- By Peter Feaver
Given how many times Newt Gingrich rose from the proverbial electoral grave to become campaign-relevant again, I will not join the chorus claiming the fight for the Republican nomination is over. However, I will endorse another cliché: the primary season is at an important turning point, or at least it should be. It is high time the candidates focused on providing a compelling alternative to President Obama rather than providing a litany of reasons for detesting the other Republicans in the race.
The urgency is especially acute in foreign policy and national security. I have been fretting about this for some time now and I concede that the worst of my fears have not been realized; there won’t be a crack-up within the party over foreign policy. Moreover, I endorse the conventional wisdom that the election will be won or lost on domestic policy and the economy.
However, that is no reason to settle for sloppy critiques and platforms in the area of foreign policy. Republicans must come to terms with the fact that this will be the strongest Democrat incumbent on national security and foreign policy they have faced in decades. This has more than a whiff of damnation with faint praise, since both President Clinton and especially President Carter were hobbled with substantial national security baggage during their reelection campaign. But for precisely that reason, I think Republicans have sometimes settled for an intellectually lazy critique because, given how weak the opposing party’s record is, that seems to have sufficed.
Not this time. Obama has serious national security weaknesses and a record that warrants critique, but it is immune to superficial sound bite attacks. Soft on protecting America? The SEALs bought Obama immunity on that one when they took down Bin Laden. Naïve about the Iranian threat? Candidate Obama was demonstrably naïve about Iran and governed that way for the first half of his term, but since then has talked tough and marshaled strong sanctions.
Even issues where he has made bigger mistakes, like the failure to secure an agreement for stay-behind forces in Iraq, he may not be as politically vulnerable because they have been popular mistakes. The Iraq case illustrates my larger point well. Obama’s hands-off approach to Iraq merits criticism (and I have supplied some here, here, and here, but it is hard to present the argument in a fashion that is brief enough to engage but fair enough to withstand administration rebuttals). Thus, Obama may have been hands-off personally, but the administration was not; Vice-President Biden devoted considerable time to the Iraq file, and with Ambassador Crocker on the ground, the administration had a good team in place. Moreover, the lion’s share of the blame for the failure rests with the Iraqi leadership. I think reasonable people can question the way Obama handled the Iraq file, but it requires a nuanced line to explain how the administration missed the mark. Offer a sloppy critique, and the administration and its allies in the media swat it down with "But Bush negotiated the withdrawal agreement" — and all too often the discussion ends there.
The Obama team’s rare invocation of a Bush policy in the defense suggests two fruitful lines of contrast that the Republican nominee should develop:
1. Obama’s foreign policy successes have come when he has followed Bush policies; his failures have come when he has struck out on his own. I have made this point before, but it bears reemphasis. Republicans need not fear giving Obama credit for his successes because to a remarkable extent they have come where he has governed like a Republican not like candidate Obama.
2. Obama has made relatively effective use of the tools and instruments of power that he inherited from his predecessor — it raises the question, what new tools and instruments of power is Obama bequeathing to his successor? The SOF capabilities that produced the successful hunt for Bin Laden were honed on his predecessor’s watch, especially by General McChrystal in Iraq. Likewise with tactics, techniques, and procedures associated with drone strikes. The financial levers that are squeezing Iran today were perfected by the Bush team. The key elements of Obama’s Asia strategy — the ones that have the best chance of yielding positive results — were built under Bush and expanded under Obama. (Of course, in each of these areas, the Bush team took capabilities that were at an even more embryonic stage under Clinton’s watch, so there is plenty of credit to be shared on both sides of the aisle. By the way, this is precisely how things transpired during the first Cold War, as the history of key programs like stealth technology demonstrate.) In some of these cases, Obama wisely kept many of the same architects who did the innovative work under Bush and expanded their influence and authority. So, the Republican nominee should ask, in what ways will Obama’s successor have a larger and more powerful toolbox than the one Obama got to use?
Framing Obama’s national security successes this way cuts sharply against the triumphalism that characterizes the White House communications operation. And, as the saying goes, it has the additional virtue of being true.
Republicans do not need to fear an accurate and fair evaluation of the record. But they will have to do the hard work of supplying it. Careless sound bites won’t cut it this time around.
Update: When I said Ryan Crocker above of course I meant James Jeffrey. Crocker was an able Ambassador to Iraq under Bush and is now an able Ambassador to Afghanistan. James Jeffrey replaced Chris Hill in 2010 and, by all accounts, has worked assiduously to advance U.S. interests in Iraq.