In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, there’s been a silly effort among the conservative chattering classes to bat down the idea that this development means a permanent boost in Barack Obama’s approval ratings, or even guarantees his re-election. It’s silly, of course, because no one really believes the straw-man proposition in the first place. But this time-wasting exercise has obscured a more interesting question: How does this event affect the Republican national security case against Obama, and what are the implications for Republican presidential candidates who have been planning—in some cases for years—to make this a major part of their campaigns?
Lest we forget, until very recently the conservative narrative about Obama—and the Democratic Party as a whole—has been that the people running the country are constitutionally allergic to the use of military force and hopelessly addicted to multilateralism. At least two major Republican proto-candidates, Mitt Romney (as expressed in his 2010 manifesto, No Apologies) and Newt Gingrich (through an array of books, speeches and projects), have taken this argument to the front-and-center of their campaigns, and a highly influential article in the National Review made the idea of “American exceptionalism” the linchpin of the conservative critique of Obama in general. Obama’s reluctance to use unilateral force to defend America from its enemies, the argument went, speaks to a broader incapacity of the president to reflect and defend American values in all walks of life, including domestic policy, where he is trying to impose European welfare-state limitations on American capitalism.
But the difficulty in challenging incumbent presidents is that they have the power to confound the best-laid arguments of their challengers. The Libya intervention called into question the alleged allergy of Obama and Democrats towards the use of force, driving conservatives to instead object to Obama’s deference to multilateral allies. But the Bin Laden operation, which involved a lethal mission in Pakistan without specific notice to its government, refuted the entire conservative critique in a manner that’s hard to undo.
As a result, the first problem Republicans now face is that there is little left in their foreign policy critiques to which they can still cling. For the most part, conservative commentary on Obama’s decision to authorize the OBL operation has focused on its alleged hypocrisy: Obama supposedly relied on intelligence derived from torture, or from his predecessors’ general approach to counter-terrorism, which he claimed to oppose in 2008. This line of attack is reminiscent of the feeble efforts of conservatives during the 1990s to attack Bill Clinton for “stealing our issues” or “stealing our ideas.” In short, who cares?
For someone like Mitt Romney, who dedicated the bulk of his recent book to railing against Obama’s foreign policy as weak willed and self loathing, it’s unclear exactly what he should do. Having spent a good deal of the last four years trying to recast himself as a foreign policy heavy, should he simply discount recent events as an aberration and plunge on with the claim that the administration is indifferent to terrorism and hostile to America’s right to unilateral self-protection? Or should he cut his losses and shift to other issues? In either case, he can’t exactly pivot to health care.
The second problem for the Republican field is that the death of bin Laden could accelerate the administration’s timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. If this happens, it would not only heal long-standing Democratic rifts over Afghanistan, but expose the degree to which Republicans are newly divided over the same issue.
While it’s highly unlikely that foreign policy will be the driving factor in 2012, Republican presidential candidates are still going to have to talk about foreign policy and national security issues in a vast number of primary debates. At this point, there will likely be not one, but two libertarian candidates, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, making constant trouble with their isolationist views, which—unlike in years past—are clearly finding some traction among Tea Party folk and other grassroots conservatives. Former governors Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and (if he runs) Mike Huckabee, for their part, will be torn between trying to appeal to these groups and trying to out-hawk Obama. Moreover, Tea Party-generated conflict about whether the Pentagon should be exposed to budget cuts will be unavoidable.
And finally, if the GOP nominating process delivers up a candidate with questionable foreign policy credentials—as it likely will, unless Jon Hunstman pulls off a political miracle—then foreign policy issues could actually be an important advantage for Obama. It’s worth remembering that in the contest Republicans like to cite as a precedent for 2012, the 1980 race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, doubts about Reagan’s competence as commander-in-chief helped keep the contest competitive until doubts about the actual commander-in-chief’s competence in handling the Iran hostage standoff took over. And, if nothing else, the snuffing of OBL made it clear that Obama is no Jimmy Carter.
Perceptions of political parties are hard to change, of course. Many progressives thought Bill Clinton’s successful (if multilateral) use of force in Kosovo convincingly slayed the dragon of Republican claims that Democrats were latent hippies unwilling to kill bad guys. A couple of years later, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were campaigning on the argument that Clinton and Gore were starving the military of resources and that “help is on the way.” And less than two years into the Bush administration, Republicans had revived the Democrats-won’t-defend-you claim with a vengeance.
At this particular moment, however, Republicans are hard-pressed to pass themselves off as the party of patriotic clarity and determination. They may soon have their own fractious debate over Afghanistan, our country’s overseas commitments in general, and whether to make cuts to the defense budget. And whatever transpires on the GOP side, the President of the United States is certainly a more formidable figure on national security than he was two weeks ago.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.
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