Shadow Government

The Foreign Policy Question Democrats Hope to Avoid

This election isn't about the problems Obama inherited. It's about the ones he's passing along.


The toughest foreign policy question for Democrats is the one the CNN moderators were careful not to ask the candidates: “How will you fix the myriad geopolitical problems your predecessor is fixing to hand you in January 2017?” Of course, even that question somewhat obscures the nub of the matter: “Why should the country hand control back to the group that has produced this national security legacy in the first place?”

This is a question Democrats should recognize. They posed it themselves as a referendum on the Bush administration and saw electoral success doing so in 2008 and 2012. But the Bush-framed version of that question is painfully obsolete today, and by November 2016, that dog just won’t hunt.

The 2016 election will not be a referendum on the George W. Bush foreign policy legacy. Democrats must fear that it could be a referendum on the Barack Obama foreign policy legacy.

The problems that will preoccupy the next president were not caused by decisions made during the Bush administration. They were caused by decisions made — and not made — during the Obama administration.

More to the point, some of the most consequential decisions — the decision to walk away from Iraq at the end of 2011, the decision to undermine the Afghan surge by announcing an arbitrary withdrawal timeline, the decision to delay (and attempt to block) the pursuit of coercive economic leverage over Iran, the decision to pursue the reset with Russia, the decision to topple Muammar Gaddafi without a plan to stabilize the country afterwards, among others — were made when Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. They are her legacy, as well as Obama’s.

In other words, the problems the candidates are competing to be responsible for managing are the ones that arose when their party was already responsible for managing them. The several hours worth of Republican primetime debate transcripts boil down to a single summary response: How is that working for us?

Voters who made it all the way through the debate heard very little that would enlighten them on foreign policy subjects. The candidates spent a lot of time talking about the 2002 Iraq war decision and, for that matter, the Vietnam War, and it was clear that most of the candidates preferred talking about anything before 2008 rather than anything after 2008. Most of the candidates, but not all the candidates; Sen. Jim Webb gamely tried to debate Obama’s (and Clinton’s) Libya decision, but the issue got lost in the cross-talk and the Democratic flight to what they consider to be safety: reductio ad iraqum. 

When the discussion did reach foreign policy matters, the candidates seemed not to have much of consequence to say — and even less of relevance to the foreign policy problems they would face if they became president.

It is hard to explain how you will confront a problem without admitting what caused the problem. This debate exposed that Democrat predicament, but did not resolve it.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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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