The Strategist

The question isn't whether Barack Obama has been a good foreign policy President. It's whether he can be a great one

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Christopher Morris—VII for TIME

In the marathon that is the Republican primary campaign, candidates have tried for months to trip one another up on everything from capitalism to family values in a seemingly unending series of debates. But foreign policy is the one topic that doesn't come up much. This is unusual. In the decades after Vietnam, Republicans never missed an opportunity to talk about global dangers--or pound their Democratic adversaries for being weak-kneed appeasers. These days, however, you could listen for hours to Republicans and hear only an occasional, narrow attack on Barack Obama's handling of American foreign policy.

The main reason, of course, is that the economy is dominating the national conversation. But that isn't the only reason. If Republicans saw opportunities to lash Obama on foreign policy, they would not hold back. In 1980 the economy was miserable, and yet both the primary and general elections were consumed with attacks on Jimmy Carter's policies toward the Soviet Union, Iran and other countries. The reality is that, despite domestic challenges and limited resources, President Obama has pursued an effective foreign policy. In fact, over the past year, Obama's policies have come together in a particularly successful manner. In an op-ed published on Jan. 9 in the Financial Times, Philip Zelikow, a longtime top aide to Condoleezza Rice and one of the brightest Republican policy scholars, described the past year as "the most important in American foreign policy in a decade ... The cumulative boost of American energy and commitment is palpable."

Of course, that is not what the Republican candidates say when they speak on the topic. Mitt Romney, who as the putative front runner has attacked Obama more than all his rivals, charges that Obama is an appeaser who apologizes for America, lacks fortitude and is "tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced." This generic and somewhat vague critique follows the familiar Republican narrative, but it's unlikely to stick, especially with general-election voters. Even before the torrent of drone attacks that crippled al-Qaeda, even before the killing of Osama bin Laden, even before Libya, most Americans gave Obama positive marks for his handling of foreign policy. (His approval rating is currently at 52%.) Republicans have made specific charges in a few areas--Israel and Iran--mostly in the hope that they can cement support in one key constituency (Evangelicals) and woo another (Jewish Americans), but even there, the polls suggest that most Americans are content with Obama's approach.

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