President Barack Obama faced a crucial choice early in this campaign: he could run on his record and on a platform of important things he thought needed doing in a second term, or he could try to scare voters about his opponent. Every candidate does a mix of these two, but few incumbents have adopted a mix so heavily tilted towards the latter. Given the poor economic record and the low marks voters give Obama for his most consequential legislative achievements, this strategy is an obvious one for domestic policy. What is surprising is that the Obama campaign appears to be using the same playbook on foreign policy, an arena where the president has had some genuine successes and where voters seem ready to give him comparatively better marks.
Despite a few more things to boast about in foreign policy, the Obama campaign seems most focused on scaring voters about Mitt Romney, and Exhibit A is the tandem piece published in Foreign Policy and written by my friends and colleagues, Bruce Jentleson and Charles Kupchan. Jentleson and Kupchan are both first-rate scholars and some of the finest foreign policy thinkers on the Democratic bench. If there were a stronger case to be made for Obama's foreign policy record and future platform, I have no doubt they would make it. Instead, they caricature Romney as an extreme ideologue, eager to waste American military power and ignorant of the essential linkage between American economic strength at home and its global position abroad.
It is a caricature so flimsy and transparent that it raises the obvious question: why distract so zealously from Obama's own record? The answer, I think, is that Obama's record does not stand up so well to close scrutiny and certainly does not support the conclusion that he deserves a second term.
If, instead, President Obama invited the public to examine his record, what would they see? They would see some significant successes, to be sure. Obama deserves credit -- and ample credit has been given to him - for rejecting the advice of Vice-President Joe Biden and ordering the SEAL raid on the Osama bin Laden compound. Obama deserves credit for rejecting Biden's advice against the surge in Afghanistan, though here he deserves only partial credit since he also rejected Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's good advice and undermined his own policy with the strategic blunder of announcing an arbitrary timeline for withdrawal. Obama deserves credit for preserving the war on terror legal framework he inherited from President George W. Bush and for building on the counterterror special-operations/stand-off-drones and other special capabilities developed during Bush's tenure. It is good that Obama, after years of delay, finally did get ratified the signed free-trade agreements he inherited from the Bush administration. And it is good that Obama went along with the British and French and the U.S. Congress, who took the lead in pushing for stronger sanctions against Iran.
These are all notable successes or partial successes and certainly legitimate boasting points for the campaign. The problem for Obama is, however, that all of these successes have one thing in common: they are simply following in the path of Obama's Republican predecessor and fully consistent with what Romney would do. They are evidence of the wisdom of the bipartisan mainstream in American foreign policy, not evidence of Obama's own foreign policy merits.
On the contrary, in almost every case where Obama followed his own instincts, he undermined the success of the policy or made the situation worse. The Republican-supported surge in Afghanistan was laudable; the Obama arbitrary timeline was not -- and it failed because it signaled to the Taliban how long they needed to wait out the surge. The Republican-supported effort to strengthen sanctions against Iran was praise-worthy; the Obama delay for years while offering unconditional leader-to-leader talks, even at the cost of standing on the sidelines when pro-democracy activists in Iran took to the streets to protest a stolen election, was not -- and it failed because it delayed the imposition of more powerful sanctions while Iran inched closer to the point of nuclear immunity. The Republican-supported offer of expanded security cooperation with Israel was laudable; the decision to impose new preconditions on Israel to coerce a better deal in peace negotiations was not -- and it failed because it unnerved the Israelis and set an unreasonable precondition that even the Palestinians had not insisted upon, thus driving the two sides further apart. (By the way, this is a mistake even ardent Obama supporters are willing to concede, albeit perhaps not in a campaign setting.) Ratifying the Republican-negotiated free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia was laudable; delaying and renegotiating them for years because of pressure from his electoral base was not -- and it failed because it robbed the United States of any momentum on the trade front and ceded the initiative to others.