The Democrats might have real differences over foreign policy with their Republican challengers, but you wouldn't know it from listening to them.
- By Michael A. CohenMichael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.
Having spent the last two weeks in Tampa and Charlotte at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and listening to an interminable number of political speeches I’d have to say the number of remarkable events, aside from an old man yelling at an empty chair, were somewhat few and far between.
But there was one notable exception on Thursday night at the DNC in Charlotte. In what was a highly effective, though somewhat unremarkable acceptance speech Barack Obama made the following comment, "My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy" — and then he paused. The crowd, quickly grasping the implications of the comment, began to laugh and then applaud.
It was an amazing moment; even transformational in the politics of national security and foreign policy. Barack Obama and the Democrats weren’t simply criticizing the positions of their GOP opponents — they were openly mocking, even ridiculing them as lightweights, as blusterers and blunderers not up to the responsibility of U.S. global leadership.
It wasn’t long ago that this was precisely the line of attack used by Republicans in attacking Democrats like Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and even Barack Obama. To see Obama do it to Romney represents a veritable sea change in how the two parties talk about foreign policy on the campaign trail.
And it wasn’t just Obama. Sen. John Kerry, in his barn-burner of a convention speech called Romney an "extreme and expedient candidate, who lacks the judgment and vision so vital in the Oval Office." Together, Romney and Ryan were, "the most inexperienced foreign policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades," said Kerry. He joked that "President Mitt Romney" were "three hypothetical words that mystified and alienated our allies this summer" and he suggested that Romney seemed to be basing his analysis of Russia as America’s "number one geopolitical foe" from too many viewings of Rocky IV.
It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on here — Democrats for the first time in decades have a decided advantage on foreign policy and national security issues. In fact, it is the one policy area where Obama has consistently polled the best; and with a track record of killing Osama bin Laden, avoiding any terrorist attacks under his presidency, bringing the troops home from Iraq, and improving the public image of the United States on the global stage, why shouldn’t Democrats run on it?
And Kerry’s critique of the Republican ticket is spot-on. Not only are Romney and Ryan inexperienced, they are alarmingly unserious. As I noted after the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney devoted a mere 202 words to the foreign policy section of his speech and much of what he said, like accusing Barack Obama of engaging in an apology tour, was either inaccurate or not correct. In recent days, the Romney campaign put out a white paper that chronicles the Obama administration’s misdeeds; it’s a document that is laughably unserious and demonstrative of a complete lack of understanding about the limits of U.S. military power (the paper actually blames Obama’s "lack of leadership" for "failing to ensure a clean Afghan election" in 2009). It shows that the Romney camp is struggling to divine any differences in foreign policy that they can run on — and so instead appears content to just make stuff up.
The Democrats’ new confidence on national security is reminiscent of the manner in which they reduced their political liabilities on a host of domestic issues during the 1990s. They did it by co-opting GOP positions — rather than moving further to the left and creating a clear distinction between the positions of the two parties they moved more to the right and obscured them. Democrats showed they could be just as "fiscally responsible" on the deficit, just as aggressive on curbing government spending, just as tough on crime and, by some measures, just as punitive on welfare.
Truth be told, Democrats have taken a similar approach on national security. If the rhetoric from the DNC in Charlotte is to be believed, Democrats are still fearful of being tagged as not tough enough on foreign policy, not supportive enough of the military, and not "exceptional" enough in their views of American power. What Democrats have shown, more than anything else, is that they can act and talk as tough and nationalistic as Republicans do.
For example, while Obama deserves credit for taking out bin Laden, the constant crowing about the assassination of America’s greatest enemy and frequent chants of "USA! USA!" in Charlotte bordered at times on the ghoulish. But I suppose when you’re a party that for years has been tagged with the label of soft, you gotta take political advantages where you can find them.
