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 W. Jentleson and Charles A. 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. 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.
It is remarkable how many of Obama's other 2008 campaign promises and early initiatives on foreign policy failed once he took office: the closing of the Guantanamo Bay facility, the moving of terrorists to civilian jails on U.S. soil, the “reset” with Russia, the pursuit of a G-2 condominium with China. Even the signature Obama administration contribution to foreign policy doctrine — “leading from behind” — has proven a disastrous guide to the challenge posed by the Syrian civil war. Leading from behind has become following from behind, and as a result we face far more painful choices today than we might have faced with a more active U.S. leadership earlier in the crisis.
Obama's campaign gambit of fearmongering is a familiar one. President Jimmy Carter, who faced a similar challenge of running for reelection while saddled with a record of failure, tried to paint his opponent, Ronald Reagan, as an extremist on foreign policy. Carter lashed out as viciously against Reagan. In the words of a PBS history of the 1980 campaign, “Without a strong record to run on, the Carter team decided its only chance was to go after Ronald Reagan, painting him as a wild-eyed conservative ideologue who could not be trusted to maintain the peace.” We all know how well that worked. So why does anyone believe that Obama's indefensible caricature of Romney will take hold?
The national security themed speeches at the Republican National Convention (RNC) have been serious, substantive, and well within the mainstream of American foreign policy discourse. They had strong words of criticism for Obama's record, to be sure, but they provided no fodder for the traditional Democrat attack lines of Republicans as trigger-happy cowboys living in a Cold War past and unaware of the challenges of today.
Nor does the caricature emerge in the Romney campaign's October 2011 white paper on foreign policy, “An American Century: A Strategy to Secure America's Enduring Interests and Ideals.” I encourage skeptics to read it and make their own assessments. The white paper is a reasonable tour d'horizon, outlining areas where Romney would make greater investments than Obama did: for instance, in the promotion of free trade or in building close personal relationships with the leaders of historical allies and partners — and other areas where Romney would take more conservative bets than Obama did, for instance, in what to expect from negotiations with adversaries. As president, Mitt Romney would prioritize improving relations with American allies and friends, who have been frustrated by the Obama Administration's passivity and neglect. Under a Romney administration, nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Japan, India and Israel would know that they are valued American partners once again. And, as he promised in his RNC speech, under a Romney administration, he will return to the “bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman, and Reagan” and revive America's long-term commitment to the promotion of democracy abroad.
To be sure, some of the points in the white paper have been overtaken by events. For instance, Romney argued, sensibly, that Obama should try harder to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq in 2011. Romney was right, but Obama didn't and the negotiations failed; the next president will have to deal with the consequences of this botched legacy.
The Romney campaign has admittedly focused on the economy — to my ears, perhaps over-focused on the economy — but this is entirely understandable given our nation's precarious economic straits. Kupchan and Jentleson correctly point out that “American security and leadership ultimately rests on the nation's economic strength and military superiority.” This is why the Romney-Ryan campaign realizes that one of the most important things to be done for American national security is restoring economic growth and the engines of job creation. But it is simply false to then claim, as Kupchan and Jentleson do, that Romney's worldview “ . . . reveals a basic misunderstanding of the role of power in international affairs” or that he clings “to the notion that the more often the United States flexes its military muscles and demonstrates bravado, the more readily the rest of the world will have to get in line. . . . ” That is a caricature that exists in the minds of Democratic spinners, not in the reality of how a President Romney would wield American power and influence.
Even Romney's critical statements on Russia do not support the caricature. As Romney campaign adviser Rich Williamson has made clear, the underlying point is a reasonable one: Russia has used its geopolitical influence and U.N. veto power to slow-roll and thwart U.S. action on a range of strategic areas. There has been grudging cooperation in a few spots, such as supply routes to Afghanistan, but it is hardly the record of partnership Obama promised his “reset” policy would produce. The premise of Obama's Russian reset was that he could transform the transactional relations of the Bush era with several bold concessions to Moscow in the area of arms control and missile defense. He made those concessions and even hinted to Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev that more concessions were forthcoming if he got re-elected, and yet relations with Russia are every bit as transactional and strained as they were before Obama took office. In fact, President Vladimir Putin ran for re-election on a blatantly anti-American platform. It is inarguable that, during the Obama administration's watch, Russia has positioned itself as opposed to key U.S. foreign policy objectives.
Romney's basic message is that President Obama had his chance to lead and has failed. It is a message more of sorrow than of anger. Romney struck exactly the right note in his speech. He said: “I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division.”
Obama faced serious challenges upon taking office, to be sure, but he also enjoyed extraordinary political power including overwhelming popularity and control of both houses of Congress. So armed, he pursued his agenda vigorously and with consequence. And the consequences do not justify giving Obama and his team a second term. That case is most obvious on domestic policy, but it also holds on foreign policy. No attempt at scare-mongering can distract from that simple truth.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. Feaver was special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform on the National Security Council staff at the White House from 2005-2007.