In her now-notorious “3 a.m. phone call” advertisement from 2007, Hillary Clinton, then a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, cast doubts about primary rival Barack Obama’s readiness to handle an international crisis.
Five years later those doubts have mostly subsided.
Once accused by critics as being dangerously naïve on foreign policy matters, the US president is now partly basing his re-election campaign on his widely touted counterterrorism record. Obama’s successes abroad have –at least for the moment –flipped a longstanding tradition in US politics of Democrats being painted as soft, and Republicans tough, on national security.
As Darrell West, a political scientist at think tank the Brookings Institution, noted: “National security has emerged as a real strength for Democrats in the 2012 election.”
Hawk-ish tactics, dove-ish goals
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Peter L. Bergen, director of the non-partisan think tank New America Foundation, explained why: “Obama decimated Al Qaeda’s leadership. He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia….And, of course, [he] ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.”
As a presidential candidate four years ago, Obama endeared himself to the liberal wing of his party with his vow to draw the Iraq war to a close – a promise he has since fulfilled. But some Democrats have lambasted the president for his unexpectedly aggressive military strategy – more specifically, for tripling the number of troops in Afghanistan, escalating drone attacks and targeted killings, and continuing some of former President George W. Bush’s more contested counterterrorism tactics.
Still, polls show that Obama’s blend of hawkish tactics with dove-ish long-term goals has considerable public backing. A New York Times/CBS News poll last month revealed that more Americans had confidence in Obama’s ability to be an effective commander-in-chief (59%) than presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s (56%).
John Fortier, an analyst at think tank Bipartisan Policy Centre, noted that Obama’s foreign policy has indeed succeeded in “neutralising” the usual Republican adversaries. “He has Republican support on Afghanistan, on being tough on Pakistan, on using drones, and he’s backed off closing Guantanamo,” Fortier told FRANCE 24, adding that Obama has also kept his left-leaning base satisfied: “At the same time, he’s presented a multilateral front to the world, and his withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan have been smooth so far.”
Romney ‘muddled and uncertain’ on foreign policy?
Fortier also pointed out that “the incumbent often has the advantage of being more experienced in foreign policy than the challenger”. But according to some analysts, Obama’s “advantage” has been further strengthened by Romney’s failure to articulate a credible alternative when it comes to international relations. Conservative New York Times editorialist Ross Douthat recently wrote that while Romney has been successful in challenging Obama’s economic record, “on foreign policy the Republican message is much more muddled and uncertain”.
In late March, Romney’s national security team sent an open letter to Obama slamming his handling of Israel, Iran, and Afghanistan, among other diplomatic issues. The Obama campaign struck back swiftly with its own letter – signed by 18 national security experts - addressing Romney’s grievances one by one and calling on him to specify what he would do differently.
One part of the letter has had particular resonance lately, given that this week marked the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death: “What did you mean when you said, ‘It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person,’ referring to Osama bin Laden?”, the letter read.
Obama campaign pounces
The Obama campaign has doubled down on that line of attack, recently releasing a campaign Web ad that questions whether Romney would have ordered the high-risk operation that resulted in bin Laden’s death. The video has been criticized – even by some on the left – as politically opportunistic, but it has proven Obama’s eagerness to play hardball on national security.
To that end, the Obama campaign has dispatched Vice President Joe Biden, as well as spokesman Ben LaBolt, to contrast what they portray as Obama’s steady hand with Romney’s erratic foreign policy pronouncements. LaBolt has pointed to “flip-flops” in Romney’s stances, particularly his initial opposition to (and subsequent support of) a timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Biden warned in a speech in New York that a Mitt Romney presidency would be a return to “a foreign policy that would have America go it alone, shout to the world, 'You're either with us or against us', lash out first and ask the hard questions later, if at all”.
In an election expected to be extremely close, the economy - not foreign policy - will undoubtedly by the main thing on voters’ minds. Still, Romney will have to “clarify his positions on national security issues”, Darrell West of the Brookings Institution said – especially in preparation for a series of debates against Obama this fall.
According to John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Centre, Romney will likely suggest that “Obama’s instincts are not tough enough”. Or, more specifically, that “he’s over-promising diplomacy with Iran and North Korea, not being a good enough friend to Israel, and generally failing to make the case for a stronger America”.
And while Romney may not be able to provide “specific, concrete solutions to intractable foreign policy problems”, Fortier said, “he will be well-briefed”.