Shadow Government

Obama is better positioned on foreign policy, but is America?

David Sanger’s provocative recent piece on Romney’s foreign policy is a useful reminder of something I have beaten the drums on for a while: In this campaign cycle, Republicans are more vulnerable to simplistic critiques on foreign policy than are Democrats. Traditionally, Republicans have issue ownership on foreign policy and national security.  Voters reflexively trust ...

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David Sanger’s provocative recent piece on Romney’s foreign policy is a useful reminder of something I have beaten the drums on for a while: In this campaign cycle, Republicans are more vulnerable to simplistic critiques on foreign policy than are Democrats.

Traditionally, Republicans have issue ownership on foreign policy and national security.  Voters reflexively trust Republicans more than Democrats to do the right thing in that arena.  While Democrats might have more popular positions on an issue or two, in general Republicans have the rhetorical advantage.

This time around, the Democratic candidate has done a comparatively good job positioning himself for maximum political advantage on foreign policy and national security. Obama is not immune to critique — indeed, his record is decidedly mixed — but compared to domestic/economic policy, where the administration’s unpopular record is hard to spin away, foreign policy is somewhat more favorable terrain.

Part of the reason, I believe, is that while it is easy to point out foreign policy mistakes, setbacks, and questionable decisions, collectively they have yet to be summarized into a simple pattern.

Earlier, I suggested one such pattern: Obama’s successes have largely come by following in Republican footsteps, whereas his failures have largely come by following his own instincts, at least the instincts he touted on the 2008 campaign trail. If it was Obama’s idea, it tended not to work; if it worked, it tended not to be Obama’s idea.

Yet I think there is a still more general pattern: President Obama may have made himself better off, but not made American foreign policy better off. In a few instances (as with the Bin Laden strikes) the pursuit of the former has also happened to help with the latter. But in general, it is hard to look across the globe and say American interests are better secured today than they were a few years ago. His backers tout "ending" wars, but if we are ending (or perhaps only suspending) our involvement without achieving lasting success, what have we really gained?

The "are you better off today than you were four years ago" test is easy to grade in terms of the domestic economy. One can imagine more grade-grubbing in terms of foreign policy because of some tactical successes and short-run popular steps that may obscure longer-term erosion of our global position. But in the end it is a test that Romney could, and should, impose on Obama.

It is worth asking the question and looking at the issue with the long-run in view: Obama has made his global position better, but has he made America’s better?

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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