The death yesterday of George McGovern, the Democrats’ peace candidate in 1972, creates the context for tonight’s debate on foreign policy.
McGovern’s defeat was the last time that foreign policy — the conduct of a war — was determinative in a national election. This year, despite the setbacks we’re suffering daily in every region of the world, foreign policy is not going to determine the race between Obama and Romney. But it can be the field on which Romney gains more ground.
In the forty years since McGovern’s landslide defeat, the Democrats have learned to hide their affinity for weakness in terms of false claims to strength. Barack Obama is a smoother, modern McGovern and his foreign policy — substitute Afghanistan for Vietnam, Iran for Russia — is essentially indistinguishable from McGovern’s.
Obama hasn’t condemned his own policy like McGovern did when he said he’d “crawl on his hands and knees” to beg Hanoi for peace. But he will, if the New York Times report yesterday is correct, conduct one-on-one negotiations with the Iranians sometime after the elections. Only one effect of those negotiations can be predicted with certainty: any Israeli military action against Iran would be forestalled for more critical months unless Israel is willing to risk an open break with a re-elected Obama.
As Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) made clear yesterday on Fox News Sunday, Obama’s campaign narrative is the product of forty years of political evolution. If we believe Durbin, Obama is a strong and steady leader. Under Obama’s leadership, al-Qaeda is almost destroyed, the Iraq war was ended responsibly, and the Afghanistan war soon will be. The global tide of war is receding. And because of Obama’s leadership, Durbin said, the Iranian regime is being rent asunder by sanctions and will soon be compelled to negotiate itself out of its nuclear weapons program. These are the themes that Mitt Romney will have to rebut and distinguish himself from in tonight’s debate.
For Romney, it’s his last chance to make clear how his foreign policy would differ from Obama’s. That he hasn’t yet done so is understandable. Romney has no foreign policy experience, the polls show that Americans are most concerned about the economy and jobs, and Romney probably hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about the challenges coming in the next four years.
That lack of deep thought has evidenced itself all too often. Romney’s policy on Afghanistan is essentially the same as Obama’s, though he quibbles about withdrawing without adequate military advice. In his epic fumble on Libya in the last debate, Romney looked like a corporate CEO who hadn’t been briefed on an issue trying to answer a hostile question from a shareholder. Paul Ryan, debating how to deal with Iran, couldn’t do better than advocating a policy that causes Tehran to change its mind about developing nuclear weapons.
In tonight’s debate, Romney has to demonstrate that he has spent the time thinking through the principal foreign policy issues that the American president will have to face next year. If Romney doesn’t speak clearly about the differences between his approach and Obama’s, his arguments will be lost in the fast patter of what will surely be another confrontational debate.
Romney needs to be as good on Libya tonight as he was bad last week. On Jon Stewart’s comedy show, Obama said that, “… if four Americans get killed, it is not optimal.” Obama’s statement was obscene and Romney needs to say so. He needs to hammer Obama for spinning and stalling, blaming a video for a terrorist attack that was known to be a terrorist attack while it was happening. Those are the facts, and Romney needs to say so.
Al Qaeda isn’t dead: it’s resurgent in too many nations — Libya most obviously — and its adherents are still trying to conduct attacks in America, as the wannabe Fed bomber proved last week.
The so-called “Arab spring” is no outbreak of democracy: it’s an Islamist insurgency. Obama wants voters to believe he’s freed millions from oppression like Reagan did when he brought about the fall of the Soviet Union. That’s nonsense. Egypt and Libya aren’t more free than they were four years ago. In Egypt we traded a relative moderate for an Islamist. In Libya, we’ve traded one set of bad guys for another. In Syria, there aren’t any good guys.
The biggest point that Romney needs to make is that the tide of war isn’t receding: America is.
Four years ago, we had the power to influence the outcome of many world events that are now out of our reach. In Afghanistan, Obama has abandoned talks with the Taliban but is trying to negotiate an agreement with the Karzai government to leave some counterterror forces in the country for as much as a decade after we withdraw in 2014. (This gives the lie to Joe Biden’s statement in the vice-presidential debate that we will be out in 2014, “period.”) Obama is adopting the “terrorist overwatch” strategy for Afghanistan proposed by John Kerry in 2004. It was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now.
The reason it’s a bad idea is the same as it was eight years ago: Pakistan. Pakistan has consistently supported the Taliban and other terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network. It hid Osama bin Laden for about six years. That conduct won’t be changed by a token force killing a few terrorists with drone strikes and special forces raids.
Romney needs to condemn the “overwatch” idea and say that we need to deal with Pakistan as a principal sponsor of terrorism. He needs to demonstrate his understanding of the dangers posed by Pakistan’s restoring the Taliban and Afghanistan to their pre-9/11 status as a primary source of terrorism against the United States. What would Romney do about it? He needs to tell us tonight.
According to a Washington Post report, in a 2009 meeting with Jewish leaders, Obama complained about the lack of progress between Israel and Palestinians saying, “During [the past] eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”
Obama wants Israel to retreat to its pre-1967 war borders, which are not defensible. In 2011, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta scolded the Israelis for the lack of progress on peace with the Palestinians and said that Israel needed to pursue peace: “Just get to the damn table,” said Panetta.
Romney has said there should be no daylight between the U.S. and Israel. But he needs to say more. He needs to say that Obama has adopted as American policy the false notion that Israel is the problem. Palestinian leaders — and their allies in the Arab world — are the problem and Romney should say that in just those words.
Israel, Romney should say, is more isolated than Iran because Obama believes Iran is a lesser threat than Israelis building apartments in Jerusalem. And he needs to say that Israeli PM Netanyahu was exactly right in his UN speech. We need to join Israel in setting a “red line” Iran must not cross on penalty of decisive military action. Romney should say that any negotiation with Iran must include Israel.
Obama accuses Romney of wanting to “start another war” over Iran’s nuclear program. Romney should say that war is a last resort, but because Obama let Iran continue its nuclear weapons program, the chances for a peaceful resolution are much smaller now than they were four years ago.
Romney will, and should, attack Obama’s devastating cuts to the Pentagon budget. Obama has already imposed about $500 billion in cuts over the next decade and the “sequestration” coming in January will add another $600 billion over the same period.
Those cuts make the “Pacific shift” Obama proclaimed hollow. Obama has no plans — and no budget — to build the ships and aircraft that could be deployed to make the shift of significant American strength to challenge China possible. There will be no shift. We know it, the Chinese know it, and so do our allies in the region such as Japan.
The problem in that for Romney is his own prescription for military spending, which would include items such as fifteen new navy ships per year, including at least two nuclear submarines. Romney’s plan sounds good, but his problem is parallel to Obama’s: how do we pay for it? Even under Paul Ryan’s budget, the exemption of the defense budget from massive cuts doesn’t pay for the huge expansion — in trillions of dollars — that his military proposals would cost.
Romney will try to tie national security to economic security. In truth, they are inseparable. Obama’s policies have forestalled economic growth and will continue to do so, making it impossible for us to spend what we need to in order to ensure our nation’s security. But voters won’t believe Romney’s economic ideas are an answer to Obama’s foreign policy failures.
Obama’s foreign policy hasn’t protected American interests or asserted American values. If Romney doesn’t demonstrate the major differences his policies would impose, he will lose tonight and, probably, on November 6.
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