Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Bold prediction: By 2015, everyone running for president will be running against President Obama’s foreign policy.

But the current crop of likely conservative candidates has, collectively, done little to lay claim to the right’s traditional mantle of national-security leadership. And squabbling amongst themselves is certainly no way to win it back.

Even MSNBC gets it. The other day, the cable channel’s Senior Political Analyst Mark Halperin quoted Democratic strategist David Axelrod as saying, “Whenever the president is in the news talking about foreign policy, it’s bad for his poll numbers….” That is not just because Americans are more focused on domestic issues. It’s because Obama’s foreign policy has suffered one stunning humiliation after another.

On the home front, the news is not good. The White House squirms uncomfortably on top-tier issues from Obamacare to job creation. But, the domestic front is a happy place for the Oval Office compared to its string of serious setbacks overseas.

The collapse of US-Russian relations over the Crimea crisis is intensely damaging, since “resetting” relations with Moscow had been the centerpiece of the president’s “fresh” approach to foreign affairs.

Foreign failure comes as no surprise, however. Mr. Obama’s foreign policy rested almost entirely on the assumption that competitors could be enticed to cooperate. Lacking was a Plan B—a plan of action for what to do when competitors don’t play ball. The president’s first instinct was to be risk-averse and do nothing. But that isn’t a sustainable strategy. A global power can’t hide under the covers.

So now Mr. Obama is trying a strategy of “incrementalism,” looking to apply just enough pressure to make a difference or at least get the White House out of the hot seat, allowing the president to pivot back to the minimum wage and other pet domestic issues. That strategy has been applied in response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea. The White House ordered up a tablespoon full of sanctions with the promise that, if that doesn’t work, he will try a tablespoon more.

A graduated response is little better than no response at all. In either case, the president is telegraphing his next move, giving the other side more than enough time to anticipate and prepare. Moreover, slow-and-easy incrementalism is a hopelessly cautious and amateurish strategy to apply in the Ukraine crisis. It never works when the stakes for the other player are high, and Moscow views Crimea as a vital interest. Putin simply will not be moved by pinprick sanctions. In taking this approach, Obama is like a poker player hoping a series of nickel and dime bets will get his opponent to fold—when the opponent is prepared to spend hundreds of dollars to secure the pot.

If Obama’s foreign policy team continues to play this poorly, foreign affairs will only get worse for an increasingly lame-duck administration. The upshot of this is that America’s role in the world could well become a legitimate issue in the 2016 presidential election—and nobody will be running on “four more years” of the Obama Doctrine.

This will be a tougher than usual challenge for conservative candidates. The conservative consensus on defense fractured in the wake of the Iraq War. Ronald Reagan’s mantra of “peace through strength” barely resonates with many in the movement.

That is not to say that a traditional conservative foreign policy can’t carry the day. But some conservative candidates may be tempted to carve out their own brand of foreign policy by running to the extreme ends of the right wing. But neither an “isolationist” candidate nor an “interventionist” candidate will be able to build a foreign policy consensus among the conservative rank-and-file.

Some conservative leaders have already skirmished over how to respond to the crises in Syria and Ukraine. But suggesting different responses for different specific contingencies is very much different from codifying those responses as a party platform statement of foreign policy principles.

An uncivil civil war over defense and foreign affairs will drive the conservative movement apart. And, in the end, it won’t deliver presidential policies that most Americans will sign up for.

For the most part, Americans think about foreign affairs in exactly the opposite way from how they consider domestic policy. In domestic affairs people support the candidate that best reflects their views. When it comes to national security, they tend to trust their favored candidate to do the right thing.

When it comes to electability, what moves folks the most is the belief that their favored candidate is a person of prudence, character and judgment—someone they can trust to take the steps needed to protect America’s interests in a dangerous world. This explains how Obama could win reelection handily, yet now finds himself running away from foreign policy. Americans trusted him on foreign affairs because they liked him more than they did Romney. Subsequent reversals have squandered all that trust.

In 2016 Americans will again be looking for someone to trust. When it comes to foreign affairs, conservative candidates must make the case that they are honorable, competent leaders of sound judgment. That is best accomplished, not by squabbling over the extreme edges of policy, but by demonstrating character. Those who wish to lead the conservative movement should focus on that task, rather than infighting.