While President Barack Obama takes credit for keeping a 2008 campaign promise by ending the war in Iraq this month and pledges to wind down the war in Afghanistan by 2014, foreign policy offers a less certain election weapon.
Questions about whether the wars were worth the cost are growing amid rising turmoil in Iraq and violence in Afghanistan and uncertainty about Pakistan as a U.S. ally or adversary.
The president touts the killings of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders on his watch, his approach to uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and the NATO air campaign that helped oust Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi as evidence of his leadership.
Still, a Pew poll conducted Dec. 7-11 found that 55 percent of Americans view the economy and related issues such as unemployment as the most important matters facing the nation. In that survey of 1,521 adults, just 6 percent said foreign issues, including war, are most important.
“President Obama has a strong footing on foreign policy because of the string of victories that have happened over the past year -- if nothing else occurs,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican political consultant who was communications director for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. “However, it’s an extremely volatile environment.”
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and other Republicans have begun to test Obama’s vulnerability on the military and national security front as they jockey with one another for their party’s 2012 presidential nomination. They question the durability of U.S. gains in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Obama’s willingness to confront Iran, North Korea, Syria, Pakistan and China.
Romney called the Iraq withdrawal under Obama an “astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition,” in an Oct. 21 statement, and accused Obama of “naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude.”
Administration officials acknowledge that Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s futures are uncertain, and that despite the deaths of bin Laden and other terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, new attacks on Americans abroad or at home are possible.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Dec. 21 that “we certainly expect that there will be difficult days ahead in Iraq. But the progress has been substantial. What is utterly nonsensical is the suggestion that somehow we should have left troops in there, and that would have had any impact on the political disputes.”
Administration officials also are betting that voters won’t blame Obama for any worsening turmoil in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Status of Forces Agreement that called for an American troop withdrawal by the end of this year was negotiated under former President George W. Bush, the Iraqi parliament refused to extend immunity to U.S. troops into next year and Americans want out of both countries, they argue.
The Bush administration sent too few troops into Iraq in 2003 and then pitched that country into greater turmoil by disbanding the Iraqi Army and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party against the counsel of their own advisers, said an Obama administration national security official.
In Afghanistan, added the official, who agreed to discuss foreign policy and partisan politics only on the basis of anonymity, it was the Bush administration that 10 years ago failed to capture or kill bin Laden and mired the U.S. in a costly, uphill nation-building project.
The Iran Issue
Obama’s handling of Iran, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week said may be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year, and the Arab Spring uprisings are a different matter, Republicans argue.
“If there’s anything on foreign policy they should be talking about, it’s Iran,” Bonjean said. “Iran is different. Iran is President Obama’s weak spot” because Republicans can argue that Obama initially approached the Islamic Republic with “kid gloves.” That emboldened the country’s militant Islamic rulers, and the economic sanctions the U.S. has imposed aren’t doing enough to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program, he said.
Moreover, Republicans argue, the recent beatings of protesters in Egypt, where Obama pushed for former President Hosni Mubarak’s departure earlier this year, underscore the uncertainties about new governments taking shape in the Middle East and North Africa and the potential threats to Israel.
In a May 19 speech, Romney charged that Obama “has thrown Israel under the bus,” in part by arguing that month that the country’s pre-1967 borders should be the starting point for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
‘Timid and Weak’
Addressing a Republican Jewish group in Washington on Dec. 7, the party’s presidential candidates said Obama has coddled Iran, emboldened terrorist groups and bestowed more sympathy on Palestinians than Israelis. Romney said Obama has made a “timid and weak” response to Iran’s nuclear threat and “immeasurably set back” chances for Middle East peace.
“This one-sided, continuing pressure that says it’s always the Israelis’ fault no matter how bad the other side is has got to stop,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum are arguing for covertly “taking out” Iranian nuclear scientists - - Gingrich in a Nov. 12 debate and Santorum before the Republican Jewish Coalition on Dec. 7.
