from The Water's Edge

Will Libya Hurt Obama in 2012?

March 8, 2011 9:33 am (EST)

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

More on:

Politics and Government

Elections and Voting

A rebel fighter holds a Kingdom of Libya flag in a battle near Ras Lanuf
A rebel fighter holds a Kingdom of Libya flag in a battle near Ras Lanuf on March 4, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic/courtesy Reuters)

Will the administration’s slowness in responding to events in Libya hurt Obama’s reelection run? Jennifer Rubin poses that question over at "Right Turn." Her answer: Yes, it could.  My answer: Almost certainly not.

Rubin has it exactly right that foreign policy doesn’t usually figure prominently in presidential campaigns. The exception is “unless and until Americans feel their security is endangered or America is faltering on the international stage.” Short of those extreme events, domestic issues rule the day.

Could Libya be a breakthrough issue, a la the Soviet threat in the 1980 election?  Rubin says yes, for two reasons. The first is that if Libya

devolves into a bloody, prolonged civil war and casualties mount, this foreign policy debacle could well become a stunning example of President Obama’s foreign policy ineptitude and of the perils of excessive reliance on multilateralism.

The second is that

even if the Libya situation does not devolve into genocidal war, Libya may simply become one more item in the growing list of foreign policy failures. When viewed in conjunction with Obama’s fixation on Israel’s settlements, attempts at Iran engagement, his backing of Hugo Chavez’s crony in Honduras and his deferential stance toward a wide array of autocrats (from Bashar al-Assad to Vladimir Putin), voters may come to see that Obama’s foreign policy is hastening the decline of American influence.

Rubin wisely notes that her conclusion assumes that GOP candidates will make a credible case that they have a better plan for dealing with Libya. That will be harder to do than she supposes. The public routinely discounts claims that politicians make. After all,voters weren’t born yesterday; they have heard lots of promises over the years. They expect politicians to promise more than they can deliver.

But let’s give Rubin her heroic assumption. The real problems with her argument lie elsewhere. The first can be summarized in three words: “Iraq and Afghanistan.” Americans are suffering from intervention fatigue. Years from now, as the costs of our foreign policy over the past decade recede, they probably will cheer on the interventionists. But for now, not so much. They don’t want to send U.S. troops into yet another country. Here is a figure to keep in mind:  a majority of Americans—54 percent to be exact—think that the United States should not be involved in Afghanistan right now. Are we to suppose that the American public somehow thinks Libya will be easy?

So if Obama goes into the 2012 general election campaign saying he withdrew U.S. troops in Iraq as promised and has begun drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he will be in a strong foreign policy position politically. That will be true regardless of what is happening in Libya (or Belarus or Honduras for that matter). Obama’s biggest foreign policy risk is the opposite of what Rubin supposes, namely, becoming entangled in Libya. Should the United States intervene in Libya and find itself trapped, Obama will pay a steep political price. And GOP candidates will be his most vocal critics.

The second reason to doubt that Libya will matter in 2012 is a weak U.S. economy and a federal budget bleeding red ink. Domestic issues almost certainly will trump foreign policy ones in 2012. Indeed, if you could guarantee White House officials that foreign policy will shove domestic policy aside during the election campaign, they almost certainly would be pleased. If GOP presidential candidates are talking Hugo Chavez and Bahsar al-Assad rather than unemployment rates and trillion dollar deficits, then Obama’s second term is assured.

More on:

Politics and Government

Elections and Voting