Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The media assumes that national security and foreign policy issues won't have much to do with this year's presidential election. The media is wrong: In fact, national security and foreign policy could easily be the determining factor when we decide who we want to lead us for the next four years—and the key word here is "lead".
To me, this year's election seems a close parallel to 1980, when Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were locked in a situation similar to where we find ourselves today.
Recall that Carter was elected largely as a reaction to the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon's resignation, and Gerald Ford's "appointment" (Vice President Agnew had resigned in an earlier scandal).
Barack Obama was elected because of frustration with the George Bush administration's long, grueling war in Iraq (fought with hundreds of billions of borrowed dollars). This, when we should have been engaged elsewhere, at least after the weapons of mass destruction issue was settled and Saddam Hussein was history. In fact, it seemed to me that whomever the Democrats nominated in 2008 was going to win, just as whoever ran against Carter in 1980 would win.
Carter probably lost the election because of the failed raid to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran and because of his mostly weak national security positions against the Soviet Union, which—by 1980—was at its most threatening of the Cold War. In 1980, Americans clearly wanted a stronger leadership personality in the White House and they elected one. The Cold War was effectively over when Ronald Reagan's second term was done; this because his aggressive and persistent policies effectively caused the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact to implode. To Reagan, the Cold War was a fundamentally basic struggle with only one acceptable outcome—he said: "We win and they lose".
As my thesis goes here, both Carter and Obama were elected because of voter reactions to failed leadership, and Carter was defeated after one term for the same reason. If Obama is defeated after one term, it could easily be attributed to his administration's squirrely reaction to the September 11 terrorist attack on our consulate in Libya and several other foreign policy and national security leadership failures.
The Libyan attack murdered four U.S. officials, including our ambassador—who was literally left to fend for himself. And now, the attack has gotten to the Washington Kabuki dance stage, e.g., "who knew what, and when", whether the State Department ignored the threat, whether the White House was engaged, blah, blah, blah.
One thing for sure: The White House moved very quickly to come up with a campaign "cover story" for the attack.
The "truth?" The attack clearly was not a popular reaction to an insulting YouTube video, as the administration's "political people" confidently described it to be. Instead, it was a carefully planned and executed terrorist strike, carried out with heavy weapons, against an incredibly "soft" target with key political significance—they killed our ambassador on 9/11.
It was, in short, a strategic attack "celebrating" the 9/11 attacks (which were also strategic) against us, representing a failure of leadership at the highest levels. In effect, our ship of state ran aground in Libya and the question for voters now is whether the captain should be relieved of command.
On the other hand, some will say that Obama earned his "national security stripes" with the killing of Osama bin Laden. Probably not: This primarily because Obama made such an ill-advised political event of it (like Bush's 2003 "mission accomplished" speech). And, because most Americans believe that Pakistan's complicity in hiding bin Laden (while receiving billions in aid from the United States) is a longer-term foreign policy failure of both the Obama and Bush administrations. In fact, most Americans believe that Osama should have been dead more than 10 years ago.
In addition, there are a number of other serious foreign policy/ national security screw-ups on the "Obama watch":
- We were (and still are) caught flat-footed by the Arab Spring popular uprisings
- Many believe we should have quickly armed the Syrian opposition to overthrow the Assad regime, probably the most dangerous in the region
- Iran continues on with its nuclear weapons program
- Announcing when we planned to leave Afghanistan so that the Taliban can plan their final offensive
In sum, and contrary to popular culture (i.e., James Carville's observation, "It's the economy, stupid") most of our presidential elections are really about leadership. America remains a centrist country, and when compared to other world democracies, we are often described in foreign media as "center–right". When we have moved to the left (or have "corrected" an earlier move to the left) it has been because of leadership failures of the incumbent president. There are clear historical examples of this happening on each side of the aisle: Nixon/Ford to Carter; Carter to Reagan; Bush to Obama—and next…Obama to Romney?
- Read the U.S. News Debate: Can Mitt Romney Best Barack Obama on Foreign Policy?
- Read Andrew Natsios: The U.S. Finds Odd Bedfellows in the Arab Spring
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy