The defense of Obama is passionate but not so persuasive

The defense of Obama is passionate but not so persuasive

Charlie Kupchan and Bruce Jentleson have launched another round in our ongoing conversation about the Obama vs. Romney comparison on foreign policy. (You can read the exchange in chronological order: here, here, and here.)

After reading their latest, I think it may be time for me to declare victory. I had three principal claims in my initial response, and their piece (unintentionally) confirms all three.

First, I claimed that there were legitimate critiques of Obama’s record from the Republican perspective — i.e. not merely the critiques from the left, such as he shouldn’t have kept his campaign promise to conduct a fully resourced COIN strategy in Afghanistan, or that he hasn’t bragged enough about his accomplishments, or that "leading from behind" was bad spin. Obama partisans can usually be cajoled into making a critique of Obama from the left, but this hardly shows them to be fair and balanced. The test is whether they can admit a critique from the other side of the aisle, or whether their worldview denies the possibility of wisdom from the other party. I outlined just four Republican critiques, and challenged Kupchan and Jentleson to concede at least one or rebut them all. In their 2200 word response, they write about many, many things, but they avoid entirely answering the four specific critiques I raised. I know they saw the critiques, because they refer to them in passing. But Kupchan and Jentleson do not say whether they consider them valid or whether there is an Obama defense that neutralizes the critiques. My inference, based on my respect for them: If there was a strong rebuttal available, they would have provided it.  

Second, I claimed that they substituted a cartoon version of Romney’s foreign policy platform, trying to turn legitimate foreign policy debates into a Manichean struggle between Obama’s essential goodness and, in their words, Romney’s "Dangerous Mind." In their latest response, Kupchan and Jentleson go back to an older, more tired version of this Manichean worldview, this time attacking a cartoon version of Bush’s foreign policy. But the cartoon fits only if one ignores inconvenient facts. Consider just two examples:

Far from relying "too heavily on power and bravado alone," it was the Bush administration that developed the G-20, the multilateral Proliferation Security Initiative, the free trade pacts with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, the TransPacific Partnership, the strategic outreach to India, the 6-Party Talks on North Korea, the P5+1 framework on Iran, and so on — all initiatives the Obama administration and Kupchan and Jentleson boast as proving their own smarter approach to global relations.

If we have left behind "a reasonably stable country" in Iraq that is "headed in the right direction," then surely the credit for that rests with the 2007 Bush surge, which President Obama vigorously opposed and tried to block. For my part, I think Kupchan and Jentleson paint a bit too vividly a rosy scenario for Iraq. I think the situation there is far more precarious. But if they want to declare victory in Iraq, they have to share credit with the Bush surge. And if they want to declare the Bush surge a failure, they can’t claim Iraq is headed in the right direction now.

Third, I claimed that Obama’s foreign policy successes came mainly in places where he followed in the tracks of his predecessor — tracks that Romney would likely follow, as well — whereas his foreign policy failures came mainly in places where he struck out on his own.  As my analysis of the first two claims makes clear, Kupchan and Jentleson prove my point rather nicely. For the most part, they avoid talking much about the areas of genuine Obama innovations on the foreign policy front (with the exception of the Russian reset) and instead dwell mainly on approaches and initiatives that hail back to the Bush era, and they invariably describe them as glowing successes.

Given their particular areas of expertise, I would have liked to see more discussion of the situation in Syria. They mention Syria just once, when they concede that Russia has now taken an oppositional stance on Syria (sounds a bit like they are saying Russia is our foe on that geopolitical issue….maybe a geopolitical foe…perhaps the top geopolitical foe blocking U.S. action through the UN?). But surely it deserves more discussion than that. Isn’t Syria a critical case for the effectiveness of any Obama doctrine on American foreign policy, one that they claim "restored confidence in American power and purpose"?  

Kupchan and Jentleson are among the best foreign policy thinkers on the Democratic side of the aisle and their two pieces together present a clear picture of how Democratic experts would like to frame the foreign policy debate. That frame does not fit the facts very well, but we won’t know until November whether it fits the public mood well enough to scare voters away from Romney.