The Republican presidential candidates will take the stage tonight for their second foreign-policy debate at a key moment for America’s national security. Given the supercommittee’s failure to agree on a deficit-reduction package, the U.S. military faces catastrophic budget cuts starting in 2013, in what Secretary of Defense Panetta has said would be the equivalent of “shooting ourselves in the head.”
This presents an opportunity for Republicans to reassert their traditional strength on national security. For most of his term, the president has struggled to advance a coherent foreign-policy vision. He came into office with an extensive domestic platform and a foreign-policy agenda limited to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a rather naïve effort to seek a world without nuclear weapons.
When confronted with foreign crises during his first year in office — including the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, a North Korean nuclear test, and anti-regime protests in Iran — the president often appeared frustrated by the intrusion of the real world into the Oval Office, distracting him from his domestic priorities.
Now that the greatest threat to his reelection is his questionable handling of the economy, the president has tried to cite his foreign-policy successes — the killings of bin Laden and Muammar Qaddafi and (red meat for his base) the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the planned drawdown from Afghanistan. The public, distracted by economic woes at home, appears to be rewarding him. Recent polls show that a majority approves of his approach to foreign policy, significantly higher than his overall approval rating.
So, why should Republicans even bother raising national-security issues when the path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue lies in a (rather easy) devastating economic critique of the president?
Despite inattention from the president, the public, and the press, the global landscape is perhaps as dangerous as at any point in recent memory. We remain engaged in a global war on terrorism, including wars in Afghanistan and a drawdown in Iraq that may undo the hard-fought gains of recent years. Iran is nearing a nuclear-weapons capability and other rogue regimes, such as North Korea, threaten U.S. allies. China is rising, both economically and militarily, causing U.S. allies in Asia to look to Washington for reassurance. In the Middle East, momentous changes are under way as people take to the streets to throw off despotic rulers. Add to that the actions of rogue regimes in Latin America, concerns about instability in Mexico, and the impact of Europe’s unfolding economic and political crisis on the United States.
Ensuring that the outcome of these events results in a world that is safer and more secure for the American people and our allies will require our next president to show leadership and resolve, two traits that have been lacking from the current occupant of the White House. As he has “led from behind” and pandered to his base, our international reputation has suffered.
The Republicans running for president should congratulate President Obama for his foreign policy successes such as the killing of bin Laden and his early surge in Afghanistan. But they need to present an alternative national-security strategy that emphasizes America’s unique role in the world and the resources needed to maintain it.
The concerning thing about this week’s developments is that the debt-limit deal of last summer included significant cuts to defense because it was assumed that this would force Republicans to negotiate a supercommittee deal, lest the “hostage” be killed. In the end, the president and the Democrats did not want to seriously deal on entitlement reform and some Republicans are so focused on deficit reduction at all costs that they appear willing to sacrifice the party’s tradition of “peace through strength” for deficit reduction.
Even before the supercommittee co-chairs announced the lack of an agreement, Tea Party darling Sen. Rand Paul was telling reporters that the defense cuts Panetta and the entire uniformed military leadership were warning about were fictional and that “maybe sequestration is our only way we will get any kind of cuts.”
FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group that purports to speak for the Tea Party movement, issued its own “Tea Party Budget” containing the recommendations of its debt commission. They suggested enacting defense-spending reforms previously proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn that would result in almost $1 trillion in savings over ten years. Justifying their approach as more sensible compared to the “meat-ax” of sequestration, FreedomWorks is attempting to have it both ways, just like President Obama, who has overseen a declining defense budget while claiming to be a responsible commander in chief.
If the Republican party goes the way of Rand Paul and FreedomWorks, a Republican president won’t see the inside of the Oval Office for some time to come. A recent Politico/George Washington University Battleground poll showed that 83 percent of voters were concerned about significant defense cuts.
The Republican candidates on the debate stage tonight should remember Reagan’s words at Pointe du Hoc in France in 1984 on the 40th anniversary of D-Day: “We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.”
They should reject the approach of President Obama and those in the Republican party who claim that we can play a lesser role in the world, thus allowing us to slash defense. They should embrace the GOP’s traditional Reaganesque approach to national security and demand that Congress act quickly to reverse the Budget Control Act’s damaging defense cuts.
The solution to our current fiscal problems lies in a willingness to go after the real drivers of our debt — entitlements and domestic discretionary spending — not another round of disastrous defense cuts after the Pentagon has already been forced to cut repeatedly.
The presidential candidates have been given an opening to make national security an issue in the 2012 election. It is now up to them to accept the challenge.
— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.