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The 3 a.m. Strategy

Even as Romney and Gingrich denounce him as weak, Obama will present himself as the toughest Democratic president on national security since JFK. He may have a case.

In control: Obama gave his first major speech about the Arab world in Cairo. With the economy in shambles, he will run on his foreign-policy successes.(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

photo of Michael Hirsh
January 26, 2012

You can almost read the script back to them before they say it. (It’s a hackneyed script, after all.) Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich slam President Obama for his weakness on foreign policy. Democrats are, we know, always weenies. Republicans are always tough guys. National security is our issue: GOP, sole proprietor. The lines come naturally: “If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect me … Iran will not,” Romney declared at one of the early debates. He has called Obama an appeaser who apologizes for America, saying that it’s wrong for the president to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He denounced Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq as “a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations.” Gingrich, meanwhile, has declared that Obama is “so weak that he makes Jimmy Carter look strong.” The former House speaker has castigated the president for postponing military exercises with the Israelis (even though it was the Israelis who asked for the delay). And, deploying his usual apocalyptic rhetoric, he regularly calls Obama “the most dangerous president in our lifetime.”

No one expects foreign policy to be a major issue in a campaign that hinges mainly on the fate of America’s beleaguered economy (unless something really big, like a war with Iran, happens between now and November). Nonetheless, in an election expected to be very close, the public’s perception of who makes a better commander in chief could be the difference. The “3 a.m.” test—that emergency phone call—helps voters decide whom they want to depend on in a crisis. (Ironically, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton who raised this question as a criticism of Obama in 2008.) That’s especially true considering what Republicans have said they’ll do overseas if elected: confront Iran even more aggressively, refuse to leave Afghanistan, return to Iraq. Romney even suggested that the United States should attack Iran to destroy a captured drone; Rick Santorum has called outright for war against that Islamic republic.

Accordingly, the Obama camp spies a big electoral opportunity. With only a middling case that the president’s economic record qualifies him for a second term, the White House and Obama’s Chicago-based campaign staff are preparing a careful effort to cast him as the most impressive Democratic president on national security in decades, National Journal has learned. They are eager to restore Democrats to a time before the Vietnam War, when Americans viewed the party as relatively strong on foreign policy and national security. And more, harking back to Lyndon Johnson’s effective 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater as a warmonger, they will try to use the extreme GOP rhetoric to remind the electorate of another Republican whom the GOP would prefer to forget: George W. Bush.


The Democrats will argue, in other words, that only Obama can use American power wisely enough to simultaneously keep the country out of another war and restore U.S. stature in the world. “It’s a question of what kind of a commander in chief do you want. You have only one chance to get it right,” says a Chicago-based Obama campaign official who would discuss strategy only on condition of anonymity. “On issue after issue, Romney has changed his positions. In some cases, he is to the right of the Bush administration.”


Despite the GOP candidates’ derision, many Republican foreign-policy professionals—some of whom worked for Bush 43—agree that the 44th president has been impressive on these issues overall. They say that he should get credit in areas that go well beyond the takedown of Osama bin Laden (and most of his top lieutenants). They cite Obama’s effort to squeeze Iran in the last year. And the way the president has refocused diplomatic and military resources to constrain—but not “contain,” which sounds a beat too aggressive—China. And the dexterous way he has used force to fight terrorism. And the way he helped oust Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi without a single American casualty. (With cover from NATO and the Arab League, it might have been the least costly and most internationally supported policy of regime change in U.S. history.) “I would regard this as the most capable and purposeful Democratic administration in foreign policy since John F. Kennedy’s,” says Philip Zelikow, a senior counselor to Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s secretary of State.

That’s a telling comparison. Kennedy looms larger in myth than in actual achievement, but he gets credit for standing down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, and he was assassinated before he could make a decision on whether to ramp up in Vietnam. Most important, however, he was the last Democratic president before his party’s reputation in foreign policy suffered a long-term blow in Vietnam. That quagmire helped persuade President Johnson not to run for reelection in 1968. President Carter also suffered from a fatal perception of weakness that culminated in the Iran hostage crisis and the disastrous Desert One rescue mission. President Clinton fares better in posterity, and he grew more comfortable with using power toward the end of his second term, especially after his early misfire in Somalia, where 18 Army Rangers were killed in another failed rescue attempt. But Republicans saw Clinton’s cautious air attacks on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as squeamish and criticized his reluctance to go after bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told National Journal that the administration will seek to portray the president as a dependable and confidence-inspiring commander in chief. “In so far as character is an issue, many ways in which he’s excelled speak to this issue: the ability to make tough decisions; to show grace under pressure,” Rhodes said. “As commander in chief, he has demonstrated that he will make the difficult decisions to use force in sometimes very risky situations, but he also recognizes the limits of military force.” Obama’s campaign plans to highlight his “tremendous results,” Rhodes said. “There is so much political noise, but the president has built a record in the last three years that is in many respects unassailable.” The campaign official contended, “For the first time in our lifetimes, a Democratic president is running from a position of strength.”

