If you listen only to Republican hawks, you could be forgiven for thinking that President Obama is positively pacifist.
"This president has had weak leadership," Chris Christie argued at the first GOP primary debate, suggesting that Obama cares more about being loved that respected.
Not to be outdone, Ted Cruz bemoaned the president's foreign policy with a favorite slogan: "Leading from behind is a disaster." Then-candidate Scott Walker employed the same phrase to suggest that the Obama administration has been marked by American "disengagement" from the Middle East.
It goes on and on. Jeb Bush says Obama is "indecisive, weak, making bad deals and leaving America exposed." Marco Rubio says Obama is a weak "neo-isolationist" and therefore "the friend of danger and enemy of peace." Lindsey Graham says Obama is a "weak opponent of evil and a poor champion of freedom."
This claim that weakness is the fault in Obama's foreign policy is everywhere on the pro-war right. And though it is generally intended to highlight differences of strategy and temperament between the president and his would-be GOP successors, this endlessly aggressive rhetoric achieves something else entirely: It lets Obama get away with murder.
It's true, certainly, that the president has not sent tens of thousands of American troops to fight a ground war in Syria or shot down Russian planes, as some GOP hawks would like him to do. But beyond that, Obama has barely been better than his neoconservative predecessor.
After all, this is a president who will leave behind two wars he pledged to end — plus an extra one thrown in free of legal authorization. This is a president whose drone war operates on a "guilty until proven innocent" rule, killing untold numbers of innocents and offering their families money instead of acknowledgement. This is a president whose civilian-to-terrorist kill ratio may be as high as 50:1, whose drone pilots sometimes use a technique called a "double tap," meaning the drone circles back after the initial strike to target first responders.
This is a president who is giving tons of weaponry to unvetted Syrian rebels, ammunition that will (theoretically) be used to fight ISIS members armed with American weaponry they managed to obtain from other American weapons drops to better-vetted entities.
And, perhaps most galling, this is a president who presided over the bombing of a neutral, nonprofit hospital while its occupants begged for mercy in a country where we are ostensibly no longer at war. As the victims, including medical workers and children, fled the flames, gunfire believed to have come from American planes prevented their escape. For this alleged war crime, Obama has offered only evolving excuses and an apology belied by his refusal of the independent investigation Doctors Without Borders demands.
If this is what isolationism looks like, I'm scared to see war.
Yet with a debate framed by Republican hawks' incessant griping over the president's supposed weakness, Obama is able to present his foreign policy as eminently reasonable — even restrained.
"The measure of strength internationally is not simply by how many countries we're occupying, or how many missiles we're firing," Obama said in early November, "but the strength of our diplomacy and the strength of our commitment to human rights and our belief that we've got to cooperate with other countries together to solve massive problems like terrorism but also like climate change."
But it's only in contrast to the GOP hawks' "bomb everything, everywhere, all the time" agenda that Obama's actual foreign policy can be convincingly presented as strength through diplomacy, human rights, and cooperation. War in three countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria) and varying degrees of military intervention in at least four more (Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya) are not the marks of an isolationist president.
And it's not only Obama who benefits from some Republicans' outlandish claims. While Hillary Clinton is widely acknowledged as a thoroughgoing hawk whose foreign policy would be comfortable in the GOP field, even this cycle's Democratic "peace candidate," Bernie Sanders, can only be so categorized because of the absurdity of pro-war Republican talking points.
Though it's true that Sanders voted against invading Iraq in 2003, he also voted for multiple bills to fund and continue that same war. Those less noted votes are in line with Sanders' long record as a tepid supporter of peace: He backed regime change in Iraq in 1998; supported bombing the Balkans in 1999; and plans to maintain Obama's drone program if elected.
Just like Obama, Sanders can only be seen as peaceful in a political climate where waging three wars is "isolationist," riding roughshod over constitutional rules for war is "weak," and bombing hospitals and weddings is "disengagement." Pro-war Republicans may think they're hurting the president when they attack him for "leading from behind," but instead they're doing him a favor, giving Obama and Democrats free license to do anything and everything short of the most preposterous GOP suggestions — and to claim the mantle of moderation in the process.