Mitt Romney went to the National Guard Association conference Tuesday to deliver a speech on national security. His comments or lack thereof on foreign policy have become a point of contention, and President Obama (despite a record replete with errors and bad judgment) has begun to attack Romney’s national positions and lack of experience. So it was a good opportunity, appropriate for 9/11, for Romney to go and spell out in more detail some of his views.
He began by thanking the Guard for service here and abroad and gave an unusually (for him) personal account of where he was when the jihadists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Although he declined to talk about “the differences between my and my opponent’s plans for our military and for our national security,” the vision he sketched out was obviously different from the president’s.
In calling for “an American century” he argued that “the differences between my and my opponent’s plans for our military and for our national security.” That would be the sequestration reminder. And in cased you missed it, he later told the group that our men and women in the armed services “deserve the resources and resolute leadership they need to complete that mission, and that they deserve a country that will provide for their needs when they come home. Of course, the return of our troops cannot and must not be used as an excuse to hollow out our military through devastating defense budget cuts. It is true that our armed forces have been stretched to the brink — and that is all the more reason to repair and rebuild. We can always find places to end waste. But we cannot cancel program after program, we cannot jeopardize critical missions, and we cannot cut corners in the quality of the equipment and training we provide.”
Then he gave a declarative, concise position on Afghanistan: “While the war in Iraq is over, nearly 70,000 American troops still remain in Afghanistan. Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders.” That is a reversal of Obama’s accelerated and election-date friendly timetable and a jab at the president’s rejection of military commanders’ advice.
From there he move onto a promise to provide adequately for our veterans. (“Our veterans deserve care and benefits that are second to none. Here, there is considerable work waiting to be done. The backlog of disability claims needs to be eliminated, the unconscionable waits for mental health treatment need to be dramatically shortened, and the suicide rate among active-duty soldiers and veterans must be treated like the emergency it is.”)
The final part of the speech was an attempt, I think, to both humanize Romney and suggest he had more experience than the president has given him credit for. He recounted:
In 2006, I visited Iraq and Afghanistan along with two other governors. We met with the members of the National Guard from our respective states. I said to them that if they wanted me to call their spouse or family when I returned, I would be happy to do so. Just hand me a note with their names and phone numbers. When I left for home, I found that I had 63 calls to make. I knew that making that many calls would take quite a few days.
I returned home on Memorial Day weekend. I decided to start making just a few of those calls first thing in the morning, before my kids and grandkids got up. After I’d made only two or three, a Guardsman’s wife answered and said, “Oh, Governor Romney, I thought that might be you calling.” Apparently, the first spouses I had called, had called other spouses, or had e-mailed their loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan who then e-mailed their spouses back home to tell them to expect my call. So I made 63 calls on Memorial Day.
And that was about it.
Sorry, that is a weak and defensive response to criticism that he didn’t say the word “Afghanistan” in his convention speech. It’s worse than that, actually. It suggests that he thinks writing letters to soldiers families is preparation for being commander-in-chief.
This was a wasted opportunity when he could have shown some mettle. His foreign policy message, not unlike his domestic policy message, is getting put through the Boston blender, it seems, coming out mush. That would be mush with no flavor.
Romney wants to rise above the fray, which might work if he had a hatchet man at the ready. But so far he’s not unleased VP nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to hit Obama where he is most vulnerable.
What can Romney say on foreign policy? To begin with he might quote a Democratic insider: “Judgment will trump experience.” That would be David Axelrod in the 2008 campaign. And that it seems is where Romney could do so real damage. Obama showed poor judgment in missing many of his national security briefings where he might have heard candidly from his advisers. He showed poor judgment in trying to offload our Syria policy to the United Nations and releasing aid without strings attached to the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt. Time and again — assessing Russian “reset” a success or being mute during Iran’s Green Revolution, to name two more — he has made the wrong call and misjudged the situation, our foes and the influence the United States.
It’s also about time to take the president to task for being a rotten steward of a first rate military and top notch military intelligence apparatus that could find and kill Osama bin Laden, win in Iraq and complete every mission asked of them in Afghanistan. What is Obama leaving to his successor, who will have his own challenges? A hollowed out military (which he cut, cut some more and then put on the chopping block on sequestration) and a culture of rampant leaking. Other presidents have done heavy lifting on national security, often overriding showboaters (who opposed the surge, for example) to look out for the long-term interests of the U.S. regardless of the political circumstances. I can’t think of a single instance in which Obama has sacrificed his political popularity or trimmed his grandiose domestic ambitions to do the work of maintaining the U.S. as a superpower.
And finally, Romney should come out and say it: Obama has failed in the most critical foreign policy challenge we face, foreclosing the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran. Iran is not intimidated and doesn’t believe we have a military option. Sanctions haven’t slowed progress on a nuclear weapon. And Israel feels so imperiled it may have to act on its own.
Today was a perfect example. The Israeli left-leaning newspaper Haaretz reported that the president had rebuffed Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for a meeting. Obama’s national security spokesman Thomas Vietor was forced to respond this afternoon: “The President arrives in New York for the UN on Monday, September 24th and departs on Tuesday, September 25th. The Prime Minister doesn’t arrive in New York until later in the week. They’re simply not in the city at the same time. But the President and PM are in frequent contact and the PM will meet with other senior officials, including Secretary Clinton, during his visit.” Well, that sure doesn’t answer the question if the prime minister asked and/or if the president said no. Moreover, the prime minister is now reduced to publicly begging the U.S. to set “red lines” for potential action. And Obama insists this is working ?
Romney is not lacking positions on issues or proposals on either domestic or foreign policy. What he is missing is a muscular explanation that conveys where the president went wrong and why and how he would do differently. Senior adviser Ed Gillespie told me after Gov. Bob McDonnell won the Virginia governorship (on which Gillespie served as chairman) that McDonell is very good at “completing the sentence.” By that he meant not simply stating conservative policies, but explaining what they will do and how they will benefit the country.
Now is not the time for sweet vignettes; it’s time for him to seize the moment. That requires Romney to sharpen and beef up his message.