The Republicans' Foreign Policy Problem

Pop quiz: if you had to describe the Obama foreign policy in one sentence, what would you say? Not easy, is it? Back in 2008, it was pretty simple: "Not Bush." Now back then, there was something called the "Bush doctrine," which may have had a subtle meaning to those working in the administration, but as far as the public was concerned mostly meant "invading lots of countries and making everyone in the world hate us." So it was easy to imagine Obama as a breath of foreign policy fresh air. He'd use a less-bumbling combination of diplomacy, "soft power," and carefully restrained force. He'd get us out of Iraq. Things would change for the better.

But now that Obama has been president for four years, "Not Bush" has lost its relevance. Obama's actual foreign policy is too complicated to sum up easily, and probably therefore too complicated for most voters to understand. We did get out of Iraq, but things don't seem to be going too well in Afghanistan; Obama has dramatically increased the use of drone strikes, which have solved some problems and created others; though opinions of America are somewhat better, lots of people still don't like us. It's a complex picture, and in the context of an election, the Obama campaign is going to react to most foreign policy questions with, "Remember that guy Osama bin Laden? He's dead."

True enough, but this complexity has left Republicans seemingly unable to critique the Obama foreign policy. As Conor Friedersdorf points out, Republicans can't figure out what to say:

President Obama's foreign policy is vulnerable to all sorts of accurate attacks. But Mitt Romney, the Republican Party, and the conservative movement are totally unable to exploit them. This is partly because the last four years have been spent advancing critiques so self-evidently implausible to anyone outside the movement that calling attention to them seems impolite. There is no factual basis for the assertion that Obama rejects American exceptionalism; or that he embarked on an apology tour; or that he is allied with our Islamist enemy in a "grand jihad" against America; or that his every action is motivated by Kenyan anti-colonialism. And while those critiques are especially inane, they aren't cherry-picked to discredit conservatives. They're actually all critiques advanced by prominent people, publications, and/or Republican politicians.

I'd say they have two problems. First, their impulse is to just say that their foreign policy is "Not Obama," and that just doesn't have the same persuasive power as "Not Bush" did four years ago, because American foreign policy doesn't look like a disaster. For instance, when Mitt Romney criticizes Obama for getting out of Iraq too fast—since if Obama did it, it had to be wrong—most people are going to respond, "Are you crazy?" Second, the closest thing to an articulation of their own foreign policy vision they can come up with is "Obama weak! America should be strong! Grrr!" And voters don't actually think Obama is weak.

That's partly because of his own actions, and partly because in 2012, Americans aren't actually fearing for their lives. They did during the Cold War, and they did in the aftermath of 9/11, but that feeling has faded. There have actually been some experiments showing that when you remind people of the possibility of their own deaths, they're more likely to support conservative candidates (it's called "Terror Management Theory"). I've heard pollsters say that one of the key moments of the 2004 campaign was the horrific Beslan school massacre that September in which 330 people were killed, over half of them children. It brought terrorism and fear back on to the front pages, to George W. Bush's advantage.

But today, for all the world's problems, Americans aren't feeling like they might be killed tomorrow. That's a good thing. But it leaves the Republicans without much of a coherent foreign policy critique.

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