The GOP Wasted 4 Years on the Wrong Critique of Obama's Foreign Policy

By Conor Friedersdorf

The president enjoys a huge lead over Mitt Romney on national-security issues, and conservatives don't even understand why.

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Reuters

Speaking at the RNC, Clint Eastwood turned to invisible Barack Obama and mocked him for surging troops into Afghanistan. "You were against the war in Iraq, and that's okay," he said. "But you thought the war in Afghanistan was OK. You thought that was something worth doing. We didn't check with the Russians to see how they did there for 10 years." He went on to suggest that rather than wait until 2014, the United States should just pull its troops from the country.

Those words were lost in the larger weirdness of the Hollywood star's speech. But they were telling. Even a speech skewering Obama couldn't help but concede that he was right about Iraq. And while attacking Obama on Afghanistan makes perfect sense, given that his strategy has totally failed, every informed observer couldn't help but think that insofar as the GOP has an alternative policy, it's that maybe 2014 is too early to pull out the troops (just as in Iraq, their critique was that we should've negotiated to keep troops there longer even though U.S. voters were against it).

That's basically where the GOP finds itself in 2012.

President Obama's foreign policy is vulnerable to all sorts of accurate attacks. But Mitt Romney, the Republican Party, and the conservative movement are totally unable to exploit them. This is partly because the last four years have been spent advancing critiques so self-evidently implausible to anyone outside the movement that calling attention to them seems impolite. There is no factual basis for the assertion that Obama rejects American exceptionalism; or that he embarked on an apology tour; or that he is allied with our Islamist enemy in a "grand jihad" against America; or that his every action is motivated by Kenyan anti-colonialism. And while those critiques are especially inane, they aren't cherry-picked to discredit conservatives. They're actually all critiques advanced by prominent people, publications, and/or Republican politicians. (Like I said, the right's process for identifying the worst ideas is broken.)

The fact that the vast majority of conservatives give no indication of having learned anything from the Iraq War is an even more significant reason that the GOP has lost its traditional edge on national-security issues, with a majority of Americans telling pollsters they trust Democrats more. Romney himself said that (what he saw as) the quick pace of the U.S. drawdown in Iraq was "tragic." Romney also says Russia is America's number one enemy in the world, and that if elected he might commit U.S. troops in Syria to contain chemical weapons. Nowhere has he been worse than on Libya. I don't mean his recent, much-ridiculed response to the embassy attack, so much as his insistence that Obama was too slow to commit U.S. troops to oppose Moammar Gadhafi ... until Obama committed troops, at which point Romney said that he did so too precipitously.  

Conservative readers may disagree with me on the substance of any issue already mentioned, but there's no denying these numbers from Pew Research. Check out "traits" like "good judgement in crisis" and "a strong leader." And "issues" like "making wise decisions on foreign policy" and "dealing with problems in the Middle East."

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Now look at the same survey, this time with the results for swing voters only:

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Obama is just killing Romney. Why is that?

Say that my theory is incorrect. What's notable is that movement conservatives have no alternative explanation. As far as they're concerned, Obama isn't just incompetent on foreign policy, he's borderline treasonous. Yet Americans trust him more by a wide margin -- and these same Americans trust him less on the budget deficit, and basically the same as Romney on "improving the job situation," so they aren't just in the tank for Obama. You'd think that conservatives would try to grapple with why they've lost their historic foreign-policy advantage, en route to remedying the situation. Instead it goes all but unmentioned. Reading most blogs and magazines on the right, you'd never know that public attitudes have changed. But once you see the reality of the poll numbers, there's no denying that the GOP has failed to make its case.

So what could an opposition party less dysfunctional than Republicans say about Obama's foreign policy?

  1. The Afghan surge turned out to be a failure that cost a lot of American lives and money with little if any lasting benefit.
  2. In the course of the successful Bin Laden raid, the Obama Administration ran a fake vaccination campaign that failed in its mission to get the fugitive's DNA, failed to stay secret, and undermined public health efforts in Pakistan and elsewhere for a generation -- a catastrophic bungle that could conceivably make the world more vulnerable to a pandemic in the future.
  3. Obama's main counterterrorism strategy, secretive CIA drone strikes in multiple Muslim countries, scatters terrorists to more countries than they'd otherwise be in, arguably creates more terrorists than it kills over time, and has definitely killed hundreds of innocent people at minimum.
  4. Whether you agree or disagree with the idea of intervening in Libya, the way President Obama went about it violated the U.S. Constitution, the War Powers Resolution, and an Obama campaign promise.
There are a lot more critiques of Obama's foreign policy. It's instructive to focus on these because they're just the sorts of things you can't attack if your party defines itself as most hawkish; totally discounts the importance of things like public health compared to military operations; doesn't pay any attention at all to dead innocents killed by America; and has totally abandoned Madisonian notions of checks and balances when it comes to national-security policy.

In any article critical of the GOP, multiple commenters inevitably comes along to suggest that the writer is just in the tank for President Obama and never criticizes him despite all of his flaws. Here's what I'd tell those commenters. I so strongly disagree with Obama's national security policy that I refuse to vote for him on principle*. And I've criticized him frequently over the last four years, including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

So when I conclude that the opposition party's critique of his atrocious record is an utter failure, and often so ideological and disconnected from reality that it's laughable, I really wish it weren't so. I'd replace Obama with a George H.W. Bush-style foreign policy in an instant. I even tried to tip the GOP off to a better strategy way back in 2011. Instead the choice the party has given voters is a hawkish incarnation of Romney guided by a bunch of neoconservative advisers eager for wars of choice.

Unsurprisingly, voters don't trust that combination.

Neither do I.
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*A more fleshed out explanation coming soon, liberal commenters.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/the-gop-wasted-4-years-on-the-wrong-critique-of-obamas-foreign-policy/262740/