Will Obama's foreign policy successes count in 2012?

Oct 27 2011 - 12:48pm

Since the Vietnam era, Republicans have usually held an advantage on foreign policy issues, while domestic issues favored the Democrats.

That likely won't be true in 2012.

A string of U.S. successes, epitomized by the impending withdrawal from Iraq and the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi, plus the previous GOP administration's disastrous record, have given President Barack Obama a clear advantage over prospective Republican rivals.

That's the good news for him. The bad news is that foreign policy seems destined to play a lesser role than the domestic economy. And that's where Obama is in serious trouble for failing -- despite a series of aggressive efforts -- to produce the economic recovery he promised and Americans expect.

Unemployment remains stuck at an unacceptable 9 percent level at a time when several polls show that more than half of those surveyed rate jobs and the economy as the country's top priority. By contrast, fewer than one in 10 listed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Obama's national security record has achieved some significant results and public support.

He gets higher job approval in most national security areas than on domestic issues. And when pollsters have asked Americans about U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, substantial majorities favored a pullout as fast as the administration was planning -- or faster.

Those clear indications of public sentiment have not stopped most top Republicans from denouncing Obama's decision to withdraw all but a handful of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year.

Republican front-runner Mitt Romney accused him of an "astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq," which, he added, "has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women." Most other GOP candidates used similar language.

The irony is that Obama's decision stems from two main factors: the time-line negotiated by the Bush administration and the refusal of the Iraqi government to agree to the immunity for remaining U.S. troops that other countries grant American forces.

Romney questioned if this stemmed from "a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraq government." But the truth is much simpler: The Iraqis don't want U.S. forces to stay in their country, in part because they regard them as a target for continuing terrorist attacks.

That raises this question: If most Americans and most Iraqis don't want U.S. forces to stay, why should they remain at high human and financial cost when both parties face strong pressure to reduce governmental costs?

Obama's announcement followed closely the death of Gadhafi, signaling the successful conclusion of the NATO-led military effort launched last March to prevent the massacre of Libyans fighting to liberate their country.

For all the criticism Obama received -- he was doing too little, he was doing too much, he should be taking the lead, he should stay out -- analysts agree the U.S. role was integral to the operation's success.

And as several noted on the day Gadhafi was killed: The carefully calibrated effort cost the United States less than $2 billion with no casualties, compared with a cost of $1 trillion, nearly 4,500 deaths and more than 32,000 wounded during the eight-year struggle in Iraq.

Interestingly, though Romney warned in his Oct. 7 foreign policy speech against continuing "the feckless policies of the past three years," he has basically endorsed the administration's withdrawal plans for Afghanistan, though he'd delay some pullbacks by about three months.

The biggest policy change in his speech was an increase in the Navy as part of a reversal of "President Obama's massive defense cuts." Not only do those cuts stem mainly from reduced operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Romney's proposal seems totally unrealistic at a time when the real question is whether the effort to curb federal spending will require smaller or bigger defense cuts.

In any case, Romney's national security rhetoric is likely to win more favor from the GOP electorate than in a general election campaign against a president with an unexpectedly successful foreign policy record.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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