If there is one issue that the Democratic and Republican National Conventions have magnified, it is that the current administration has a clear advantage on national security. With a 13 point advantage on counterterrorism and a 9 point advantage on national security and foreign policy in general, President Obama has left Mitt Romney tongue-tied on an issue that Republicans once dominated: the very safety and security of our country and the troops that remain in harm’s way.
But this advantage hasn’t come from thin air. The lead has been steadily crafted by an administration that inherited two major wars, a weakened international standing, and the ongoing threat of terrorism at home and abroad. It has been crafted by an administration that needed to turn things around.
This is not to say that the president’s record is clear of imperfections. Concerns over human rights, democracy, and the rule of law have taken a backseat in efforts to reset relations with countries such as Russia and China. Attempts to close Guantanamo Bay have stalled, along with a surge in Afghanistan. Opportunities have been squandered along the way to a solution in Iran, leaving little room for compromise in an environment of increasing mistrust.
But as a whole, the president’s successful national security record speaks for itself. Where the Bush administration left off, the Obama administration picked up and refined, ending the costly war in Iraq and judiciously setting an end date for waning efforts in Afghanistan.
Goals once accomplished through long-running, deadly, and dangerous land wars are increasingly achieved through the use of special-operations teams and covert action. It needs no repeating that this president ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden, but many have forgotten that this is also the president that eliminated U.S-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a leading figure in Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, just four months later. Today, the war on terrorism is all but won, an accomplishment, among many, that Spencer Ackerman adroitly points out the president has failed to flaunt.
At home, Obama spearheaded a new strategic review, refocusing American defense strategy on the Asia Pacific and rightfully concentrating on the economy as a major national security concern. He led the Pentagon in an effort to eliminate waste; seeking better results from the money we spend on national security and refocusing on results, an emphasis that had been neglected for a decade.
In a move that mirrors the stated intentions of his opponent, Obama has pursued a policy of diplomacy, sanctions, and covert action towards Iran and stated that “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” He has wisely pursued a policy of engagement while leaving the military option firmly on the table, and worked with international partners to secure the toughest sanctions regime ever imposed.
Obama also signed the New START Treaty, which verifiably caps American and Russian deployed nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles, making both countries safer in the process and following a legacy of prudent arms control left by Ronald Reagan himself.
In the end, it’s no surprise Obama has seized the national security advantage. The administration has largely pursued pragmatic national security policies and avoided pandering to any one side, seating itself firmly in the center of the debate. It’s tough to argue with policies that have tangibly and repeatedly strengthened American security.
This article originally appeared on the Truman National Security Project's blog here.