The Foreign Policy Advantage For Obama 2012

The Obama campaign is expected to start highlighting what they consider a long list of national security accomplishments. For more on the foreign policy angles to this election, host Rachel Martin speaks with Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

With the presidential election set to kick into high gear, President Barack Obama's campaign is treading on traditional Republican ground, and getting ready to play up the president track record on national security. According to The New York Times, the Obama campaign is expected to start highlighting what they consider a long list of national security accomplishments, which includes ending the Iraq War, stepping up drone attacks against militants overseas, helping lead a successful NATO war that brought down the Gadhafi regime in Libya and the killing of Osama bin Laden.

For more on the foreign-policy angles to this election, we are joined in-studio by Michael O'Hanlon. He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in national security and defense policy. He is also the co-author of "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy."

Michael O'Hanlon, thanks so much for joining us this morning.

DR. MICHAEL O'HANLON: Nice to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So President Obama casting himself as a strong leader on national security, which really runs counter to the popular narrative that Democrats are weak on security issues. What should we expect to see in coming weeks and months?

O'HANLON: Well, there are two things to expect, Rachel. One is, of course, now he's going to talk about his record to date. The other is how the record will evolve with Iran and Syria being much in the news.

MARTIN: I want to get into some of those specific case studies in a minute. But first, Mitt Romney is close to securing the GOP nomination at this point. What you see are the major fault lines between President Obama and the former Massachusetts governor, when it comes to foreign policy and national security issues?

O'HANLON: Well, there are a couple. Certainly Governor Romney wants to create the sense that Obama has mishandled Iran, and that Romney would be tougher and more successful in preventing it from getting a nuclear weapon. But I think Obama, on balance, has handled it pretty well and I'd be surprised if that became a big area of disagreement in the fall.

Likewise on Afghanistan, Obama has hedged a bit. Sometimes his words have been weaker than his policies and he's been ambivalent. But nonetheless, there's not a lot of political space to go after Obama from either the left or the right on Afghanistan.

I think defense spending may emerge as an interesting and unexpected issue, where Obama, of course, has gone along with some reductions in defense spending. And Governor Romney has said that he would try to reverse those. Process with the Middle East and peace talks could be another. I think that you could expect Romney to know the more traditional American route of really tightening the bond with Israel first, and trying to use that as a springboard to better progress with the Palestinians. Whereas, Obama has tried to be their evenhanded. Frankly, neither one of these policies has been very successful. And so, I'm not sure it'll be a real important difference in terms of substance or prospects for peace. But it could be an important stylistic difference.

MARTIN: You mentioned Syria earlier. This is another area, the Arab uprisings in the Middle East - this is an area where the president could find himself vulnerable to criticism?

O'HANLON: It is. Although again, on Syria, Americans I don't think want another big intervention. And Syria does not lend itself to a Libya-style intervention. Syria is five times, 10 times harder, much more akin to Iraq in terms of what could ensue if the rebellion brought down the government. And so, I'm not sure anybody really wants to follow through on the logic of going fully after Assad.

MARTIN: So, does the Obama campaign have anything to lose by playing up his national security record?

O'HANLON: Well, I do think even though I've been talking about how Syria and Iran are tough places for Romney to really stake out an alternative positive that people are going to latch on to, nonetheless, Obama has the problem of incumbency. People don't necessarily give you credit for the big accomplishments; they internalize those. Just ask George H.W. Bush after Operation Desert Storm. And so, yes, there's a risk because the places that reach the headlines and don't go well could attract more attention disproportionately than the places where Obama has, I think, something to brag about.

MARTIN: Michael O'Hanlon, he's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is also the co-author of the book "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy."

Michael, thanks for coming in.

O'HANLON: Thank you, Rachel.

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