In triumphalist tones, speaker after speaker praised the administration’s attention to the military and his care for veterans. Kerry said of Obama that he is "a commander-in-chief who gives our troops the tools and training they need in war, the honor and help they’ve earned when they come home; a man who will never ask other men and women to fight a war without a plan to win the peace." While slathering praise on Obama’s "spine of steel" in ordering the bin Laden raid, Vice President Joe Biden called on the assembled delegates to "acknowledge, as we should every night, the incredible debt we owe to the families of those 6,473 fallen angels, and those 49,746 wounded." Even Obama took credit for the surge in Afghanistan that he claimed "blunted the Taliban’s momentum" and the process of ending America’s longest war, which is scheduled to be completed in 2014.
But this is both a little misleading and a little untrue. Under the provisions of the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed with the Hamid Karzai government earlier this year, U.S. military personnel will be remaining in Afghanistan for as much as a decade after the 2014 deadline. Moreover, Kerry’s statement that Obama has a plan to win the peace in Afghanistan will no doubt come as a shock to those who have closely followed the U.S. mission there, which appears to focus more on finding a military solution to the war than a political one.
And Biden’s treacly praise of American dead and wounded feels awfully hollow when one considers that those numbers include the more than 1,160 Americans killed in Afghanistan since Obama announced an ill-advised surge to that country at the end of 2009. Obama certainly deserves credit for beginning to wind down the war in Afghanistan; but considering that it took implementing the surge to reach that point, praise should clearly be tempered.
Defenders of the president will correctly note that Obama promised to send more troops to Afghanistan as a candidate in 2008 — an early effort to display national security toughness — but others might also note his pledge in 2003 to avoid having the United States fight "dumb wars."
Still the constant efforts of Obama and his fellow Democrats to wrap themselves in the mantle of the military and the nation’s wounded veterans is smart politics — for better or worse, it is still seen as the sina qua non of national security credibility and inoculates the president from Republican attacks.
At the same time, Obama played down one of his most successful foreign policy accomplishments — the New START treaty — likely so as to not invite attacks from political opponents who would deride him as getting too close Russian President Vladimir Putin. China, a country with whom the United States has worked to more clearly integrate into the global system became a punching bag, as Obama bragged about having "stood up to China on behalf of our workers." And Democrats were happy to assert that they can be as solicitous of Israeli leaders and as adamant in stopping Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon as Republicans (and there was also the humiliating retreat in the Democratic platform committee on the issue of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel).
In fact, in key regards it was difficult in Charlotte to tell the glaring policy differences between Democrats and Republicans — other than Dems believe themselves to be better stewards of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy.
It’s not that those policy differences don’t exist. They certainly do, but it’s rather that Democrats didn’t necessarily go to great lengths to clarify them or stress the non-commander-in-chief elements of the president’s job. If one came away from the DNC believing that Democrats could be just as tough and hawkish and exceptional as Republicans, well, then mission accomplished. The advantage for Democrats is that they look a lot less bellicose then the Romney/Ryan ticket, which frustrated by the co-option of an issue that traditionally favors the GOP, has gone off the neo-con deep end, picking fights with key allies, ramping up the saber rattling on Russia, China, Syria, Iran, and inexplicably Venezuela. But Democratic charges that the Romney/Ryan ticket could represent a return to the first term of George W. Bush should not elide the fact that U.S. foreign policy under Obama looks a lot like George W. Bush’s second term.
The irony of all of this is that one could look at Obama’s foreign policy record and statements and conclude that he has the potential to be a transformational foreign policy president: one who recognizes the limits of American power and seeks to be a more restrained, internationalist, and diplomatically minded steward of U.S. global leadership.
That he is not willing to express this sentiment as clearly as he is inclined to portray himself as a strong military leader is a sign that Democrats have captured the politics of foreign policy, but they still lack the confidence to make clear policy distinctions between them and Republicans or even more do what Obama promised during the 2008 campaign: change the very mindset of American foreign policy. When it comes to national security Democrats are still largely signing off of a Republican hymnal.