One of the most striking aspects of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign has been Barack Obama's ability to neutralize the Republican Party's traditional advantage on national security. Voters see Obama as a better commander in chief than Mitt Romney and have more confidence in his ability to handle foreign policy.
How much this will matter in an election dominated by economic anxiety remains to be seen. But closing the national security confidence gap that has dogged Democrats for nearly 50 years is no mean accomplishment -- if it lasts.
Republicans, meanwhile, have splintered into rival camps. Centrist internationalists like Dick Lugar are out of favor, leaving realists, neocons, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-isolationists to battle it out for the party's soul. Romney hasn't even tried to weave a coherent story about America's global role from such incongruous strands, confining himself instead to scattershot criticisms of Obama's polices and hackneyed slogans about "American exceptionalism" and "peace through strength."
The Republicans' disarray gives Democrats a chance to occupy the pragmatic center on security and foreign policy. To do that, they should look beyond Obama's "realist" correction of his predecessor's mistakes. With the excesses of the Bush-Cheney years fading mercifully into memory, the party needs a post-realist outlook grounded in the liberal convictions of the American people. Such a policy would combine Obama's resolve in defending Americans against terrorism with new strategies for using U.S. power, soft and hard, to bend history's arc toward freedom.
Too many Democrats seem terrified that affirming the liberal internationalist tradition they invented will make them sound too much like George W. Bush. This has left them tongue-tied at precisely the moment when America needs to wage and win a battle of ideas against Islamist extremism and China's model of autocratic capitalism.
Obama's Realist Correction
Obama was dealt a lousy economic hand in 2008, but the security portfolio he inherited wasn't much better. After eight years of Bush's belligerent unilateralism, America was an overextended, war-weary and debt-burdened superpower that had alienated old friends and rattled potential foes. Obama saw his job as repairing the damage, not devising some new foreign-policy doctrine. His main goals were to defeat al Qaeda, end two wars and rebuild America's standing in the world. We'll see what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he's made undeniable progress on the other two fronts.
By narrowing the panoramic scope of Bush's Global War on Terror to al Qaeda, Obama has reassured nervous allies and undercut the jihadi narrative that America is leading a new crusade against Islam. At the same time, hunting down and killing Osama bin Laden has convinced Americans that he will give our enemies no quarter. Obama's surprising metamorphosis from anti-war candidate and premature Nobel laureate to warrior president has confounded the GOP's attempts to caricature him as just another liberal softy.