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.

Afghanistan isn’t the only major foreign policy issue, but it is the only one that can give the GOP a distinct edge on foreign policy. If Iraq goes to shambles, the GOP can play a game of “I told you so,” but it cannot offer a politically acceptable alternative, as calling for a return will extinguish a candidate’s chances. If Iraq’s status is acceptable, then President Obama gets the “I told you so” line. Either way, the issue is about the past, not the future.

There are four scenarios for how Iran will affect the 2012 campaign. Iran will have the bomb, or at least everyone will know they have the capacity to quickly make one and it will have been accepted as reality in the region. If this is not the case, that will mean that either Israel has bombed Iran and significantly delayed its nuclear program or the regime has fallen due to sanctions and popular unrest. If, by some chance, Iran hasn’t gone nuclear, then it will be so close to doing so that the Republican candidate can only differentiate his stance from the president’s by calling for military action. Have fun winning that argument. While these realities are widely different, their impact on the campaign is the same; the GOP will have the same strategy towards Iran as Obama: sanctions and deterrence.


They can bash Obama for letting Iran go nuclear and they’ll get some points for it, but the public will cut him some slack because they weren’t ready to support military force either, and without being offered a starkly different strategy, they’ll accept the situation and focus on domestic issues. If Israel has bombed Iran, then the issue will have been pushed back. Maybe I’m cynical, but I think the American people will decide that we can trust Israel to take care of things for us in the future again if need be. If the regime has fallen, well, the parties will argue over whether Obama gets credit, but this issue is also off the table.

The only option the GOP will have in 2012 to make Iran a winning issue is to advocate wide-ranging support for the Iranian opposition seeking to topple the regime. No candidate has been gutsy enough to make that the pillar of his Iran strategy, even though it’s an effective way of straddling the line between being too dovish and too hawkish. And because it hasn’t been raised as a possibility, no polls or public debate has happened and so it is difficult to analyze for political consequences.

The GOP can blast Obama on Honduras, but elections will have long been held, calming the situation down, and voters wouldn’t be swayed over the tiny Latin American country anyway. The candidates can argue over Venezuela, but besides disagreeing over whether to meet with the leaders of such rogue countries, there won’t be much of a substantive difference on the way forward. The same goes for North Korea, Syria, and the others.


Dramatic things can happen that alter the political landscape here at home. I’m not discounting a wild card scenario coming into play that changes the debate, but if you look at the factors today, it appears that the GOP’s only chance at victory is to have a significant edge in the public’s trust on the economy and other top domestic issues, areas traditionally known as the Democrats’ strengths. The 2012 battle will be fought on the Democrats’ turf.


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