Post published for www.foreignpolicy.com, March/April 2012
In an American election focused on a lousy economy and high unemployment, conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy is one of Barack Obama’s few strong suits. But the president is strikingly vulnerable in this area. The Republican who leads the GOP ticket can attack him on what Obama mistakenly thinks is his major strength by translating the center-right critique of his foreign policy into campaign themes and action. Here’s how to beat him.
First, the Republican nominee should adopt a confident, nationalist tone emphasizing American exceptionalism, expressing pride in the United States as a force for good in the world, and advocating for an America that is once again respected (and, in some quarters, feared) as the preeminent global power. Obama acts as if he sees the United States as a flawed giant, a mistake that voters already perceive. After all, this is the president who said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Voters also sense he is content to manage America’s decline to a status where the United States is just one country among many. As he put it, his is “a U.S. leadership that recognizes our limits.”
The Republican nominee should use the president’s own words and actions to portray him as naive and weak on foreign affairs. Obama’s failed promises, missed opportunities, and erratic shifts suggest he is out of touch and in over his head. For example, before he was elected, he promised to meet with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela “without precondition.” Nothing came of that except a serious blow to the image of the United States as a reliable ally. During the 2008 campaign, he also argued that Iran was a “tiny” country that didn’t “pose a serious threat.” How foolish that now seems.