What precisely is Obama’s case? There is, of course, the bin Laden mission, his signature achievement, about which you will be hearing a great deal more over the next nine months. Obama gave a preview at his last news conference, when he responded to Republican charges that he is an “appeaser” by saying, “Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaida leaders who we’ve taken off the field whether I’m engaged in appeasement.” Similarly, he opened his State of the Union speech by pointing out that, “for the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat.” As the White House sees it, Obama succeeded where Clinton and Carter failed: an enormously risky decision that also involved a hair-raising helicopter mission. (This week, he announced another successful Navy SEAL raid to rescue hostages in Somalia.) And the bin Laden strike was only part of a broader program that Obama secretly inaugurated upon taking office. Although the administration does not publicly acknowledge such a program, the number of Predator drone strikes on targets in Pakistan and elsewhere has more than tripled during Obama’s presidency. The CIA, supplied with more resources than it got under his predecessor, has conducted “the most aggressive counterterror ops in the agency’s history,” according to an intelligence official. A number of terrorism experts believe that al-Qaida is close to defeat.

Beyond that, the president orchestrated a new set of allied sanctions against Iran and the first fundamental reorientation of U.S. strategic and military focus—from the Middle East to East Asia—in more than a decade. The tougher policy toward China involves a complex assortment of carrots and sticks. One carrot is the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, which China can join but which includes  much harsher restrictions on intellectual-property theft (a major hole in Clinton’s deal to get China into the World Trade Organization). One stick is a policy of boxing in Beijing by revitalizing relations with old allies and creating new partnerships in the Asia Pacific region—India, Japan, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Australia. It adds up to what Rhodes calls “a fundamental rebalancing of the U.S. presence in the world and how we prioritize foreign-policy issues.” Even on Israel, where Obama has been deeply mistrusted and often criticized, he is winning plaudits from some in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, for an aggressive military-aid program.

Perhaps the best measure of Obama’s JFK-like “toughness” is that he seems to be alienating his own liberal base, especially with his tactics against al-Qaida. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald recently wrote that progressives are even flirting with the idea of backing Ron Paul for president because Obama “has done heinous things with the power he has been vested,” including waging covert wars against both Islamist extremists and Iran. Obama has also disappointed some liberals by raising America’s trade profile. Last year, he pushed through free-trade pacts with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, following through on a promise to double exports in five years. At the same time, he has won rare kudos from his often-discontented base—particularly labor—by aggressively bringing trade cases against China at the WTO.

Foreign-policy professionals say that Obama has played a weak hand fairly well. With the U.S. bogged down in two wars and sapped by the Great Recession, he inherited a task like the one that burdened Presidents Nixon and Ford during the stagflation-troubled 1970s, after the humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam. Somehow, by the time Ford left office, he had “rescued a cohesive American foreign policy from the carnage of Vietnam and Watergate,” Henry Kissinger wrote in the final volume of his memoirs, Years of Renewal. Ford helped to steer the United States back to a course that led to ultimate triumph over the Soviet Union by encouraging Eastern Bloc nations to doubt the intentions of their Russian overlords and appreciate the human-rights record of the West. Obama, similarly, is trying to enlarge Washington’s circle of allies and make use of them at a time of American retrenchment, as he did in Libya.


And yet the challenge for the Obama team is that, until now, it has largely failed to communicate the commander in chief’s success to the American people. Even getting bin Laden gave Obama little more than a small bump in the polls (one of the problems of being a covert-power president is that you can’t talk about it much). Bush administration veterans and Republican critics, meanwhile, quickly took to the airwaves to argue that Obama was mainly just following through on the Bush agenda. The White House has also been sensitive about berating the Iraq war while tens of thousands of troops remained there; thus, Obama failed to communicate his dramatic drawdown from the “war on terror” to a laser-like focus on al-Qaida’s senior leadership. This recently led Thomas Friedman of The New York Times to write, erroneously, that Obama was proving merely “more adept at implementing George W. Bush’s foreign policy than Bush was,” when, in fact, Obama had reconceived the entire approach.

“Here is this man who’s a tremendous communicator, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but he’s lot more comfortable with hard power than with soft power. In fact, he’s a little uncomfortable with soft power,” says Mark Lagon, who served as a senior State Department official under George W. Bush. Even Democratic foreign-policy mandarin Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his new book, Strategic Vision, says that Obama “has failed to speak directly to the American people about America’s changing role in the world, its implications, and its demands.” Some Republicans also suggest that the president is merely adopting a strategy—focusing on China—that is fairly obvious and that the previous administration was mulling over before 9/11 anyway. A senior administration official counters that this is a churlishly ungenerous criticism. “No, it’s not a stroke of conceptual genius,” he says. “But this administration actually did it, executed it.”

