Nuance on foreign policy is a cancer on Democratic presidential campaigns.
With a sudden military intervention in Libya that has come under criticism from both parties, President Obama is experiencing the early stages of this potentially fatal campaign disease.
Republicans are seizing on those questions to underline their argument that Obama is an indecisive, uncertain leader. That will be their major pitch to voters in 2012.
Separately, Republicans and Democrats alike are upset that the administration didn’t consult more with Congress before taking action. Analysts are warning about parallels to Iraq, and all sides seem to be genuinely confused about what Obama is trying to accomplish.
“There is little doubt about the fact that his military involvement in Libya has put him at great risk politically,” said Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University.
Presidential candidates must always be able to clearly explain their reasons for taking the U.S. into action. For that matter, they must also be able to easily explain their opposition to a war.
In 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) struggled to reconcile his vote backing action in Iraq with his opposition to the war. President George W. Bush’s campaign ridiculed the Massachusetts Democrat for voting for the Iraq war before voting against it.
Obama, in contrast, was boosted in 2008 from his clear opposition to the Iraq war. That helped him defeat a host of more experienced Democratic politicians, most notably Hillary Clinton, during his party’s primary battle.
In pushing for the fight in Libya, Obama has blurred his image as an anti-war president.
Brown said Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya will further sour the anti-war crowd that embraced him in 2008, propelling him to the White House.
“The progressives who made up Obama’s 2008 base are more ideologically and philosophically motivated than they are motivated by their party affiliation,” Brown said. “They would rather keep their principles and lose, rather than lose their principles and win.”
If the mission drags on, it could pose a major problem for Obama, said Larry Berman, a political science professor at the University of California-Davis. Oddly enough, Berman said, it’s the lack of a “Mission Accomplished” moment that could doom Obama.
“Although he also stands to gain if the mission meets with success, he cannot afford a long and inconclusive intervention,” Berman said.
Brown added: “Should the engagement last longer and be more involved than the president expects, Libya may become Obama’s Iraq — a regime change that became a costly nation-building effort.”
The White House was clearly caught off-guard by the negative congressional reaction to Obama’s decision to take military action against Libya without more consultation with the House and Senate. This has left the president isolated in defending his policy.
Not every Democrat sees doom for Obama from Libya. Some strategists argue a successful mission in Libya could boost the president in 2012.
“Sure, there’s a risk to this,” said Democratic strategist Steve Murphy. “The optics were off, all the cable nets had their fun. But if the rebels win, think of the strategic and, yes, atmospheric element of having Arabs cheering us.”
Republican presidential candidates, beginning to line up to take Obama down, clearly have a different view.
Newt Gingrich has called Obama’s response “amateurish,” and Mitt Romney chimed in Tuesday with tepid support of the strikes in Libya but a more pointed critique of Obama’s overall approach to the region.
So far, Romney said, “the president has been unable to construct a foreign policy, any foreign policy.” In an interview on the conservative Hugh Hewitt show, Romney said: “I think it’s fair to ask, you know, what is it that explains the absence of any discernible foreign policy from the president of the United States?”
Arguments about intervention in the Middle East, constitutional authority and open-ended wars seem so last administration.
But here they are again. And if Obama doesn’t find answers, and a quick end, to the campaign in Libya, he faces the very real danger of being mired in the kind of nuance that has killed campaigns before.
Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill. This is his weekly column.