GOP Can't Rely on Foreign Policy to Win in 2012

Republican bloggers are looking at President Obama’s declining poll numbers and are salivating at the thought of the 2012 contest. Yo, GOP, I’m really happy for you, I’ll let you finish, but President Obama ran one of the best campaigns of all time. While I’m not predicting he’ll have an easy reelection fight, the glee expressed by some Republicans on blogs and message boards as they watch him stumble and then predict a victory is a bit premature.

Let’s take the traditional area of advantage for Republicans: foreign policy. A lot can quickly happen on the world stage, but several issues may be neutered from having a major effect next time around. Take Afghanistan, where President Obama must decide whether to replicate the surge that he criticized and try to win, pursue a Rumsfeldian shift focusing more on strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles and not a broad counterinsurgency campaign, or begin a phased withdrawal, exposing his pledge to leave Iraq to win in Afghanistan as being nothing more than campaign rhetoric.

Most likely, President Obama will go with the surge option. He can’t afford to maintain the status quo or, even worse, suffer a defeat. Should General McChrystal be denied the resources he needs, he may resign, creating another political debacle that the administration cannot afford. A decisive turnaround in Afghanistan will give Obama credibility as a commander-in-chief and potentially remove it as a major campaign issue in 2012.

At that point, the GOP will have to hope for two things to happen. First, the American population’s current opposition to the war in Afghanistan must turn around when they get their first taste of victory by seeing improvement. Second, President Obama must try to unify his base on the issue by planning a phased withdrawal, knowing that “staying the course” will deplete Democratic enthusiasm for him. Should these two things happen, the GOP may be able to make foreign policy a major issue, although it certainly won’t top the economy and domestic issues.

However, President Obama also has options. If Iraq remains stable following the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, he can point to that as a rebuttal to criticism of his timetable to leave Afghanistan, if he takes that route. Alternatively, he can decline to call for a withdrawal, knowing that Democratic anger will not result in major defections to the even more hawkish GOP. The latter option effectively eliminates Afghanistan from the campaign.