Why Has Every Attack on Obama's Foreign Policy Failed?

By Conor Friedersdorf

The electorate supports what he has done, is unpersuaded by his Republican critics, and doesn't care about his broken promises.

obama fullness plane.jpg

President Obama's foreign policy has provoked two very different critiques.

The one I've pursued, along with a small group of civil libertarians, non-interventionists, and disaffected progressives, emphasizes his broken campaign promises; his violation of the War Powers Resolution in Libya; the destabilizing effect of his drone campaign in Pakistan; the innocents the CIA is killing when carrying out his policies; and his embrace of indefinite detention. 

Far more Americans are familiar with the critique offered by Republican politicians, conservative television and talk radio hosts, and neoconservative writers. In their telling, the president rejects American exceptionalism; is constantly apologizing for America; harbors an intense dislike of Israel; practices appeasement with regard to our enemies; seeks to cut military spending so much that we'll be vulnerable to foreign aggression; and is content to "lead from behind."

These critiques (the latter based mostly on distortions) share just one feature: the electorate is rejecting them both. Polling data suggests that as Election 2012 approaches, voters are broadly supportive of the actions he has taken, unpersuaded by Republican attacks, and unperturbed even by Obama's broken promises. Is he invulnerable to being attacked on foreign policy?

That's what I began to wonder after looking at the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. Scott Wilson and Jon Cohen wrote up the results:

The sharpest edges of President Obama's counterterrorism policy, including the use of drone aircraft to kill suspected terrorists abroad and keeping open the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have broad public support, including from the left wing of the Democratic Party. By better than 2 to 1 Americans say the president's handling of terrorism is a major reason to support rather than oppose his bid for reelection. The survey shows that 70 percent of respondents approve of Obama's decision to keep open the prison at Guantanamo Bay. He pledged during his first week in office to close the prison within a year. But he has not done so.

Even the party base appears willing to forgive that failure. The poll shows that 53 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats -- and 67 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats -- support keeping Guantanamo Bay open, even though it emerged as a symbol of the post-Sept. 11 national security policies of George W. Bush, which many liberals bitterly opposed. Obama has also relied on armed drones far more than Bush did, and he has expanded their use beyond America's defined war zones. The Post-ABC News poll found that 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama's drone policy, which administration officials refuse to discuss, citing security concerns... fully 77 percent of liberal Democrats endorse the use of drones, meaning that Obama is unlikely to suffer any political consequences as a result of his policy in this election year.

Those are remarkable numbers -- and so are these (emphasis added):


Romney has criticized Obama for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of last year and for the administration's plans to wind down combat operations in Afghanistan next year... The critique is a politically risky one to make after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, a conflict that a majority of Americans stopped believing was worth fighting some time ago. The Post-ABC News poll shows that 78 percent of the public supports Obama's drawdown plan, scheduled to culminate in 2014 with a complete withdrawal of U.S. combat troops.

How do you attack a president on foreign policy when his two most consequential initiatives -- the drone war and the troop drawdowns -- are both supported by roughly 8 in 10 Americans surveyed? Also wildly popular: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the successful assault on pirates.

There is one bit of good news in these numbers for non-interventionists. Americans want to bring our troops home. Civil libertarians have less to celebrate, but can at least console themselves with the possibility that public opinion on their issues could change if the substance of their critique is heard by more people, though it's difficult to see how that could happen prior to the election. 

For Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum, the polling data is even bleaker. Few Americans accept the fantastical critiques the right has been making for the last few years, many of which will invite the retort, "Tell that to bin Laden." It seems as though Iran is the issue on which they're presently trying to distinguish themselves. Depressingly for non-interventionists, however, Obama can credibly talk and even act like a hawk on Iran, and attempts to get to his right risk triggering in voters bad memories of hawkish conservatives urging the invasion of Iraq in 2002 or 2003.  

Image credit: Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/02/why-has-every-attack-on-obamas-foreign-policy-failed/252799/