What a difference a day makes. Romney and his campaign seem to understand they are uniquely positioned to attack President Obama on foreign policy and to make that one of the issues in the campaign.
The Boston number crunchers were convinced until this week that foreign policy was a loser for Romney. He’d look like a war-monger, or Obama would always play the Osama bin Laden trump card. All the polls showed national security was way, way down on the list.
But as often is the case, foreign policy has the habit of intruding into domestic politics and issues. When things go terribly wrong — embassies breached, diplomats killed, American flags burn — the American people perk up. Hey what’s going on? Who’s in charge?
To a large degree Obama brought this on himself. He frequently subordinated national security (on the budget, on the Afghanistan timeline) to domestic and electoral concerns. He presided over a leak-factory in which national security secrets flew out the door at a pace lawmakers from both parties say they’ve never seen. He did the victory dance again and again for the killing of Bin Laden, as if he had single-handedly won the war on terror. He chose to miss nearly half his security briefings.He chose to go to a Las Vegas campaign event on the same day he criticized his opponent for being too political. And it was on the flight to a destination he never should have been visiting at such a time that he made an obvious foreign policy flub, as Politico’s Byron Tauand others have reported.
Asked about Egypt he said, “I don’t think we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them to be an enemy.” Oh, good grief. Every freshman international relations student knows Egypt is an ally, with treaties and everything. The White House National Security Council spokesman tried to cover with some mumbo-jumbo that “‘ally’ is a term of art.” Yikes. Well, if that is how you want to put it, Egypt qualifies, term-of-art-wise.
The State Department was in no mood to cover for the hapless president. Asked if Egypt is an ally the State Department spokeswoman replied tersely, “Yes.” That might have been the best and most biting answer ever given from the State Department podium.
But the particulars of this crisis (the lack of embassy preparation, the president’s attendance at national security briefings) are only a small part of the issue. The real concern for the White House and the country is that there is no rhyme nor reason to our foreign policy. We manage to confuse friends and foes. We cut defense when threats grow. We surge in Afghanistan and then set a deadline. We say all options are on the table one day, and talk down the military option the next. The embassies might have well put “Kick me” signs on their gates.
Romney’s criticism, which are fairly standard fare in conservative circles, dates back for some time. The bullet points (peace through strength, be consistent, don’t offend allies, don’t think the U.N is a substitute for the U.S.) now seem remarkably apt. If they were self-evident before, Obama spinners would say derogatorily, they sure weren’t followed by this president. Most every decision (e.g. the withdrawal from Afghanistan) now can be seen in its proper light — the light in which the president should have been evaluating his foreign policy choices: Did this hurt or help America’s image? Did it promote respect from foes and confidence from allies?
Romney should certainly give a foreign policy speech, but it should not be a cookie cutter effort. He should explain his basic beliefs (e.g. peace through strength), show how Obama did something else (e.g. severely cut defense), explain the damage Obama did (e.g. signal weakness to adversaries, make us less able to project hard power, make soft power threats less credible) and tell us what he would do differently (e.g. prevent the sequestration, reform procurement). That is an important speech the American people deserve to hear. And we now know they’re listening, at least for a little while.