Even before terrorists killed 12 people at a Paris magazine this week, Republicans were fine-tuning an assault on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy as timid and naive, and stumbling everywhere from the deserts of Syria to the Kremlin in Moscow.
But one of the brothers who carried out the Paris strike spent several months in Yemen in 2011, according to U.S. officials, receiving weapons training and working with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That could undermine Obama’s proud claim of dismantling al Qaeda’s “core” and put Democrats on the defensive — especially Hillary Clinton, who carried out the President’s foreign policy as his first-term Secretary of State.
“There are big opportunities for Republicans to reclaim their traditional voter advantage on national security,” said Kori Schake, a former National Security Council, and State Department official in the George W. Bush White House. “To most Americans, the world feels like a dangerous place right now. Six years into (the) Obama administration, it is difficult for President Obama to blame that on anybody but himself.”
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Until 2008, Republicans enjoyed a perception among voters for several decades that they — and not Democrats — were best suited to lead America’s national security policy. But Obama reversed that conceit by arguing that former President George W. Bush squandered global goodwill after the September 11 attacks with a unilateralist foreign policy, the invasion of Iraq and “tough talk” that alienated US allies.
“It’s a heck of a long time, there is plenty of time for domestic issues to return and be number one,” said Peter Feaver, a former National Security Council official for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, now with Duke University. “But on the other hand it does seem likely that foreign policy will seem even more salient in 2016 than it was in 2012.”
And Obama can still claim to have crushed the leadership of al Qaeda in tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and waged a largely covert drone war against extremists elsewhere. He sees his presidency as a historic mission to move America on from the post-Sept. 11 period of constant war and to chart a sustainable strategy to fight extremism.
Any GOP candidate using foreign policy as a cudgel to attack against what will likely become known as the “Obama-Clinton” foreign policy, must deal with one large elephant in the room — George W. Bush. There is little public appetite for the era of intervention that characterized Bush’s presidency and Republicans face the task of winning back public trust.
But Schake said any Republican running on a foreign policy platform would be able to acknowledge the faults of the last Republican presidency, while refocusing on the presidency of Obama.
There are “legitimate criticisms of Bush administration foreign policy, but (they) are hard to sustain after eight years of a Democratic presidency,” she said.