Obama Embraces National Security as Campaign Issue
WASHINGTON — With a Republican opponent all but chosen and the general election campaign about to start, President Obama is preparing to emphasize an issue that few Democratic candidates have embraced in the past: national security, long the domain of the Republican Party.
At the same time, the Obama campaign is seeking to portray Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee, as a national security neophyte whose best ideas are simply retreads of what the president is already doing, and whose worst instincts would take the country back to the days of President George W. Bush: cowboy diplomacy, the Iraq war and America’s lowest standing on the international stage.
In the coming weeks, Obama advisers plan to release a list of national security “surrogates” — high-profile Democrats like former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Wesley K. Clark, a retired general — who will write newspaper op-ed articles, give speeches and take Mr. Romney to task every time he opens his mouth about foreign policy, Obama advisers said.
The plan is to draw a contrast between Mr. Obama — who, his advisers say, kept his word on ending the Iraq war, going aggressively after Al Qaeda and restoring alliances around the world — and Mr. Romney, who will be portrayed as playing both sides of numerous issues.
“He was for and against the removal of Qaddafi, for and against setting a timetable to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan, for and against enforcing trade laws against China, and while he once said he would not move heaven and earth to get Osama bin Laden, he later claimed that any president would have authorized the mission to do so,” said Ben LaBolt, press secretary for the Obama campaign.
The more aggressive posture is a break from the past, when Democrats on the national stage battled against the perception that the party was not as committed as Republicans were to a strong defense and an aggressive response to terrorism. Mr. Obama himself, during the 2008 campaign, drew criticism from both Republicans and his primary opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for what they called his naïveté, particularly over his willingness to talk, without preconditions, to American foes like Iran.
But Mr. Obama’s victory that year over Senator John McCain, a Vietnam War hero, was in part a result of an electorate weary from years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, with a record that includes winding down the Iraq war and killing Bin Laden, coupled with the success of the military strikes in Libya and the removal of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, political and national security experts have embraced the Obama campaign’s belief that this could be the year when national security issues actually help a Democrat.
“Barack Obama’s position in foreign policy is substantively stronger than that of any other Democratic candidate in recent memory,” said David Rothkopf, the chief executive and editor at large of the Foreign Policy Group. “The general Romney refrain of ‘I can do better’ is easily defused with one word: ‘How?’ ”
Of course, Mr. Obama will have to fend off criticism on Afghanistan, where he has announced a withdrawal date for American troops even as the political situation remains tenuous, with reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in disarray. But even on this issue, Mr. Romney’s criticism — that Mr. Obama should listen more to his generals — has not had much resonance with a public that polls show to be increasingly disillusioned with the American presence there.
Mr. Rothkopf’s description of the Obama counteroffense played out late last month, when Mr. Romney’s national security advisers sent an open letter to Mr. Obama via the conservative magazine National Review. The letter took the president to task over a host of issues, from Israel — which the Romney team said Mr. Obama had not done enough to support — to Iran, Afghanistan and Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez, Mr. Romney’s advisers said, is growing in influence under Mr. Obama’s lax watch.
Within 24 hours, the Obama campaign struck back, this time choosing Foreign Policy magazine for its counterpunch. Beyond taking on each of the Romney letter’s accusations point by point, the Obama letter, signed by 18 mostly Democratic-leaning national security experts, demanded that Mr. Romney say what he would do instead.
“What specifically would you do to address the Iranian threat that is different from what President Obama is already doing?” the letter said. “Why did you call Russia ‘without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe,’ especially when strategic cooperation with Russia is essential for countering the Iranian nuclear threat?”
And finally: “What did you mean when you said, ‘It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person,’ referring to Osama bin Laden?” the letter said.
“We are so eager for this debate to happen,” said Michèle Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense who is now one of the Obama campaign’s national security surrogates. “If Romney is the Republican challenger, and he is going to make national security an issue, the president’s record is very strong and speaks for itself.”
A host of other Obama national security surrogates went after Mr. Romney last week, after he jumped on Mr. Obama’s open-microphone slip a few days before, during which the president was overheard telling Russia’s president, Dimitri A. Medvedev, that he would have more flexibility to deal with Russian concerns over the American missile defense system after the election in November. Russia, Mr. Romney told CNN later, is “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
The Obama campaign released a flurry of statements from pro-Obama foreign policy notables taking Mr. Romney to task. “His national security priorities seem to shift opportunistically each week, from threatening war with Iran to calling Russia our biggest geopolitical foe,” said Richard J. Danzig, the Navy secretary under President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Romney, of course, has his own national security surrogates. Richard S. Williamson, who was Mr. Bush’s special envoy to Sudan, said Mr. Obama’s national security record left plenty of room for Mr. Romney to attack.
“The world is better off because Osama bin Laden is dead. The world is better off because Muammar Qaddafi is dead,” Mr. Williamson said in an interview. “But two deaths do not a foreign policy make.”