Perhaps you haven’t been paying too much attention to the news lately. If so, the Democratic Party has a message for you: Barack Obama ordered the hit on Osama bin Laden, and Mitt Romney most definitely did not. What President Obama didn’t say in Charlotte during his renomination speech, however, is where he — and U.S. national security — go from here.
Obama seized the chance to be the rare Democratic commander-in-chief to showcase his unlikely advantage on national security. He talked about the “young sailor I met” recovering from a war wound, and the “mothers and fathers of those who didn’t return” whom he “held in my arms.” He openly mocked Romney as “new to national security.” By word count, Obama devoted twice as much of his speech to national security as Romney did last week. But Obama failed to articulate an agenda for America on the world stage over the next four years.
The theme of the closing night of the Democratic convention was national security. That message was unmistakable: through treacly videos and speeches praising the “steel in his backbone” — in the words of Vice President Joe Biden — the Democrats sought to project an image of Obama as a strong, fearless leader. One half of that message had to do with the bin Laden raid, which Biden portrayed as Obama’s finest hour as president. The other half was to show Obama as unafraid to end wars as well as prosecute them: Obama began the foreign policy section of his speech reminding voters that he kept his promise to “end the war in Iraq,” and pivoted to arguing about how he’ll end the war in Afghanistan.
Never mind how Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, to meager gains at best. Never mind how Obama has expanded the war on terrorism to a proliferating series of undeclared wars, fought in the shadows with flying armed robots and lethal commandos, from east Africa to western Pakistan. And never mind how Obama began a whole other war in Libya, without the consent of Congress — which he tucked into a single sentence about how from “Burma to Libya to South Sudan, we have advanced the rights and dignity of all human beings,” which is an optimistic and self-serving reading of his record.
Beyond those references, it was difficult to identify a theme in Obama’s speech for what the U.S. needs to do abroad over the next four years. Obama said that the Taliban’s momentum “is blunted” in Afghanistan, which is dubious, and looked to 2014, when “our longest war will be over” — which is simply untrue, since his administration plans to keep thousands of troops there beyond the official 2014 end of combat. “Terrorist plots must be disrupted,” Obama said, and al-Qaida is “on the path to defeat,” but he did not explain how the U.S. will go beyond disrupting those plots to strategic victory over al-Qaida. The U.S. will help Europe out of its economic crisis, Obama said, without details. And the U.S. will support the Arab Spring’s revolutionaries — although Obama sidestepped the hard questions of whether to intensify direct U.S. support to those revolutionaries in the face of intractable and ruthless dictators like Syria’s Bashar Assad.
Obama’s administration may want to refocus its attention on Asia, a region it believes is crucial for U.S. economic interests, but Obama downplayed Asia in his speech. China emerged not as a rising global power to work with, but as something to be “stood up” to on behalf of American workers or as a source of future economic competition.
Indeed, Obama focused more attention on a different Mideast conflict — Israel and Iran — than he did on Asia. The U.S. commitment to Israeli security “must not waver,” Obama said, and added that the “Iranian government must face a world that stays united against its nuclear ambitions.” That was a reiteration of Obama’s stance on Iran — one in which he rallies a global coalition to place economic sanctions on Teheran — without an explanation of what he’s prepared to do if Iran continues its nuclear program anyway. You wouldn’t know from the speech, for instance, that Obama and Israel have initiated a campaign of cyber-espionage against Iran’s nuclear program. And there was nothing, incidentally, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Obama came to office determined to resolve.
Like the rest of the Democratic Party, Obama was more comfortable bashing Romney than articulating what’s next for America on the global stage. Obama gleefully mocked Romney as “stuck in a Cold War mind warp,” and inverted a standard GOP attack — that Obama has somehow insulted the United Kingdom — by reminding his audience of Romney’s gaffes in London during the Olympics. Biden went much, much further, suggesting that Romney lacked the fortitude to kill bin Laden and constructing a straw-man argument that unnamed politicians “bet against America” — which no one in the Republican or Democratic parties has done.
The foreign policy section of Obama’s renomination speech contrasted significantly with Obama’s 2008 goals as a presidential aspirant. Once Obama spoke about reshaping global affairs. Now he talks about managing them competently. Obama had the fortitude in 2007 to assert that he would hunt bin Laden in Pakistan even if it meant killing the terrorist leader unilaterally. But now bin Laden is dead — and that success has left Obama struggling to articulate what America does next.