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Obama deprives Republicans of a foreign policy cudgel

President Obama's foreign policy successes — most recently, the toppling of the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi — are of only marginal value to his re-election struggle.

The corollary is that Republican hopes earlier this year of a one-two punch against Obama — a soft economy and softness on national security, which were determinant in unseating another Democratic incumbent in 1980 — are diminishing. This time, they can only count on a one punch, the economy.

The administration's stepped-up drone strikes and the killing of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and a host of lesser al-Qaida operatives make an "easy on terrorism" charge a tough sell. Gadhafi's demise after a U.S.-backed air campaign ties the bow on that campaign issue.

Moreover, most of the Republican presidential candidates, apart from libertarian Ron Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, are in the camp of the neoconservatives, the architects of the Iraq war. These advocates of an aggressive and expensive foreign policy are out of sync with U.S. political opinion and economic realities.

The Republican foreign policy traditionalists on the model of Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker seem absent.

Witness the reaction to the president's decision to withdraw all forces from Iraq by year's end. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called it "an astonishing failure" that risked all the gains of the past decade; Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused Obama of putting political expediency ahead of sound military security and "judgment." Herman Cain simply said it was "dumb." They all insist on keeping a residual force.

The reality is that the troop withdrawal timetable was negotiated by President Bush three years ago. As a candidate, in 2007, then-Sen. Obama vowed to carry out the plan more rapidly.

Americans, by overwhelming margins, want to get out of a war that has cost more than $800 billion and 4,500 American lives, while arguably strengthening the position of Iran, now a greater threat to the U.S. than Iraq ever was.

Further, while the administration may not have negotiated very well, the Iraqis were adamant that any small remaining U.S. force wouldn't be immune from local laws or prosecution as are American troops stationed elsewhere. Imagine the reactions of politicians who worry about any U.S. forces being under control of a United Nations command if an army private fighting 10,000 miles away were to be prosecuted by an Islamic court.

The neocons argue that a presence in Iraq is essential and that modern history shows that such a commitment must be long term. Otherwise, they say, Iran threatens to dominate the region.

This argument was refuted by Robert Merry, the editor of the National Interest, a foreign policy journal.

"The threat of growing Iranian dominance over Iraq is real," Merry says in a recent article. The neocons, he says, "should have considered it before they beat the drums for an Iraq invasion that would inevitably upend the centuries-long balance of power between the Persians and the Mesopotamians."

The notion that greater Iranian influence could be checked with a residual force of 5,000 U.S. troops "borders on the ludicrous," he says.

The next drumbeat will be to oppose a significant drawdown in Afghanistan, which is clearly designated as "Obama's war." There is some Republican division: Paul and Huntsman have called for a speedy withdrawal, while Romney has been, at various times, both more dovish and more hawkish than Obama.

Most neoconservatives envision a larger and longer-term American presence. The declining public support for such an endeavor is likely to accelerate after the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, recently let slip that in any conflict with the United States, he would side with Pakistan.

By focusing on the need for a more aggressive foreign policy, one that won't command popular support, Republicans may be muddying other, credible criticisms of Obama's efforts in the international arena. It would be fair to say that the White House is usually reactive and that its foreign policy team, more than most previous administrations, considers an action first for its political and personal effect on Obama; the discussion of the merits of a policy tend to come second.

Protracted decisions are depicted by the White House as a result of thoughtful deliberations. To outsiders, they seem to reflect more the political cost-benefit analysis. Afghanistan is a prime example, as captured in Bob Woodward's best-seller "Obama's Wars."

There are specific policies that are open to legitimate criticism; a case can be made the administration dropped the ball on the Middle East, squandering any possibilities of a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

None of this will much matter to the electorate 53 weeks from now. As noted by Richard Haass, an assistant secretary of state under Colin Powell and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations: "It's hard to imagine more than a handful of voters pulling the lever on the basis of foreign policy."