame for a policy that is so deeply unpopular and has been so badly managed, is truly one of the great enigmas of his presidency.
Nonetheless, the drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan are both sources of support for president's foreign policy performance -- so much so that the Obama campaign has already begun attacking Romney for suggesting that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was precipitous and, in his words, "tragic." All of this leaves Romney in the rather unpleasant position of playing defense. If he criticizes the president for too rapidly withdrawing from Afghanistan or -- as he has been prone to do -- hits him for supposedly putting politics ahead of the advice of his generals it will beg the question, "Does Romney want to stay longer in Afghanistan?" That hardly seems like a winning political stance for any candidate this cycle. So on this issue, Obama has not only a nearly impenetrable defense; he's got a few good left hooks in the arsenal.