While you’re watching tonight’s foreign-policy debate, look for the following items to be emphasized:
The President’s Narrative. Sunday morning on Fox News Sunday, Senator Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) said
“We [the Obama administration] have responsibly ended the war in Iraq, we are going to end the war in Afghanistan. . . . Al-Qaeda as a shadow of its former self . . . and we’ve now put enough pressure on Iran with the sanctions regime so they won’t develop a nuclear weapon that they want to sit down and talk.”
Call them President Obama’s Big 4 Foreign Policy talking points — I suspect President Obama will go back to them repeatedly tonight: Ended Iraq, ending Afghanistan, killed bin Laden, and Iran now wants to talk. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Governor Romney should dissect each point individually, just as he categorically dismantled many of the president’s talking points in the first debate. The Iraq War may be over, but why didn’t we follow through and complete a Status of Forces Agreement? With no influence on the ground, Iraq is cozying up to Iran. The Afghanistan War may be ending, but the political withdrawal deadline the president set has undercut the mission, and the opportunity for a stable outcome. Afghanistan is teetering toward chaos in 2014, and the president’s policies share the blame. Killing bin Laden was spot on, but the leaks that followed—for political gain—are shameful and detrimental. As for Iran, rumors of “talks” are (a) not substantiated (even by the White House); and (b) dangerously naïve. While we talk, Iran continues to build toward a nuclear weapon. The president will attempt to paint Romney as a war-monger, but it’s important the American people understand why deterring Iran matters and ultimately prevents future wars.
The Impact of the Economy and Debt. President Obama is perceived to have an advantage on foreign policy, while Romney has the edge on jobs and the economy. While I don’t agree that the president really does have an advantage, Romney will try to both chip away at the narrative above and play to his own strength. He should go to this theme, early and often: Our military strength is ultimately determined by our economic strength. And with anemic economic growth, lagging job creation, and mountains of debt—a diminished U.S. economy will eventually mean a diminished U.S. military. This administration has not added jobs or brought about economic growth; the only thing they’ve added is $6 trillion in debt that induces knee-jerk Washington policies like “sequestration” (automatic defense cuts). Americans understand this connection, as do veterans. My organization’s most recent polling underscores this point.
The president claims he’d welcome a debate about sequestration; if so, Romney could ask him the following: Are you truly willing to allow cuts to the military that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says will “hollow out the force” and will constitute taking a “meat axe” to the defense budget? Those are powerful questions that must be asked. Meanwhile, Romney will be pressed on his stance on defense cuts—and why he wants to grow defense spending while America runs $1.2 trillion annual deficits. I suspect his answer will start with a full-throated defense of American exceptionalism, and end by pointing out that there simply isn’t enough defense to be cut—or taxes to be raised—that will remedy our debt situation. He should then take the next step and say: Only holistic reform—especially to entitlement programs, but also to defense spending—has a chance to curb future deficits/debt.
Support Allies, Defining/Defeating Enemies. President Obama’s foreign policy has been rudderless and dangerously ideological (meaning he’s wedded to the ideology that if we give enough speeches, and pretend the enemy doesn’t exist, then we’re safer). He’s been willing to rhetorically, and in reality, undermine allies (think Israel and Egypt) while soft-peddling enemies (think Iran and Syria), and he’s been unwilling to name the threat (“they’re extremists, not radical Islamists”). This dichotomy could be exposed, and emphasized tonight. Again, Romney will be painted by Obama as a war-monger, which he should push back hard against. The president’s proposals make America look weaker, which invites future challenge. Strength, on the other hand, can deter conflict. In making this point, Romney should present an optimistic view of America’s role in the world and call for the U.S. to take the lead again. Our allies will be supported, our threats named, and our enemies defeated . . . end of story.