A Bloomberg poll of 1,097 global investors, conducted Dec. 5-6, said 65 percent of investors expect a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program at some point.
Obama and his aides are pushing back against Republican criticism.
Support for Israel
“Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22-out-of-30 top al Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement,” Obama said in a Dec. 8 news conference. “Or whoever is left out there, ask them about that.”
Addressing a national conference of Reform Judaism on Dec. 16, Obama said that “no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel’s security than ours. None. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. It is a fact.”
He listed U.S. aid for Israel to develop a missile system, diplomatic intervention to protect Israeli embassy staff in Cairo in September against a mob, opposition to a Palestinian bid for statehood through the UN and imposing new sanctions against Iran. “We will take no options off the table,” regarding Iran, he said.
Despite uncertainties that now extend from Tunisia to North Korea and even Russia now, it isn’t clear whether foreign policy can be a winning issue for Republicans in 2012.
Fumbles and Flip-Flops
Although Gingrich touts his experience as a military strategist, none of the Republican candidates except Jon Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China, has extensive foreign affairs credentials. Some of the Republicans have fumbled basic questions on major issues and several have taken contradictory positions or made unsupported claims,
Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said a Romney op-ed in The Washington Post attacking a pending arms control treaty “repeats discredited objections and appears unaware of arms control history and context.”
Texas Governor Rick Perry called North Korea’s recently deceased leader Kim Jong-il “Jong” instead of Kim, his family name; former candidate Herman Cain said China is trying to develop nuclear weapons -- it first tested one on October 16, 1964 -- and he stumbled when asked if he supported Obama’s Libya policy.
Gingrich on Oct. 21 told a group of Florida pastors that Obama was “right” to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Two days later, he called the move “a decisive defeat for the U.S. in Iraq” at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s candidate forum.
The 1 Percent
Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center in Washington, said Americans widely supported getting out of Iraq and killing bin Laden and are more supportive than not of Obama’s approaches to Afghanistan and the Arab Spring.
Three-fourths of Americans backed Obama’s decision to end the Iraq war by year’s end, while 21 percent disapproved in a Gallup Poll of 992 adults conducted Oct. 29-30. While Americans cited the war as the nation’s top issue from 2004 to 2008, Gallup found that 1 percent of Americans now consider Iraq the most important matter.
On Libya, 49 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of the situation, compared with 32 percent who disapproved, in a Pew poll of 1,001 adults conducted Sept. 1-4. At the same time, though, the percentage of Americans who said they were following Libya closely had dropped to 17 percent by late August from 37 percent in April.
What voters want on Iran is harder to measure, Dimock said, and so far, North Korea’s future or uncertainty in Egypt and Syria are not driving concerns for voters, although that could change depending on events largely beyond U.S. control.
Economy Above All
If Iraq falls apart, and if U.S. voters think they could be affected, Dimock said, there could be “some discussion of whether we did get our troops out too quickly.”
President George H.W. Bush’s re-election loss in 1992, despite a stellar Gallup Poll rating of 89 percent during the Persian Gulf War in February 1991, is “a testament to how much a bad economy can outweigh everything else,” Dimock said.
George Edwards, a political science professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, said that while the economy will be central to the 2012 election, voters’ views on Obama’s competency on national security could make a difference on the margins and shape overall impressions of his leadership.
“To the extent his foreign policy stewardship contributes to a perception of him being competent and strong, and I think it does, that helps,” Edwards said in a telephone interview.
“It’s an issue he should campaign on,” said Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary under President Bill Clinton and an Obama campaign surrogate on national security issues.
“This issue cuts quite strongly for him, and the more attention there is to it, I think the better it is for the president,” said Danzig, adding that he was not speaking in his capacity as chairman of the board for the Center for a New American Security, a policy center in Washington.
How much attention voters are paying to foreign policy isn’t clear, though. In Iowa, Texas Representative Ron Paul has climbed in the polls and could win next week’s caucuses with a platform that includes abolishing all foreign aid, including to Israel, bringing all American troops home from abroad and dismissing a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to the U.S..