Monday night’s foreign policy debate may be the capstone of Mitt Romney’s rise in the polls and, if he handles it like the first two, it could be Obama’s Waterloo.
And what should Romney do? Very simply, he needs only to instill in voters the confidence that he is capable of being Commander-in-Chief of the military and a forceful leader to guide the United States through the encounters and crises the he is likely to confront as President. He needs to be strategic, he needs to avoid petty and small-minded spats with Obama, and he needs to demonstrate a commanding presence.
Americans want a strong America. Be a strong Commander-in-Chief--not hard, when paired with the weak Obama--and Romney wins.
Romney is anything but an expert on national security and foreign policy issues, but he is a quick study and has been thoroughly tutored by a highly professional and experienced team of experts and likely knows enough about whatever will come up to hold his own. I had a long discussion late last week with one of those experts, a top Defense Department official in the Reagan Administration, who assured me that Romney would be able to respond intelligently, on substance, to anything that might arise.
Obama, of course, is no expert either and, as he demonstrated in the first two debates, relies on talking points, old speeches and accusations of Romney’s dishonesty and failure to connect with the American people.
Romney’s monologue on Obama’s domestic failures last Tuesday was a tour de force. It threw Obama on the defensive and scored more points for Romney than anything else in the debate. He needs to do the same thing on Monday, and my guess is he will. During the campaign he has been critical of Obama on his policies concerning recent uprising in the Middle East. He has also chastised the President over his handling of the Afghan war, defense spending and his policies concerning China and Russia. If he can reduce those criticisms, as he did last week, into two or three minutes he’ll leave Obama sputtering in the dust, with no retort.
So let’s run through the issues that are likely to arise on Monday night in Boca Raton, and what Romney needs to do:
Libya: There are two big issues, and Romney is winning on both. First is the strategic question of what the killing of our ambassador says about Obama’s broader policy in the Middle East. Romney will no doubt continue to accuse Obama of having a flawed policy concerning the uprisings generally, manifested in the Benghazi attacks and the Administration’s response. The more immediate question is how the Obama team handled the attack and its bumbling and inconsistent attempts to explain it away. Politicians find trying to cover up badly handled crises irresistible; the cover-up always turns out to be worse than the event, and becomes a question of politically-crippling credibility. All you need to think about here are Watergate and Monica Lewinsky.
Iran: Iran is four years closer to having nuclear weapons than it was four years ago; Obama will bask in the news that Iran has reportedly just agreed to one-on-one talks, which may or may not be true, and about which Israel apparently has no knowledge and has not agreed to. But Romney must press on the fact that outside of sanctions little has been done to abate nuclear weapons development and that Israel is in a near state of apoplexy over Iran. Another clever issue for Romney would be to relate Obama’s lack of credibility on Iran to its Libya policy, recalling Joe Biden’s comment, in his debate with Paul Ryan, that "we will know precisely when the Iranians get close to having a nuclear weapon and delivery system.” If that is so, the Obama crowd’s disagreements over the cause of the Benghazi attack is ipso facto illogical, and allows for a thorough trouncing of how Obama uses the information he is provided by the intelligence community.
Syria: The civil war in Syria continues to spiral out of control throughout the region and threatens further turmoil in the Middle East, and the Administration has done little, at least on the surface, to control it. Despite what the Administration says about "closely monitoring" the situation and the flow of dangerous arms into Syria, the opposition now has man-operated portable air defense systems (MANPADS) which apparently come from Libya and from Syrian army defectors. There is no question that the American people have no stomach for another war in the Middle East, and it is unlikely that Romney will go there. But he will undoubtedly be highly critical of the administration's handling of the situation, particularly as the crisis spreads into Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.
Russia. Hillary Clinton’s “reset” policy, announced with great fanfare at the outset of the Obama Administration, has had no impact on Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which continues its slide, in plain sight, into an authoritarian and criminal enterprise. Putin, praised early on by Obama and his foreign policy team, is a tyrant, devoid of moral purpose and without credibility, and opens the door to Romney to further blast Obama’s short-sighted view of the world. Russia is a problem management issue best left to diplomats, to the international community to shame and cajole Moscow into civilized behavior--a process that will be difficult and unrewarding, but which Romney must show he can handle. Romney should also remind us, on Monday, of Obama’s comment to outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that if given "space," he'll have more flexibility "after my election"--meaning he would be free to give away more to Putin in a second term.
China: China is the big problem, likely to get bigger over the next several years, and could dominate the debate from beginning to end. In last week’s debate Romney accused China of being cheaters, cyber warriors and currency manipulators, all of which are true. The bigger issue is the fact that China is determined to force the US out of the Western Pacific; and to sever our alliances with Japan, Philippines, Singapore, and Southeast Asia. China wants to close the sea lanes and to override the rule of law by claiming that 90% of the South China Sea, or 2.5 million square miles of water and the fish and the minerals beneath the surface, belong to it.
China is a challenge to everything the United States stands for. The issue presents an opportunity for Romney to talk strategically and to present himself as a world leader and, as a result, to score some serious points against Obama. What he needs to say is that if the US cannot protect the dozen or so nations in the region who are urgently asking for protection, then our security promise is worthless and we are, indeed, on the path to decline--a point that he has made about Obama’s foreign policy again and again. There is no better illustration of Obama’s lack of strategic vision and failed foreign policy than his failure to draw the line against China. The US either holds its ground--or is seen to retreat under Chinese pressure.
Defense spending: Obama has already cut defense spending by nearly $500 billion over ten years. If nothing is done before January 2, 2013, the so-called Sequestration, part of last year’s budget deal, will cut $500 billion more--an amount that even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a reasonable and intelligent fellow, believes will be devastating to our defense capabilities. Added problems for Obama arise because sequestration will wipe out an estimated 1.1 million jobs in 2013, increase unemployment by one and a half percent, and cause economic havoc in several regions of the country.
The Obama Administration has no coherent position on these cuts, leaving Romney an opportunity to come down hard on Obama in the debate and position himself as an able future Commander-in-Chief, presenting a clear choice to the American public.
There will undoubtedly be other issues that may arise in the debate, but whatever they are, Romney will be afforded the opportunity to again rise above the issue, presenting himself as a leader (who does not lead from behind) and demonstrate to the public that his capabilities as Commander-in-Chief far outshine those of President Obama.