One problem is, where Bush once declared he didn’t “do nuance,” Obama is nothing but nuance. The administration stoutly refuses to move an inch beyond its case-by-case pragmatism. There is also little public debate about the risks of Obama’s approach. According to Lagon, the president is “playing with fire with drones”—some critics say that his covert assassination program is much harsher than Bush’s interrogation and detention policy, with less public dissent—and “there is still even now a little bit of tone deafness about values.” Lagon, who is close to neoconservative thinkers and began his career as an aide to Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s U.N. ambassador, says that Obama failed to openly support the Green Movement in Iran (a precursor to the Arab Spring) at a critical time.

Indeed, Obama, perhaps a little too eager to avoid being George W. Bush, has been reluctant to embrace anything like a “freedom agenda,” despite the sprouting of democracy movements from the Middle East to Russia. His caution after the first signs of the Arab Spring—and, in particular, his decision to “lead from behind” by letting French and British planes perform the strikes against Qaddafi under NATO auspices—have also left him open to constant GOP sniping over his supposed ambivalence about “American exceptionalism.”

Lagon, like other Republican foreign-policy experts, concedes the balance and thoughtfulness in Obama’s policies, which reflect traditional GOP realpolitik and alliance-building. “In some respects, he is a little more sure-footed than even the elder Bush,” the former CIA director who was praised for his skilled but prosaic management of the end of the Soviet Union, Lagon says. “The great success has been his formation of an Asia policy that’s quite coherent. It’s so coherent that something that normally would make me really quite worried or critical—like the opening with Burma—fits into a larger picture.”

Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of State for George W. Bush and ran the Iran portfolio, says of Obama, “He’s been a very strong and effective president on foreign policy, and skillful.… There was a trust deficit and considerable anti-Americanism. In three years, he’s already changed that.” Burns adds, “He has been exceedingly strong on counterterrorism and going after the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Third, in large part he was able to juggle competing American interests during the Arab revolutions over the last year. He made the correct decisions on Egypt, the correct choice on Libya [in intervening behind NATO]. And he was correct in not going into Syria.”

And yet, the administration has failed to articulate anything like a doctrine or even a clear message that might win it some credit at the polls: a Truman Doctrine directed at containing the Soviets. A Nixon-like opening to China. The response from senior Obama officials to that familiar complaint is an equally familiar refrain: We don’t do doctrines. That’s what Bush did, and see where it got him. “In the previous administration, there were things communicated that weren’t followed through on—the freedom agenda, the doctrine of preventive war,” Rhodes says. “What we’ve been very careful to do is communicate in line with our actions.”

Zelikow says that Obama clearly had a learning curve to overcome, dating from early naiveté about the “transformational” administration he had pledged to deliver. His officials concede that they tended to overpromise and underdeliver in the first year: They thought they could engage Iran with little more than an “outstretched hand” and that they could restart peace talks by forcing the Israelis to stop building settlements on the West Bank. “They’ve had obvious trouble in certain areas,” Zelikow says. “The early misfires with the Israelis would be one example. But I think at the moment, bilateral relations with Israel are about as good as they could be. It’s unlikely that if George Bush were in office, relations would be much better.”

Zelikow, like Lagon, has his issues with Obama, even though he serves on the president’s foreign-policy advisory board. “The broader economic vision of the administration, and what they want to do to renew global capitalism, is not a particularly good story,” he says. “I don’t understand their vision for the future of the international financial system or the international energy system. They’re doing a little bit in trying to carry through the trade agenda, but in general I don’t really understand their global trade agenda.” Yet Obama has still managed to orchestrate, in the past year and a half, “the most consequential turn in American foreign policy since 9/11,” Zelikow says. “Turning the direction of American foreign policy is like a turn in a giant corporation. It’s this enormous disorderly set of things.”

A great deal, of course, remains unresolved. The administration’s push to make the Group of 20 the premier international forum exploded in its face, because consensus there is basically impossible. But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her team have held a series of discussions about preventing a decline of American leadership that would leave the international system adrift, and Clinton’s and Obama’s efforts at restoring American prestige after the long Bush deficit years may be paying off—literally. U.S. sovereign debt is still cheap and highly prized, and Asian nations want American protection more than ever from an aggressive China and an unpredictable Russia.

Meanwhile, the administration has been busy preparing a bill of particulars against Romney (and now one against Gingrich). “Romney has said he would have left tens of thousands of troops in Iraq indefinitely, with no plan for what they would do there or how he would end the war,” says the Obama campaign official, who delivers a kind of rap sheet: Romney has failed to outline a plan for ending the war in Afghanistan and flip-flopped on setting a timetable for withdrawal. He said it wasn’t worth “moving heaven and earth” to catch bin Laden and criticized Obama for making it clear he would take out Qaida targets in Pakistan. He flip-flopped on removing Qaddafi, first attacking Obama for demanding regime change and then celebrating it. He has proposed to drastically increase military spending without articulating how it would improve security or how to pay for it. Meanwhile, a Democratic campaign official points out that Gingrich has a history of making erratic statements about national security and once told The Times, “I don’t do foreign policy.”

Some of the charges against Obama sound an awful lot like the salvos that Republicans enjoy lobbing at Democrats. Now the president wants to turn a longtime liability into an asset. 

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