The 2012 foreign policy debate will look very different from the 2008 debate

The 2012 foreign policy debate will look very different from the 2008 debate

It was great to convene the Shadow Government group (or most of it) for what I hope will only be the first and not the last live confab. We barely scratched the surface of our topic: how will foreign policy play in the 2012 presidential campaign?

For my part, I was struck by one big theme that kept resurfacing in the discussion: while there is much to criticize in the Obama foreign policy record, the lines of attack and debate in 2012 are likely to be very different from what they were in 2008 because Obama has turned out to be different in important ways from the person he projected himself to be in the last campaign.

A straight-line projection from 2008 might expect that President Obama would have jettisoned all of the controversial Bush national security policies by now. He would have abandoned the legal and institutional framework of the war on terror.  He would have withdrawn pell-mell from Iraq (remember that his original plan for Iraq called for a complete U.S. troop withdrawal by 2008). He would have sat down for face-to-face negotiations with Iran’s Ahmadinejad, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. And he would have committed the United States irrevocably to an ambitious international environmental regulatory regime. None of that has happened. Instead, Obama’s policy position on each of those lines is much closer to President Bush circa 2008 than it is to Senator Obama’s circa 2008. (So much so, in fact, that one esteemed Democratic operative praises Obama by calling him a 2008 Republican.)

Indeed, the single greatest and undeniable foreign policy achievement of the Obama Administration — tracking and successfully targeting Bin Laden — came not because Obama reversed course from the previous Administration but because he stayed the course.

To be sure, the devil — and thus the critiques — can be found in the details. Obama has embraced Bush’s war on terror legal framework, but he has also unleashed his Justice department to conduct destructively partisan witch-hunts against the operators who worked under this same legal framework. He has embraced Bush’s Iraq withdrawal plan, but only very lately (and perhaps too belatedly) has he embraced the implicit parts of that plan, namely working closely with Iraq to establish a viable post-2011 strategic partnership involving a small but significant U.S. military presence. He did not keep his campaign promise of unconditional engagement of dictators, but he toyed with it long enough to lose the best chance in a generation to change the Iranian regime for the better from within. And so on.

Even when he has claimed to be merely restating Bush policy, as in the recent contretemps over negotiating positions and Israel’s 1967 borders, he has managed to do so in a way that makes the goals of that policy — a viable peace process — more difficult to achieve.

There is plenty for experts to debate, but will any of it add up to a national security wedge that will have substantial impact on election day?