A Changing of the Guard
The Democratic Party is now the dominant foreign-policy party.
Romney has done so little to shore up his lack of experience in foreign policy that Kerry, Biden, and Obama—the Democrats’ main speakers Thursday night—felt no qualms about simply dismissing him as an unserious man, even making fun of him.
Kerry noted that Romney has taken “every position” on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Libyan intervention: opposing withdrawal, then supporting it; criticizing Obama for moving too slowly, then too strongly. “Talk about being ‘for it before you were against it,’ ” Kerry quipped, borrowing the phrase that he once disastrously uttered about a budget measure, thus prompting Republicans in 2004 to ridicule him as a “flip-flopper.”
President Obama was even more casual in what can fairly be called, at least on these issues, his contempt for the Republican nominee. Romney’s depiction of Russia as America’s “number-one geostrategic foe” reveals that he’s “still stuck in a Cold War mind-warp,” Obama said—adding, in a reference to Romney’s disastrous trip to England this summer, “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”
Romney and Ryan “are new to foreign policy,” Obama said, barely containing a smirk. Yes, Obama was once new to it as well, though not as new—he’d at least served actively on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he picked a running mate, Joe Biden, who was seasoned. The more pertinent point the Democrats were making at their convention, though, is that Obama is not remotely new now.
On one point, the Democrats exaggerated their president’s accomplishment. The troop-withdrawal from Iraq was negotiated on Bush’s watch. It was part of the Status of Forces Agreement, signed by U.S. and Iraqi officials on Nov. 17, 2008. The Obama administration later negotiated the points of transition toward complete withdrawal, no small thing; but the end of the war was set under Bush.
Then again, this accord was completed after Obama’s victory in the 2008 election. If Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, had won, it’s an open question whether Bush would have gone ahead with the deal. McCain opposed the pullout at the time and still thinks it was a big mistake. What does Romney think? What would he have done? That’s still less clear.
Murkiest of all is the question of what happened to the Republican Party as a player—as the presumptive leader—in foreign affairs. It’s not healthy, either for this election or for the state of American democracy, to have just one of the two major parties take so much as a serious interest in the subject, even if—by evidence of the past few years—it’s the better of those parties.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.