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.
At the same time, the Republican candidate should not hesitate to point out where Obama has left his Republican predecessor's policies largely intact. He will be uncomfortable if the nominee congratulates him for applying President George W. Bush's surge strategy to Afghanistan, carrying through on the expanded use of drones, reversing course on the handling of terrorist detainees, and renewing the Patriot Act after previously condemning it as a "shoddy and dangerous law." Such compliments will give the Republican candidate greater ability to be critical of Obama's many fiascoes -- not only his proposed outreach to tyrants in Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, but also the disastrous "reset" with Russia, mismanagement of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, politicized timetables for withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and neglect of important traditional allies such as NATO, Canada, and Mexico, as well as key rising powers like India.
Obama recognizes that he's seen as "cold and aloof," and the Republican nominee should hammer this point home. The president has few real friends abroad (excepting, of course, Islamist Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as he told Time magazine's Fareed Zakaria). The Republican nominee should criticize Obama for not understanding that the U.S. president's personal engagement is essential for effective global leadership. Obama's lack of regular close contact with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which has destroyed relationships with America's erstwhile allies, is simply the most jarring, inexplicable example of this president's hands-off approach.
Because the fall campaign must be devoted to promoting the Republican message on jobs and the economy, the GOP nominee must share his big foreign-policy vision no later than early summer. Giving voters a sense of where he wants to take the country is important to cementing his image as a leader worthy of the Oval Office. Merely projecting the right image is not enough.
The Republican candidate must address at least four vital areas. The most important is the struggle that will define this century's arc: radical Islamic terrorism. He should make the case that victory must be America's national goal, not merely seeking to "delegitimize the use of terrorism and to isolate those who carry it out," as Obama's May 2010 National Security Strategy put it. As in the Cold War, victory will require sustained U.S. involvement and a willingness to deploy all tools of influence -- from diplomacy to economic ties, from intelligence efforts to military action.
Second, the Republican candidate must condemn the president's precipitous drawdown in Afghanistan and his deep, dangerous defense-budget cuts. Both are viewed skeptically by the military: The former emboldens America's adversaries and discourages its allies; the latter is of deep concern to veterans and other Americans who doubt Obama's commitment to the military.
Third, the Republican candidate should focus on the dangers of rogue states, particularly Iran and North Korea. The upcoming three-year anniversary of the stolen June 2009 Iranian presidential election is a particularly opportune moment for the Republican nominee to meet with Iranian exiles and offer a major speech drawing attention to Obama's weakness and naiveté in dealing with this belligerent power.
In part because of how he has mishandled the Iranian threat, Obama has lost much political and financial support in the American Jewish community. His approach to Israel must be presented as similarly weak and untrustworthy. The Republican candidate must make clear the existential threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran -- not only because it will lead to a better policy, but also because it will reduce the president's support among this key voting bloc in the critical battleground states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
The fourth line of attack must be about America's fragile economy and how to restore it. Many voters think Obama's stewardship of the economy has been inconsistent and even counterproductive. This makes it imperative for the Republican candidate to make the case for promoting trade and greater international economic engagement. Obama's failure to match other countries in aggressively opening markets for exports and jobs should be tied to his responsibility for high domestic unemployment and an anemic recovery.
Undoubtedly, Obama will attempt to preempt criticism of his foreign policy by repeating endlessly that Osama bin Laden was killed on his watch. By campaign's end, some voters will wonder whether the president personally delivered the kill shot. The best response is to praise the president. In doing so, however, Obama's opponent should be sure to praise all the drama's actors, especially the Navy SEALs whose courageous assault killed the terrorist leader and the tireless CIA analysts whose hunches convinced then-Director Michael Hayden in 2007 to unleash a massive effort that eventually led to the compound in Abbottabad. In the end, voters know that Obama did not kill bin Laden -- SEALs did.
Absent a major international crisis, this election will be largely about jobs, spending, health care, and energy. Voters do, however, want a president who leads on the world stage and a commander in chief who projects strength, not weakness.
A November 2011 survey conducted by Resurgent Republic showed that 50 percent of voters (as well as 54 percent of self-identified independents) think America's standing in the world is worse under Obama, while only 21 percent believe it is better. This represents a sharp drop from April 2010, when 50 percent of voters (and 49 percent of independents) believed Obama had improved America's standing.
That's because Obama has failed to become a strong international leader, and the Republican nominee must reinforce this message -- one most Americans already believe. Foreign policy is a weakness for this president, not a strength.
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine March/April 2012 Edition.