Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, left, talks to Marines and soldiers stationed at Camp Leatherneck in Washir district, Helmand province, Afghanistan. America's top military officer said Tuesday the U.S. does not intend to renegotiate a security deal with Afghanistan and that a full withdrawal of its forces from the country at the end of 2014 could reverse gains made by Afghan troops in their war against the Taliban. (AP Photo/D. Myles Cullen, DOD) Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, talks to troops at Camp Leatherneck in Washir district, Helmand province, Afghanistan. (D. Myles Cullen/Department of Defense via Associated Press)

President Obama has made hash out of foreign policy, unnerving our friends and emboldening foes in Tehran, Moscow and Damascus. Al-Qaeda is metastasizing throughout the Middle East. That means that in 2014 and 2016, foreign policy will be especially relevant. Senate candidates will need to say whether they support sanctions (e.g. Scott Brown) or don’t (New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen). Incumbents such as Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) will have to answer to their votes on defense cuts. There is an increasingly powerful argument that Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is reverting to partisan hackery, protecting the president but neglecting national security. That will change with a GOP majority.

Then there is 2016. It matters who will deal with the consequences of Obama’s Iran policy. (Unfortunately, Obama may turn out to be the president who “lost Iran.”) The next president will have to decide whether to keep pressuring Israel on a peace deal and resist enforcement of human rights sanctions against Russian officials. The entire notion of “leading from behind” will be up for debate.

If Dems find their dream candidate, he or she will likely want to accelerate defense cuts and our retreat from the world. (As would Kentucky senator Rand Paul on the right.) Hillary Clinton is likely to want it both ways, as she did in 2008. (She was for the Iraq war before she was against it.) She’ll tell the base she’s with them but try not to deviate from the president’s policies, which she was instrumental in executing (if not developing). Not unlike Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, Clinton will own the foreign policy — catastrophes and all — in 2016 if she runs.

On the GOP side, it is trickier. The flavor of 2013 was creeping isolationism. But what serious presidential contender wants to be associated with Obama’s foreign policy retreats and defeats? Obama himself did an inadvertent and splendid job of illustrating that when the United States recedes (e.g. no troops in Iraq, no significant action in Syria), things spin out of control, threatening both the United States and our allies.

But if you are a GOP presidential candidate you also need to show, as Ronald Reagan did in 1980, that you are trustworthy, calm and informed. The left wing (as it is already) will counter every GOP idea (e.g. sanctions) as a “march to war.” In other words, GOP aspirants will have to show some, dare I say, nuanced views on foreign policy. The United States should support freedom fighters (as Reagan did) with arms and rhetoric, but not with “boots on the ground” unless other considerations are acute — and many military options don’t involve ground troops.The United States needs to take seriously the ongoing threat of jihadi terrorism, now spread due to the delinquency of this administration, but that requires we not handcuff our surveillance programs. We can deal with adversaries like China and Russia while we also (as Reagan did) condemn their human rights violations.

The need to project seriousness and strength in foreign policy increases in direct proportion to the chaos allowed to fester under this president. That will require, governors especially, some serious thought and study. Their success may depend on it.

UPDATE: David Adesnik of the American Enterprise Institute has a must-read takedown of a Republican aspirant doing none of the right things while spewing “terribly naïve ideas about foreign affairs and a shameless willingness to engage in exactly the kind of name-calling he pretends to denounce before making it the centerpiece of his efforts.” Yup, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is at it again.