Monday, October 22 is the 50th anniversary of the President John F. Kennedy’s address to the nation in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which he announced that nuclear missiles had been found in Cuba, that the U.S. would regard any missile launch from Cuba as an attack on the U.S. by the Soviet Union, and that the U.S. was placing Cuba under a quarantine against offensive weapons, to be enforced by the U.S. Navy.
That anniversary has important symbolic meaning for the presidential candidates as they take the stage in Florida for the Third Presidential Debate. Americans think of the Crisis as a moment when a young president made a tough, risky decision and prevailed.
But the Crisis had partly been caused by that same young president’s weak diplomacy, which allowed the Soviets the upper hand in Europe, inviting further aggressive steps.
President Barack Obama’s foreign policy record bears some similar themes. His major achievement was the successful mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Yet his major failure has been a weak diplomatic and military posture that has invited new aggression from America’s enemies.
Unlike Kennedy, who toughened his stance over time, Obama has persisted with a policy of managed decline in American strength as a global power.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney has a disadvantage in experience, but an advantage in vision. His policy of “peace through strength” is closer to the norm of past American presidents, Democrat and Republican.
That is why the president’s defenders--notably Peter Beinart, whose wife works in the White House (try finding that disclaimer on the Daily Beast website) are pretending there is no policy distinction between the two.
It’s true that the responsibilities of being commander-in-chief tend to enforce a kind of conformity. Obama quietly jettisoned some of the radical proposals and promises upon which he built his candidacy (though, sadly, not enough of them): he took the U.S. to war in Libya without congressional approval; he orders drone strikes on U.S. citizens; and he reauthorized the Patriot Act, all without much noise from the anti-war movement.
But Obama never gave up on the idea that his presidency, his personality, would serve as an engine of global reconciliation. He has bowed, both literally and figuratively, to the Muslim world. He did the same in Japan, where he reportedly even offered to apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He sought to be the opposite of George W. Bush--or rather the cowboy caricature of Bush--even at the cost of sacrificing traditional U.S. alliances.
The result? The world hates America even more than under Bush. U.S. allies are in far greater danger than before, with Iran threatening Israel, Russia bullying eastern Europe, and China threatening its neighbors. The attacks on U.S. missions across the Middle East on 9/11 revealed that Obama’s foreign policy is failing--and revealed the alarming degree to which he is willing to deceive the nation, and perhaps himself, about that.
Despite that record, Romney--not Obama--has been under pressure to describe what he would do differently. And he has delivered.
Put simply: Romney would build a multi-national military coalition to prevent a nuclear Iran; prevent drastic defense cuts; make foreign aid conditional on support for U.S. interests; and exert American leadership rather than placing our security at the behest of Russian or Chinese vetoes at the UN.
Romney has also placed the economy at the center of his foreign policy. In the past two debates, Romney has repeated the messages of job creation and debt reduction. On Monday he will do the same, noting that a strong economy and a government that can pay its bills are the ultimate guarantee of security. Romney, who supports free trade, will also renew his pledge to stop what he calls China’s unfair trade and currency practices.
Obama will mock Romney’s inexperience--just as 2008 rival John McCain mocked his, just as the media tried to do in focusing on Romney’s so-called “gaffes” abroad (none of which were actual errors).
But in the wake of the Benghazi scandal, it is impossible to imagine Obama leading the nation through crisis as Kennedy did--all the more so since Obama shows none of Kennedy’s interest in improvement.
Romney can--and will--win.