Can the Obama team give Romney credit for any good ideas?

Can the Obama team give Romney credit for any good ideas?

Over on FP‘s homepage I have a response to a critique of Romney’s foreign policy by two prominent Democrats, both foreign policy experts and likely senior players if President Obama wins a second term. The two, Bruce Jentleson and Charlie Kupchan, are old friends and Bruce is also my Duke colleague. They present as strong a Democrat brief as can be presented and so their piece is worth reading carefully.  

They take the same tack that President Carter took against then-Governor Reagan in 1980: they try to paint Romney as an extreme ideologue whose ideas are far out of the mainstream. I understand why they are trying to do this — Obama’s reelection turns not so much on convincing voters that he has been a successful president as it does on scaring them about the Romney alternative. But as the title ("Sound and Sensible") of my piece indicates, I don’t think their description of Romney really fits the evidence. Romney’s foreign policy stance is fairly mainstream and even where he has taken controversial stances, eg. on Russia, he has ample facts on his side to make his point at the very least arguable. Perhaps they even secretly agree, because I notice that their piece does not contain a single smoking gun quote from the Romney speech. (Yes, I know it was mostly written before the speech, as was mine, but we both had the opportunity to reference the speech to underscore our points.)

Of course, Romney’s foreign policy positions and messaging are not above critique. The Romney white paper on foreign policy is sound but needs to be updated in some places (eg. on Iraq and Syria) and fleshed out in others (eg. on Afghanistan and the war on terror). Recognizing the need to avoid endless hypotheticals, Romney can nevertheless explain a bit more fully how he might react to a collapse of the eurozone or to Beijing’s likely reactions to his threat to label China a currency manipulator. And I agree with Bill Kristol: Romney should have discussed the Afghanistan war in his speech, especially given how Clint Eastwood muddied the waters with his set-up skit.

But calling out Romney to expand and refine his foreign policy stances is a far cry from pretending, as Jentleson and Kupchan do, that Romney holds dangerous views that are beyond the pale.  

Jentleson and Kupchan have promised a fuller response to my response (and doubtless I will have more to say, too — on it goes, well past the patience of our audience!) and I look forward to it. I hope they will do two things:

(1) I hope they will do what I did, which is identify places where the other side has done praiseworthy things. They write: "Contrary to the rebuttal to this article written by our colleague Peter Feaver, there is much good to be said about Obama’s foreign policy." I know they were writing on a tight deadline so perhaps they missed it, but if they go back and re-read my piece they will see that I credit Obama with quite a few good decisions. I have so many kind things to say about Obama — "…foreign policy, an arena where the president has had some genuine successes and where voters seem ready to give him comparatively better marks" and "some significant successes, to be sure" and "Obama deserves credit"[3 times] and "It is good that Obama…" [2 times] and "notable successes or partial successes and certainly legitimate boasting points for the campaign."– that some of my Republican friends have called me a squish. So far as I can tell, Jentleson and Kupchan do not credit Romney with a single good foreign policy stance or recommendation or insight. They would have you believe that Romney is wrong in every particular — no, worse than that, they would have you believe Romney is dangerously wrong in every particular. I can understand why the fevered (not feavered!) partisans on MSNBC and in the comments section of the blogosphere talk like that, but why are serious foreign policy experts doing so?

(2) I hope they will do what I gather is very dangerous for Democrats to do: admit some areas where Obama’s foreign policy has made mistakes. Many others have noticed what I have noticed — this Administration is exceptionally thin-skinned. Obama has basked in a largely sympathetic press and taken great exception when anyone has offered a critical word. When pressed to identify any error at all, the Administration retreats to the lame concessions of "we didn’t explain our policy well enough" or "we were too trusting of Republicans" or "it was Bush’s fault." This is the kind of abdication of responsibility one expects from people who post comments under pseudonyms. I don’t take such people very seriously, but I do take seriously the adults holding the reins of foreign policy — and I would like to see a bit more honesty and candor from them. In my piece, I identified four obvious mistakes (there were many more I could have chosen): announcing an arbitrary withdrawal timeline at the same time that the Afghan surge was announced; the failure to leverage the Green Revolution in Iran in June 2009 to ramp up more pressure then on the Iranian regime; the imposition of new preconditions on Israel regarding building in Jerusalem; and the delay in ratifying the free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia. Are Jentleson and Kupchan willing to concede that those were indeed mistakes?

But perhaps the challenge really should be placed on the lap of the President. Last night, Governor Romney gave credit to Obama where credit was due and likewise admitted that not all of the investments he made while at Bain proved to be winners. Can President Obama match that in his convention? Can he recognize where Republicans were right and he was wrong? I accept that his list will not be as long as mine would, or as would those of many independent voters. But if he could even make a gesture in that direction, it would be a healthy thing for foreign policy, and for our divided nation’s political culture in general.