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Obama the Republican

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
October 10, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo

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First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

The presidential campaign's foreign policy debates aren't scheduled for another two weeks, but unless Obama has another bad night, his record makes it tough for Romney to carve out a conservative alternative. Why? In foreign policy, Obama is the Republican candidate.

Drone strikes, killing Osama bin Laden, counterinsurgency, a surge in Afghanistan, the toughest sanctions ever on Iran, unyielding (despite Netanyahu's claim otherwise) toward Israel, containment in Asia, free trade agreements, and missed opportunities in Latin America because of the usual ideological fixations: even if progressives no longer recognize him as one of their own, these features of Obama's presidency give it appeal across party lines.

Benghazi aside, Obama's record has put to rest the myth, perpetuated by the right wing of the GOP, that Democrats are weak on national security. The political effect for this election is evident already. With the race now in its final weeks, to broaden his appeal Romney has moved to the center, away from the extremes of the primary season. On domestic policy he now talks implausibly about protecting the middle class and promises not to cut taxes for the rich. But in foreign policy he can't distinguish himself by moving to the center, because the center is now firmly held by his rival.

And running to the president's right would mean bumping directly into the legacy of George W. Bush. The American public has no taste (or money) for another large-scale intervention a la Iraq. And although Americans are disappointed with Obama in many ways, they do not want to return to Bush-era global animus, particularly from our allies—the kind that surged against the United States because of W's contempt for international law and institutions, and his administration's use of torture.

The divisions among Romney's foreign policy advisors reflect this conundrum. The realist contingent is embodied by Robert Zoellick, who served as USTR, deputy secretary of state, and until recently, and representing President Obama, as president of the World Bank. The other camp is populated by the crowd (minus Condoleezza Rice) who brought us the war in Iraq and its messy aftermath, embodied best by John Bolton, who helped concoct the fake WMD argument. The split is not new. But it is made far more irreparable, and politically problematic, by what is now a complete blurring of the lines between internationalists in the Republican Party and their counterparts working for Obama.

Perhaps it is no accident that the candidate who has embodied so many different political identities would be unable to carve out a distinct set of ideas in foreign policy. As if to make that very point, the closest Romney has come to defining himself against Obama is to invoke the 20th century legacy of General George Marshall, Secretary of State under a Democratic president, Harry S. Truman.

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