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The Globe and Mail

Republicans 'green with envy' over Obama's foreign-policy record

U.S. President Barack Obama greets U.S. soldiers at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, on Wednesday.

Doug Mills/NYT/Doug Mills/NYT

Four years ago, who would have guessed Barack Obama's most tangible and possibly enduring successes as President would stem from his role as Commander-in-Chief?

Because he has a good story to tell about his foreign-policy achievements, and cannot tout his economic record in quite the same way, Mr. Obama is making the most of it.

On the first anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the President swooped into Afghanistan on the pretext of having reached a deal to stick by the Afghans but also end America's military entanglement there.

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But Mr. Obama's dramatic Tuesday night speech to Americans from a U.S. military base in Afghanistan was also meant to persuade voters that he has aced his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief – and rub his foreign-policy successes in Republican faces.

It was election-year stagecraft at its finest.

In 2008, Mr. Obama campaigned like a peacenik and was derided as hopelessly naïve about foreign policy – first by Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, and then by John McCain, the onetime prisoner-of-war and that year's GOP nominee.

Yet, foreign policy is the one sphere in which Mr. Obama has exceeded expectations in office. His Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding, he has shown himself to be a cool-headed – and, if necessary, ruthless – practitioner of realpolitik and proved the naysayers wrong.

Who could blame him for taking a victory lap or three?

"In a typical election year, foreign policy is a strong point for the Republican Party and the Republican candidate," noted University of Akron political science professor David Cohen. "This is an odd year in that the Democratic candidate has the advantage."

The risk facing Mr. Obama one year after Mr. Bin Laden's demise – a milestone the President marked with an unprecedented interview from the White House Situation Room that NBC will broadcast Wednesday night – is that his swagger will backfire.

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The underperforming economy remains the top concern of American voters and Mr. Obama's self-congratulatory remarks this week about his successes on the foreign front may only remind many electors of how he has fallen short in domestic affairs.

A new Obama campaign ad that asks whether presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney would have had the stomach to authorize the Navy Seal operation that bagged Mr. Bin Laden, has also exposed the President to charges of politicizing national security.

A year ago, in a midnight address from the White House, Mr. Obama hailed the elimination of the world's most notorious terrorist as a collective accomplishment.

But if the White House made only modest hay of the achievement then, it appears to be more than making up for it now. Many pundits see the switch as the handiwork of the Obama re-election campaign's chief strategist, David Axelrod.

It has left Republicans exasperated and struggling to regain their foreign policy spurs.

"I've had the great honour of serving in the company of heroes. And, you know the thing about heroes, they don't brag," Senator McCain retorted on Monday.

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Mr. Romney shot back at the President on Tuesday, telling CBS This Morning that "any thinking American would have ordered" the raid on Mr. bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. "I would have taken exactly the same decision," he said.

Americans have every right to question that. The Obama campaign ad, featuring former president Bill Clinton, recalls Mr. Romney's 2007 criticism of Mr. Obama for saying he would act without Pakistan's approval to strike at al-Qaeda targets in that country.

Mr. Romney has further been haunted by his comments back then that the fixation with capturing Mr. bin Laden was misplaced. "It's not worth moving heaven and earth, spending billions of dollars, just to catch one person."

Former George W. Bush acolytes have attacked the Obama administration for failing to give credit to their ex-boss. They say the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation techniques" on terrorist leaders held at the Guantanamo Bay led them to cough up vital information that helped U.S. intelligence officers find Mr. bin Laden.

That debate is largely lost on the American voters. All they know is that Guantanamo Bay is still open, in spite of Mr. Obama's vow to close it within a year of taking office, and that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will face a military tribunal there, in spite of Mr. Obama's vow to try terrorists in civilian courts in the United States.

Republican suggestions that Mr. Obama is somehow soft on terrorism just do not fly.

Nor does Mr. Romney's charge that the President has spent his first term "apologizing for America" abroad and cozying up to Russia, "our No. 1 geopolitical foe."

Mr. Obama seems so self-assured in his conduct of foreign policy that he can afford to mock his GOP rival, telling a Sunday fundraiser: "I didn't know we were back in 1975."

A foreign policy crisis – involving Iran, Syria or China – could test the President before Americans vote in November. And a positive result is by no means guaranteed.

But for now, Mr. Obama has made Americans grateful and his rivals green with envy.

"There is a lot of faux outrage by Republicans about the Obama campaign [exploiting]the Bin Laden killing," Prof. Cohen said. "It is an event worth bragging about."

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