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Successes Overseas Are Unlikely to Help Obama at Home

Sunday, October 23, 2011

President Obama’s announcement that the last American soldiers will leave Iraq by the end of this year capped a momentous week in which he could also take credit for helping dispatch one of the world’s great villains, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Conventional wisdom holds that none of this will matter to Mr. Obama’s frayed political fortunes, which will be determined by the economy rather than the notches he is piling up on his statesman’s belt.

Yet Mr. Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq — a campaign pledge kept — and the successful NATO air campaign in Libya — with no American casualties, and at a tiny fraction of the cost of Iraq — allowed him to thread a political needle: reaffirming his credentials as a wartime leader while reassuring his Democratic base that he is making good on the promises that got him elected.

This one-two punch may also strengthen the president’s hand against his eventual Republican opponent, according to Mr. Obama’s supporters, by depriving Republicans of a cudgel typically used on Democratic presidents, that they are weak on national security. The swift and fierce criticism of his Iraq decision by the Republican candidates shows how reluctant they are to cede this advantage to him.

“There is an aggregate effect to all the president’s foreign policy successes,” said Bill Burton, a former White House aide who is a senior strategist at Priorities USA Action, a political action committee backing the Obama campaign. “The notion of who is a stronger leader will be deeply influenced by the promises the president kept.”

Mr. Burton said he could foresee television advertisements playing up Mr. Obama’s foreign successes, including the deaths of both Osama bin Laden and Colonel Qaddafi, though he did not say whether his group had made such plans. On Saturday, Mr. Burton circulated a memo to producers of the Sunday talk shows drawing a contrast between the cost of the Iraq war and the lower-cost Libya operation.

Still, there is little doubt the election will be dominated by the economy and the weak job market, where the president is dealing with a steady drip of bad news and scant hope of improvement before Election Day.

A discussion of foreign policy has been largely absent from the debates among the Republican presidential contenders, a striking fact given that the nation is enmeshed in three major military conflicts and that Republicans have historically claimed an edge in national security.

“Foreign affairs is important, but when placed against the scale of the problem with jobs and the economy, it’s dwarfed,” said David Winston, a Republican strategist. “It’s the equivalent of a house on fire: he’s fixing the window while the rest of the house is burning down.”

Karl Rove, a former strategist to President Bush, said, “To the degree Obama tries to suggest he should be re-elected because of foreign policy strength, he looks like he’s dodging the main issue.”

Mr. Obama’s poll numbers also show he is getting little credit for his successes. His approval rating shot up 11 points, to 57 percent, in a New York Times/CBS News survey after he ordered the commando raid in Pakistan that killed Bin Laden in May, but fell back below 50 percent a month later as fears about the economy punctured the euphoria.

Last week’s successes could fade too — if sectarian violence in Iraq flares up after the American troops leave, if Libya becomes another Somalia or if a terrorist group manages to stage an attack on American soil.

“If things go off track in the next year or two, it’s not going to matter what the military successes were,” said David Rothkopf, a foreign policy expert who has written a history of the National Security Council.

Even as former Bush administration officials praised Mr. Obama for the victory in Libya, the Republican presidential candidates were trying to draw attention to the failed talks between the United States and Iraq over legal immunity for a small force of trainers that the Pentagon had wanted to remain.

Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Jon M. Huntsman Jr. and Herman Cain all criticized the president’s decision, with Mr. Romney issuing the most strident condemnation.

Source from : NY Times
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