Republicans have already devised their election-year critique of President Obama's foreign-policy record. They'll say he bowed to the Saudi king, that he neglected human-rights abuses in China, that he needlessly alienated our allies in Israel, and that his attempts to negotiate have merely bought Iran more time. Mitt Romney says that Obama apologizes for America and has made the country weaker. These are all, on some level, philosophical disagreements about how the president should wield American power.
But on Obama's signature foreign problem, the decade-old Afghanistan war, the GOP will have to take a different tack. Republicans, for the most part, wanted a larger and longer troop surge (Obama has scheduled a 2014 withdrawal). Yet the public mostly wants the opposite. The Afghanistan war is overwhelmingly unpopular, partly because of a cascade of bad news. So instead of framing their critique as an ideological dispute and running to Obama's right, Republicans may have to focus on his management of the "good war" that he promised, four years ago, to handle better than his predecessor handled Iraq.
It's been a rough few years. In 2009, a suicide attack killed 10 CIA agents at their base in Khost. The surge, announced that year, has meant more fighting and more combat deaths — 1,034 American soldiers have died since then, according to icasualties.org. Nighttime raids and drone strikes by the U.S. military have hurt the political standing of President Hamid Karzai, who still does not control the entire country. (To wit, a suicide bomber killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president and Karzai's envoy to the Taliban, in September 2011.) Relations are now so frayed that Karzai jokes about joining the Taliban.