Beyond Bluster

May 9, 2012

The cliché of progressives’ disadvantage on the politics of national security was a staple American political discourse for decades. Since the mid-2000s, however, the American public has embraced a non-ideological and results-oriented approach to foreign policy. Yet another poll this week confirmed that President Obama and his administration’s policies are reaping political as well as substantive benefits. Conservatives’ relative weakness has prompted a renewed debate – even as one of Washington’s best-respected GOP foreign policy minds, Richard Lugar, was ousted in an Indiana primary and Washington continues to wait for a promised post-primary  speech clarifying Governor Romney’s views on national security.

Another poll highlights public rejection of failed ideology in favor of a results-oriented approach. Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations writes today, “Democrats are far less vulnerable on this score, as most Americans like President Obama’s performance abroad, including his surprise trip to Afghanistan last week.” A new POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll released this week finds that, although the overall presidential race is a dead heat, “Obama holds double-digit leads over the presumptive Republican nominee on issues such as who will better handle foreign policy… The president has a 13-point edge over Romney, 51 percent to 38 percent, on who is better equipped to handle foreign policy, an area that has been the GOP’s domain.” This week’s poll is only the most recent confirmation that the American public has rejected the conservative failures of the Bush administration and embraced a results-oriented approach. Going back as early as 2009, the so-called “security gap” has been shut for some time.

Greenberg Quinlin Ronser Research and Third Way recently performed a focus group and found, “November’s presidential election will feature something not seen in American politics in more than forty years: a Democratic candidate who enjoys some of his strongest ratings on national security. Swing voters in a new set of focus groups are generally impressed with the job President Obama is doing in keeping the country safe” [Les Gelb, 5/9/12. Politico, 5/7/12. GQRR/Third Way, 3/12]

Conservatives recognize the weakness.

Duke University professor Peter Feaver, who advised Bush White House on public opinion and Iraq war writes, “Republicans must come to terms with the fact that this will be the strongest Democrat incumbent on national security and foreign policy they have faced in decades.” [Peter Feaver, 2/2/12]

Washington Post Columnist George Will writes, “Through 11 presidential elections, beginning with the Democrats’ nomination of George McGovern in 1972, Republicans have enjoyed a presumption of superiority regarding national security. This year, however, events and their rhetoric are dissipating their advantage… Republicans who think America is being endangered by ‘appeasement’ and military parsimony have worked that pedal on their organ quite enough.” [George Will, 2/8/12]

Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist: “[The GOP primary candidates] are allowing the GOP to be painted as the war party. They are ceding all non-war ground to the president, who can come forward as the sober, constrained, non-bellicose contender. Do they want that? Are they under the impression America is hungry for another war? Really? After the past 11 years?” [Peggy Noonan, 4/13/12]

Les Gelb takes a look at the disparate factions of the conservative foreign policy positioning on Afghanistan: “Romney has attempted to unify these disparate strains of [conservative] thought in his fashion—that is, by leaning one way and another, and then another. First, he was somewhat hawkish, telling a crowd of Afghan citizens in January 2011, ‘It is my desire and my political party’s desire to support the people of Afghanistan and not to leave.’ Then, he leaned left, saying last July, ‘[W]e’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.’ More recently, he’s edged rightward, dismissing negotiations with the Taliban. After Obama departed Afghanistan last week, he sort of praised the president’s remarks, while the GOP minions still barked at the president for ‘weak leadership.’” [E.J. Dionne, 5/2/12. Les Gelb, 5/9/12]

A progressive foreign policy racks up successes – “Americans prefer prudence over bluster and careful claims over expansive promises.”

Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution: “[Obama] has racked up some notable successes, including significantly weakening al Qaeda, effectively managing relations with China, rebuilding the United States’ international reputation, resetting the relationship with Russia and ratifying the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), achieving a UN Security Council resolution imposing harsh sanctions on Iran, completing overdue but welcome free-trade accords, and withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq…

They continue, “The Obama approach has been relatively nonideological in practice but informed by a realistic overarching sense of the United States’ role in the world in the twenty-first century. The tone has been neither that of American triumphalism and exceptionalism nor one of American decline. On balance, this approach has been effective, conveying a degree of openness to the views of other leaders and the interests of other nations while still projecting confidence and leadership.” [Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O'Hanlon, May/June 2012]

E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post: “[Obama] understood the importance of bin Laden. He addressed the broad and sensible public desire to get our troops out of Iraq. He focused on how to get a moderately satisfactory result in Afghanistan — which is probably the very best that the United States can do now… And that’s why Republicans finally seem to realize that driving foreign policy out of the campaign altogether is their best option. After a decade of war, Americans prefer prudence over bluster and careful claims over expansive promises. On foreign policy, Obama has kept his 2008 promise to turn history’s page. The nation is in no mood to turn it back.” [E.J. Dionne, 5/2/12]

What We’re Reading

The latest al Qaeda effort to target U.S. aircraft was unraveled from inside the terrorist group by operatives working on behalf of the CIA and its counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Media rights groups have publicly condemned the Egyptian army for attacking and arresting journalists who were covering a recent crackdown on antimilitary protests.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broadened his power, forming the largest coalition government the country has had in recent years.

Militants in Pakistan’s North Waziristan distributed pamphlets pledging holy war to mark the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, a week after the anniversary.

King Abdullah of Jordan contends with increasing pressure on his administration to follow through on promised political and economic reforms.

Responding to worries over Iran and the Straits of Hormuz, the UAE and Saudi Arabia pledged to supply South Korea with additional oil in the event of a shortage.

The operator of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, TEPCO, will be partly taken over by the government, ultimately nationalizing one of the country’s largest utility companies.

Dmitri A. Medvedev has been confirmed as Russia’s prime minister.

Italian voters demonstrated their disapproval of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative party in local elections.

The Colombian government has refused to accept conditions demanded by the FARC rebel group on the release of French journalist Romeo Langlois.

Commentary of the Day

George Friedman writes that while NATO is not perfect, the United States needs it to help organize European defense, so that Washington can focus on the Middle East and Asia.

Joost Hilterman warns that the Bahraini regime is succeeding in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with one about sectarian aggression.

Justin Vaisse maintains that newly elected French president Francois Hollande needs to develop strategies for fueling the economy without exacerbating the country’s deficit.

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