The Democratic National Convention will feature plenty of well-earned criticism of Donald Trump's isolationist, revisionist, immoral and self-contradicting foreign policy agenda. But if Hillary Clinton wants to win the argument, she must also convince voters that the world is not in the catastrophic state that Trump would have them believe.
Foreign policy was always going to be a big part of the 2016 presidential election, as far as the Clinton campaign was concerned. Its candidate spent four years as secretary of state and is running on her record of service. What the Clinton team did not anticipate is that it would be set opposite a Republican who would spend months stoking fear of what's happening outside our borders while proposing the most radical retrenchment of U.S. commitments abroad since before World War II.
Clinton aides watched Trump's convention last week with a mix of satisfaction and concern. They believe that the clear confusion inside the GOP about its foreign policy message, combined with Trump's lack of basic knowledge on important issues, gives Clinton an opportunity to draw a sharp contrast. But they also fear that Trump's contention that the world's crises are boiling over into Armageddon is creating a narrative that will stick through November.
"America is far less safe — and the world is far less stable — than when Obama made the decision to put Hillary Clinton in charge of America's foreign policy," Trump said in his speech to the Republican convention Thursday. "This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction, terrorism and weakness."
At their convention, Democrats plan to spend considerable time pushing back against Trump's doom-and-gloom messaging. Obama has already begun. At a news conference Friday with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, he criticized the GOP convention's "vision of violence and chaos everywhere," saying it doesn't match most Americans' experience.
Clinton campaign aides tell me that theme will be reinforced in Philadelphia by surrogates who they think have greater credibility and stature than the national security speakers at the Republican convention, most of whom disagreed with Trump's national security policies anyway. In addition to Presidents Obama and Clinton, the convention lineup will include former defense secretary Leon Panetta, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former ambassador Wendy R. Sherman.
Wednesday night's focus will be national security, aides said, although veterans and national security-minded lawmakers will also speak on other nights. The message will be that Trump's pessimism and fear-mongering are not only incorrect but also dangerous, and that his threats to allies such as NATO are counterproductive.
It's not difficult to make the case that Trump is a foreign policy risk. But Clinton will also have to engage on her performance as secretary of state, which Trump has taken aim at. Although Clinton campaign officials insist that they are running on Clinton's record at the State Department, in practice that has not always been the case.
The Clinton campaign never settled on what parts of her foreign policy record to tout. Last year, campaign chairman John Podesta said she would highlight laying the groundwork for the Iran deal, the "pivot" to Asia, her work on Internet freedom, her fight against terrorism and her advocacy of human rights abroad.
In a new ad this month, the campaign offered a new menu of foreign policy achievements. The ad pointed to Clinton's involvement in negotiating a cease-fire in Gaza. It referred indirectly to the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia before saying she "took on Vladimir Putin." The ad also claims she "stood up against the trafficking of human beings."
Each of these "accomplishments" came with some disappointment. The Iran deal is unpopular. Clinton was for engaging Putin before she was against it. The pivot to Asia involved the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she has disavowed. The fight against terrorism is not going great.
And nowhere in the campaign's messaging is Clinton's role in pushing for intervention in Libya, her advocacy for arming the Syrian rebels and her work aiding Egypt's transition from dictatorship to democracy (before it transitioned back). She has defended these policies in primary debates but so far has not wanted to spend time on them, despite Trump's badgering.
After Trump told the New York Times last week that he would not necessarily uphold U.S. commitments to NATO, a bipartisan group of top national security officials wrote an open letter to reassure allies that Trump's rhetoric does not mean the United States has fundamentally shifted on core values and interests, at least not yet.
Clinton has most of this week to convince voters that an internationalist, cooperative and optimistic U.S. foreign policy is not a lost cause in a world gone mad. If she fails, Americans may just follow Trump down his doomsday path.