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GOP foreign policy elite still clueless
On foreign policy, Obama is trying to undo the damage of the Bush years. Why do David Frum and other Republicans want to stop him?
Daniel Larison
Daniel Larison
R

epublican criticism of President Obama's foreign policy is increasingly divorced from reality. David Frum's recent column outlining Obama's alleged failures is a prime example. Indeed, it's part of a pattern of behavior in which Republicans have tried to transform their greatest weakness—the conduct of foreign affairs—into a political weapon against Obama. It is scarcely nine months since the end of an era marked by some of the greatest foreign policy failures in postwar history. Yet the perpetrators and their supporters are now condemning Obama's attempts to undo the damage. Even when these critiques are not factually false, they reflect the bankruptcy of mainstream Republican foreign policy thinking and demonstrate that many Republicans still have no idea why the country turned against them.

Frum begins his catalogue of Obama's alleged mistakes by claiming that the administration is cutting military spending. This is not true; the Defense Department's budget grew well beyond the rate of inflation this year and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, Republicans made this charge freely during the campaign last year and they have continued to level it against Obama ever since. 

Frum also claims that Obama's foreign policy is defined by "conciliation through moral and practical concession." But for all of Obama's superficial gestures and rhetorical changes in tone, there have been no meaningful concessions to any state. The administration that Frum claims is so intent on reconciling with Iran has made it clear that it intends to impose even tighter sanctions on it. Acquiring Russian help to squeeze Iran is the stated goal of the sole substantive move Obama has made to thaw relations with Moscow. Whether or not Russia ultimately supports U.S. efforts, Obama's Iran policy is practically indistinguishable from that of his predecessor and it is far from conciliatory. 

Regarding Scotland's release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, had Obama more loudly protested Megrahi's return to Libya we would surely have heard from Frum's fellow Republicans that Obama was jeopardizing the 'special relationship' over a minor issue. Germany and France ignored Obama's calls for stimulus spending not because Obama is a failure but because they have extensive welfare systems (which made new spending programs unnecessary), EU-imposed deficit ceilings (which made them unworkable), and past German experience with hyper-inflation (which made them undesirable). One might as well blame Obama for Chinese currency manipulation or for the way Russian state-owned companies set the price of natural gas. Other states pursue policies that serve their interests and always have. That's not a consequence of Obama's election.

Frum strangely accuses Democrats of opposing Plan Colombia, although it was an initiative begun by the Clinton administration and supported by Obama. Then Frum asserts that Plan Colombia was a success. In practice, Plan Columbia led to the increased militarization of drug interdiction as well as to coca production continuing unchanged and many coca growers being driven into the arms of the FARC rebels. No one can deny that internal Colombian security has improved under President Uribe, but the principal goals of Plan Colombia to decrease the cocaine supply and weaken FARC were never met.  If anything, Obama deserves criticism for going along with a dead-end drug war that has prolonged Colombia's internal wars and exacerbated Mexico's current spate of violence; but this is the sort of critique that Republican hawks are incapable of making.        

In the short term, the Republican credibility gap means that Obama will have little effective domestic opposition to his foreign policy. The GOP's recent hysteria over Obama's decision to cancel the Central European missile defense system confirms this. Unfortunately, an administration that lacks credible critics is far less likely to be held accountable for its misjudgments. By failing to make credible, accurate arguments against Obama's decisions, Republicans will make it far more difficult to resist the administration when it does err—as it inevitably will.

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