Karl Rove Is Picking a Fight He Can’t Win with Obama
Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie’s recent article in Foreign Policy urges the Republican presidential aspirants to attack President Barack Obama more vigorously on his national security record. It’s a debate that the president and Democrats should welcome.
At the outset, leave aside the source of the counsel — listening to top aides to President George W. Bush proffer advice on foreign policy is a bit like hearing Mrs. O’Leary and her cow lecture about urban planning, after they’ve burned down Chicago.
The real problem with their advice is that it badly misreads both the president’s record and how the public assesses it. Americans may be sharply polarized on many issues, but they are relatively aligned on their confidence in Obama as commander in chief. Over 60 percent approve of the job Obama is doing handling terrorism — and this was true even before the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. According to a February ABC/Washington Post survey, voters trust Obama to handle international affairs more than the Republican Party’s likely standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, by an outsized 19-point margin.
What explains these strong ratings?
Historically, Americans are fairly non-ideological on foreign policy. Above all, they want results, and that is what Obama has produced.
Bin Laden is dead, along with 22 of al Qaeda’s other top 30 leaders, including Anwar al-Awlaki, who encouraged Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of killing U.S. soldiers at Fort Hood. Obama ended America’s war in Iraq, as he pledged, while waging the war in Afghanistan with far greater focus and intensity, enabling the United States to plan for a handover to Afghanistan’s own security forces.
The president skillfully supported the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring and helped build a NATO-led force that put an end to Muammar al-Qaddafi’s dictatorship. Squarely recognizing the danger Iran’s nuclear program poses — to the United States, Israel, and the entire Middle East — Obama has persistently worked to put in place the toughest-ever international sanctions on Iran, significantly undercutting Tehran’s economic resources and its ability to build nuclear weapons, while also being clear that he is leaving all options, including the use of force, on the table.
Even as military spending falls with the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is ensuring America’s military strength remains unrivaled, increasing support for veterans and their families, and using precision drones, Navy SEALs, and other special operations forces to sustain the U.S. military edge against diverse new threats around the globe.
Reliance on foreign oil is at a 16-year low, making it harder for oil producers in the Middle East or elsewhere to hold U.S. foreign policy hostage. And America’s image abroad has bounced back from the historic lows it reached under Bush. In declaring America “the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” Obama has refuted any notion that he is a declinist or apologist for American strength and leadership.
How voters feel about America’s standing in the world is ultimately linked to the strength of the economy, and Obama also has scored accomplishments abroad that should help the economic recovery gain strength. In particular, his administration has reached new trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, which will help expand U.S. exports, while also belying the Republican portrayal of him as a protectionist. Certainly, many voters remain angry that the administration has not done more about China and its trade practices, though Obama will be able to point to an aggressive record of filing trade cases against China in the World Trade Organization.
Given such accomplishments, the Republican candidates’ attacks against Obama on national security are likely to have limited resonance. In January and February, our firm and the centrist think tank Third Way conducted focus groups on national security with swing voters in two electoral battleground areas, Cincinnati and Tampa. Like voters nationally, this group was about evenly split on which party does better on foreign policy; many had real qualms about Democrats generically on these issues, due to what they saw as missteps by some past Democratic administrations. But their view of Obama was markedly different and better.