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.
American public opinion has swung sharply against the conflict. An April survey by the Pew Research Center found support for keeping troops in Afghanistan at an all-time low — 60 percent want to withdraw, while only 32 percent want to stay. From last year alone, that's a 27-point swing toward withdrawal. Even 48 percent of Republicans want out. And attitudes may still be shifting as political tension and violence in Afghanistan continue to worsen. All of that could make the war a major topic in the 2012 race.
Already, Romney's campaign has begun to cast the president as hapless on the issue. "The knock on President Obama when he was a candidate in 2008 was, "˜Well, this guy doesn't have a record on foreign policy, and he's naive,' " says Alex Wong, foreign-policy director for the Romney campaign. "I still think that criticism holds for Barack Obama. Now we have a record to prove it."
Wong argues that Obama chose politics over results by publicly announcing the timetable for withdrawal. What's more, he says, the president is partly to blame for the war's unpopularity because he hasn't properly articulated his strategy. "A key part of the commander in chief role is communicating to the American people — to the home front — what's at stake when we send men and women into battle," Wong says. "He hasn't done that; he's shied away from it."
Admittedly, foreign policy may not be determinative in a year when unemployment hovers above 8 percent. But the Obama campaign nonetheless believes that the president has a winning list of international achievements: the troop withdrawal from Iraq; the ouster of former Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddaf; and, most of all, the killing of Osama bin Laden a year ago. Campaign strategists believe that these achievements give Obama the advantage.
Polls show Obama standing strong against Romney in the national-security arena: CNN asked voters in mid-April which candidate could better handle the responsibilities as commander in chief, and 52 percent picked Obama. Just 36 percent picked the former Massachusetts governor. Perhaps because of those foreign-policy accomplishments, 50 percent of voters also rated Obama as a strong and decisive leader, compared with 34 percent for his rival. In a close race, those perceptions could give Obama the edge he needs.
Romney's Afghanistan criticism, although potentially potent, comes with complications. Romney contends that the administration shouldn't have publicized a withdrawal timetable; he says that 2014 can work — but only if conditions on the ground permit it. But if Romney leaves the impression that he would keep troops in Afghanistan longer, the Obama campaign could characterize him to a war-weary public as a reckless warmonger.
In fact, that's already happening. In a foreign-policy address in New York City this week, Vice President Joe Biden suggested that Romney wants to keep troops in Afghanistan "indefinitely," a decision he called reminiscent of George W. Bush's agenda. "We know, to the extent he has any foreign-policy vision, it's through the glass of a rearview mirror," Biden said. "In my view, he would take us back to dangerous and discredited policies that would make America less safe and less secure."
Given public opinion, Romney's best stance is to keep his Afghanistan focus on outcomes — and Obama's supposedly bad ones — and not means.