Stuck in a Rut

If the Republicans really want to attack President Obama on foreign policy, they’re going to have to do a lot better than just recycling tired, old ideas.


In the opening sentence of their recent article in Foreign Policy on how to beat Barack Obama, Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie make a rather audacious claim about the president’s standing on foreign policy, "In an American election focused on a lousy economy and high unemployment, conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy is one of Barack Obama’s few strong suits. But the president is strikingly vulnerable in this area."

Really? Whatever one might think of President Obama’s foreign policy performance — if you think he has been feckless and weak; if you think he’s been a militarist and neocon-lite; even if you can’t find Europe on a map — you’d have a pretty hard time making the case that foreign policy is an area of vulnerability for President Obama. In fact, it’s one of the few places where the electorate gives Obama strong marks.

According to a recent AP/Gfk poll the president scores a negative or barely positive rating on a host of domestic issues: the economy, health care, the budget deficit, gas prices, unemployment, and taxes. But check out the foreign policy side of the ledger and it tells a very different story: handling of Iraq, 57 percent approve; Afghanistan, 54 percent; relationships with other counties, 57 percent; and finally terrorism, 63 percent. Other polls suggest that Americans see Obama as a strong leader and someone who will keep the country safe.

According to Rove and Gillespie, voters see Obama as "out of touch and in over his head" on foreign policy and national security, but there is literally not a single significant data point in public opinion polling that supports this assertion.

If anything, Obama’s foreign policy advantage — rather than being vulnerability — may very well be one of the keys to his re-election.

Indeed, the only people who appear to be out-of-touch are Rove and Gillespie — and not just with the current polling on Obama, but with the overall mood of the electorate on foreign policy. At a time when Republicans desperately need to find a new way to talk about national security that more accurately reflects the electorate’s views on America’s role in the world, Rove and Gillespie are calling on GOP presidential candidates to spin the party’s greatest hits rather than writing some new material.

Three points illustrate Rove and Gillespie’s confusion. First, they claim that the most important national security today is "the struggle that will define this century’s arc: radical Islamic terrorism." Rove and Gillespie’s argument presupposes that Americans are still living in the wake of 9/11 and are concerned about terrorism as a serious national issue. They’re not. Rather, voters express little to no interest in hearing the candidates’ views on terrorism. Beyond that, as Rove and Gillespie’s own polling indicates, they think Obama has done a bang-up job in fighting terror.

Second, Rove and Gillespie argue that "the Republican candidate must condemn the president’s precipitous drawdown in Afghanistan." This is a bit reminiscent of the approach taken by Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections when they railed against the Democrats call for a drawdown from Iraq. Didn’t work out so well for the GOP that time; they lost both the House and Senate to Democrats. Even today, only about one in five Americans think Obama is withdrawing troops from the Afghan war "too quickly." So it’s bit hard to see how this is a political winner.

And third, Rove and Gillespie claim that Republicans need to make an issue out of Obama’s efforts to deal with "rogue states, particularly Iran and North Korea." They allege that Obama’s "weakness and naiveté in dealing" with Iran is a political vulnerability. But again the evidence suggests otherwise. In October 2009 (months after the crushing of the Green Movement), voters were asked if they supported or opposed direct diplomatic talks with Iran to prevent Iran from procuring a nuclear weapons — an astounding 82 percent of Americans supported this approach. Even today, most voters prefer that the U.S. exhaust all diplomatic and economic levers before considering the use of force with Iran. One can find certain similarities in these numbers with results indicating that — while Americans don’t trust North Korea either — they prefer to eschew force in containing Pyongyang.

This gets to the core problem with Rove and Gillespie’s analysis; they’re living in the past. Rove and Gillespie assert that Americans want a strong leader who is willing to "adopt a confident, nationalist tone emphasizing American exceptionalism, expressing pride in the United States as a force for good in the world, and advocating for an America that is once again respected (and, in some quarters, feared) as the preeminent global power."

They appear to imagine that such a president would be someone who speaks about American power in Wilsonian-style rhetoric, who looks dismissively at diplomacy in dealing with potential adversaries, who views the world through the prism of existential threats to the United States particularly from rogue states, who believes that America should be a preeminent world leader and global hegemon, who maintains a hair-trigger responsiveness to potential foreign threats. In short, they believe that voters are looking for George W. Bush circa 2002. The problem for Republicans is that, for better or worse, when voters look for a candidate who is strong leader with the attributes that Rove and Gillespie enumerate as being most important … they see Barack Obama.

Moreover, both men badly overestimate the continued resonance of the GOP’s traditional advantage on national security issues. For as long as most of us reading this article have been alive there has been a popular perception in American politics that Republicans are the party of national security strength and Democrats the party of national security weakness. This advantage for Republicans was thought to be one of the most enduring in American politics.

But it’s an over-determined assumption. Indeed, the GOP’s foreign policy edge is one that has been of fleeting value since the end of the Cold War. In the five presidential elections since the fall of the Berlin Wall, not only has foreign policy played a less prominent role, but also fewer rewards have gone to the party that emphasized the sort of tough, no-compromising approach that Rove and Gillespie are advocating. Of course, the one exception to this rule was 2004, when Bush (under both men’s tutelage) rode the GOP’s traditional advantage on national security to a narrow electoral victory.

But this was a unique election at a unique moment in American history. It’s not necessarily transferable, especially after Republicans squandered so much of that advantage in the bloody streets of Baghdad. If the last few congressional and presidential cycles have shown anything, it is that voters have soured on this traditional line of attack — and if current polling is any indication, voters are willing to rate foreign policy results higher than antiquated stereotypes about Democrats and Republicans on national security and foreign policy.

The irony of all this is that Rove, who once criticized Democrats for having a pre-9/11 mindset, seems stuck in a 9/12 mindset — one that is dramatically out of touch with the preferences of the American people on foreign policy. More than ever, Republicans desperately need to find a new way to talk about foreign policy; they need to get past the simplistic militarism and juvenile American exceptionalism that has defined the appeals of their presidential aspirants on the campaign trail; they need to stop the constant charges of foreign policy weakness against Democrats, because in the end it’s just not working. Poll after poll suggests that while Americans want the United States to be a leading global power and remain engaged internationally they don’t want the country to be a global cop. They would just as soon "lead from behind" as they would from the forward — and they have tired of foreign wars that are only dubiously related to the national interest. In short, they want a foreign policy that still views America as a great power, but as a more modest and restrained great power that shares the burden of global leadership with other countries. (Indeed, if Ron Paul’s vocal level of support is any indication, some would prefer going even further in constraining America’s role in the world).

In the end, the various presidential aspirants intent on taking Barack Obama’s job would be best off ignoring Rove and Gillespie’s advice. But it’s not just them; if the Republican Party wants to once again be taken seriously on foreign policy they need to get out of the mindset that might always equals right.

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