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Nation cares about more than bin Laden

We expect some hypocrisy in politics, but it was still jaw-dropping to behold Republicans accusing President Obama of politicizing the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Wasn't it just eight years ago that the GOP organized an entire presidential campaign --including the choreography of its 2004 national convention -- around the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and George W. Bush's response to them?

Obama's opponents don't just think we have short attention spans. They imagine we have no memories whatsoever.

Yet very quickly, Mitt Romney and the rest of his party began slinking away from their offensive. It's true, of course, that Obama played the ultimate presidential trump card. He visited our troops in Afghanistan on Tuesday, the anniversary of the bin Laden raid, and, with military vehicles serving as a rough-hewn backdrop, addressed the nation from the scene of our longest war.

But the GOP retreat reflected something else as well. For the first time since the early 1960s, the Republican Party enters a presidential campaign at a decided disadvantage on foreign policy. Republicans find it hard to get accustomed to the fact that when they pull their favorite political levers -- accusations that Democrats are "weak" or Romney's persistent and false claims that Obama "apologizes" for America -- nothing happens.

The polls could hardly be clearer. In early April, a Washington Post/ABC News Poll found that 53 percent of Americans trusted Obama over Romney to handle international affairs. Only 36 percent trusted Romney more. On a list of 12 matters that a president would deal with, Obama enjoyed a larger advantage only on one other question, the handling of women's issues. And on coping with terrorism, the topic on which Republicans once enjoyed a near-monopoly, Obama led Romney by seven points.

How did this happen? The primary reason, to borrow a term from science, is negative signaling: By the end of Bush's second term, the Republicans' approach to foreign policy was discredited in the eyes of a majority of Americans. The war in Iraq turned out (and this is being quite charitable) much differently than the Bush administration had predicted.

It is always worth recalling Vice President Dick Cheney's interview with Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press" on March 16, 2003. Among other things, Cheney famously declared that "I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators." And when Russert asked whether "we would have to have several hundred thousand troops there" in Iraq "for several years in order to maintain stability," Cheney replied, "I disagree," insisting: "That's an overstatement."

It was not an overstatement.

More generally, Americans came to see that the war in Iraq had nothing to do with what they cared most about, which was protecting the United States against another terrorist attack. Indeed, the war in Afghanistan, which was a direct response to 9/11, was pushed aside as a priority. At one point, Bush declared of bin Laden: "I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him ... to be honest with you."

And this is where negative signaling turns into a positive assessment of Obama. He understood the importance of bin Laden. He addressed the broad and sensible public desire to get our troops out of Iraq. He focused on how to get a moderately satisfactory result in Afghanistan -- which is probably the very best that the United States can do now.

The Afghan policy Obama announced Tuesday reflected the president's innate caution. He wants to withdraw our troops but not so fast as to increase the level of chaos in the country. He imagines a longer engagement with Afghanistan because he does not want to repeat the West's mistake of disengaging too quickly after American arms helped the mujahedeen defeat the Soviet Union there in the 1980s.

Public opinion is on the side of getting out sooner. But most Americans are likely to accept the underlying rationale for Obama's policy because it is built not on grand plans to remake a region but on the narrower and more realistic goal of preventing terrorist groups from regaining a foothold in the country.

And that's why Republicans finally seem to realize that driving foreign policy out of the campaign altogether is their best option. After a decade of war, Americans prefer prudence over bluster and careful claims over expansive promises. On foreign policy, Obama has kept his 2008 promise to turn history's page. The nation is in no mood to turn it back.

Email E.J. Dionne at ejdionne@washpost.com.