It is bizarre when you think about it. We may be nearing war between Israel and Iran, mass murder continues in Syria and yet neither presidential campaign talks much about national security. For President Obama, it is easy to see why; he wants to cut defense, avoid military engagements and focus as little as possible on the rocky relationship with Israel and the course of the so-called Arab Spring. But Mitt Romney is a different story.
The Foreign Policy Initiative’s executive director, Jamie Fly, sat down with me on Monday afternoon to make the case that Romney needs to talk more about foreign policy. “There is a national security critique of Obama,” he says, citing the weakness, indecision and failure in world leadership that has plagued the Obama presidency. Besides, he argues, “anyone running for president should be explaining their views on national security.” Within a short time of taking office, Romney may face critical decisions on defense spending, military action against Iran and Syria, and more.But, Fly surmises, “the campaign looks at the polls.” It sees little interest in foreign policy, so it "decides not to engage.”
The Romney team objects to this characterization, citing major foreign policy speeches at the Citadel last year and the VFW this summer, Romney’s overseas trip and his harsh criticism of Obama’s defense cuts. That said, what is missing is an ongoing national security discussion — even just a mention — in the Romney-Ryan campaign. There is concern among foreign policy hawks that national security will barely be mentioned by the presidential and vice presidential nominee.
Meanwhile, Israel may well attack before November, concerned that the pending U.S. election would be the most powerful and maybe only inducement for the Obama administration to assist Israel in the event of a an attack. Part of the reason for Israel to act now, Fly contends, is “the deterioration in the U.S.-Israel relationship.” The United States, he argues, has consistently refused to make the military option seem viable. According to Fly, the end result is that Obama has essentially “outsourced” a major national security decision to our ally.
The same lack of leadership is evident in Syria. With hundreds of new massacres and tens of thousands already dead, the Bashar al-Assad regime continues to hang on. “By sitting on the sidelines Obama undermined our ability to shape the post-Assad Syria,”observes Fly. Minimal U.S.action would be needed, argues Fly, which does not involve putting American boots on the ground. Simply providing air support for areas largely under rebel control would afford Syrian citizens a haven and provide protection for rebel forces to train and coordinate with one another.
Although Romney has advocated more robust policies regarding Iran (e.g. make the military option credible) and Syria, he has spoken on these topics sporadically and without much detail.
And likewise on Russia and Egypt, U.S. policy is in disarray. We have failed to obtain much, if any, benefit from “reset.” Fly notes, “If we’re improving our relationship with Russia, we should be able to speak frankly.” But the administration has, in fact, grown more reticent on everything from human rights to Russia to support for Syria. And on Egypt, Fly is concerned: “This administration is not interested in using our leverage” to influence the Egyptian government. Yet there again Romney has not provided much detail regarding what a Romney administration’s Russian or Egypt policy would look like.
Romney gets high marks, however, from conservatives on taking the president to task for the looming defense sequestration cuts. Most likely because there is a connection to jobs in critical key states like Ohio and Florida, both Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have used this issue to their advantage.
Romney will have to engage Obama in a foreign policy debate in October. Is he ready and able to not only highlight Obama’s failures but to also explain his own approach? He better be. Moreover, he owes the voters, as he is now doing on domestic affairs, a clear choice between two visions.