James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Foreign Policy and Campaign 2012

by James M. Lindsay
September 7, 2012

President Obama waves as he arrives to address delegates at the Democratic National Convention. (Jason Reed/ courtesy Reuters) President Obama waves as he arrives to address delegates at the Democratic National Convention. (Jason Reed/ courtesy Reuters)

CFR.org just posted an interview I did with former New York Times correspondent Bernard Gwertzman looking at the role foreign policy will likely play in the remaining two months of the presidential campaign. Along the way we discussed President Obama’s acceptance speech last night, reviewed where the candidates stand on major issues like Iran’s nuclear program, and recalled how another tight presidential race was tipped in part by a candidate’s misstep in a critical foreign policy debate.

Much of the coverage of the Democratic National Convention has rightly noted that the Democrats put a spotlight on foreign policy while they were in Charlotte. To some extent, the emphasis on national security was preordained once Governor Romney decided to downplay foreign policy in his acceptance speech and to dispense with traditional rituals like honoring the service of the uniformed military. Simply put, Romney handed the Democrats a political opening. They smartly walked through it.

But last night’s speeches were notable not just for the prominence they gave foreign policy, but also for their confident tone. Since the days of Vietnam, Republicans have hammered Democrats for being “soft” and “naïve” on foreign policy. Democratic candidates typically responded with defensiveness and a transparent desire to shift the conversation back to domestic policy as quickly as possible.

Neither trait was on display last night. As Fred Kaplan writes in Slate, the Democrats who spoke in Charlotte were so confident about their national security bona fides that they:

talked openly about seeking peace, negotiating arms-reduction treaties with the Russians (which Romney opposes on the flimsiest of grounds), withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and shifting money that was once spent on fighting wars to revitalizing our own cities—as Obama put it, “to do some nation-building right here at home.”

But Democrats went further than that. Whether it was John Kerry warning Romney that “you’d better finish the debate with yourself” before debating Obama or Obama telling his challenger “you might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally,” the Democrats openly mocked their opponents.

The Democrats’ newfound foreign policy confidence may signal, as Kaplan argues, that they are now the party of national security policy. But the point shouldn’t be pushed too far. For one thing, for a candidate campaigning under the banner of “Forward,” Obama said curiously little about what he would actually do on the foreign policy front in his second term. And while the Democrats don’t have obvious ideological divisions like the neoconservative-realist-non-interventionist split that buffets the GOP, the boos that greeted the call to add Jerusalem back into the party platform are a reminder that issues could easily arise that divide the Democratic coalition.

The second caveat is perhaps obvious but it merits stating nonetheless. The significance of the Democrats’ emergence as the party of national security evaporates if Obama loses on November 6. And while Democrats feel good about what they have accomplished in foreign affairs over the past four years, the 2012 election will likely be won or lost on the economy. And on that score, the disappointing job news out today means that the outcome of November’s vote remains very much up in the air.

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