Monday night is the last debate of the presidential election, and it will be devoted to national security and foreign policy. Interestingly, both candidates believe they’re going into the debate with the edge on the issues. But the truth is that Barack Obama will have a lot to defend, from Benghazi to Syria to al Qaeda to Iraq to China to Russia and more. That said, Mitt Romney, once thought to have had the chance at a series of slam dunks in any foreign policy debate, made clear last week that even with as easy a subject as the president’s disastrous response to the Benghazi attacks, he can screw up. Below are a set of questions that may well come up in the debate, and recommended answers for Romney. I’ll leave the president’s debate prep and his foreign policy, about which I’ve written frequently, to others more sympathetic to his record.
America’s role in the world?
I (Mitt Romney) have called for a restoration of American leadership and American exceptionalism. I recognize that these are tough times, and that the American people are weary. But I also am certain in my heart that Americans know their place on this earth is unique, and that there is no people as generous, as brave, or as willing to stand for the freedoms we know are not just ours to enjoy. One of the most important things people need to understand is that a world without American leadership is not a world with no leadership; it’s a world in which regional powers have their say — Russia in Eastern Europe and China in Asia. That’s not going to be in our interest, but we don’t need to fight wars to stand tall. What we do need to do is ensure that we spend our defense dollars well, and that we stand with our allies — allies like Israel, that feel betrayed by this president; allies like Poland, that have been let down by this president. The taller we stand, the less likely it is that anyone will choose to challenge us.
It’s pretty clear everyone who believes in the need for a strong national defense is against sequestration on January 1. But the president is wrong to blame Congress for these draconian cuts to our national defense budget. It was he who, without consulting with either his defense secretary or chiefs, first proposed $400 million in cuts to the defense budget. The only budget I propose is the one the Department of Defense proposed first in 2010. It is austere to be sure; there are cuts. But it does not gut our national defense in the way that the president first proposed. Let’s face two important realities: The first is that most of the president’s future defense plans are predicated on the notion that the United States will never again fight a land war. Well, that would be great. But we’ve fought a couple in the last decade, and I’d like our nation to be ready to fight another if forced. Second, we need to be honest with the American people: Our defense budgets aren’t bankrupting this country; entitlements are.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
As my colleagues at AEI have explained in an excellent cheat sheet, the fight in Afghanistan is on a knife’s edge between victory and defeat. We have drawn down troops without any military requirement to do so in the heartland of al Qaeda, risking our chances of victory. But we have made incredible strides — yes, with our Afghan partners. Still, with the wrong decisions, we could lose in Afghanistan. Why? Because if we withdraw too fast, we’ll lose the ability to do the drone strikes and counter-terrorism ops so dear to this president. We’ll lose the ability to stop the return of al Qaeda and the Taliban. And we’ll lose any chance we have to stop Pakistan from going completely rogue. Because if you think that Pakistan is a bad actor right now — and it is — wait till we bug out of the fight that is most important to Osama bin Laden’s successors. Frankly, the best thing we can do to face up to the challenge we have in Pakistan is to win in Afghanistan.
The Arab Spring and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood
I’ve heard people say this isn’t our fight and it isn’t about us. They’re right, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have interests in countries like Egypt or Yemen or Bahrain, home to our Fifth Fleet. We’re interested first and foremost in the rule of law, the protection of American citizens, the security of our allies — like Israel — and the security of oil supplies for one of the most important sources of energy in the world. Right now, President Obama is enjoying touting his “pivot” to Asia, which seems to mean little more than turning his back on the Middle East. That’s why when we were attacked on September 11, 2012 in Cairo, no one in Washington was paying attention. It’s why, notwithstanding the failure of Egypt’s president to condemn that attack, the president ordered that the hundreds of millions we give in aid to Egypt should go unchecked. That will not happen in my administration, not because I want to cut off aid, but because I want to support our interests and our values with American taxpayers’ money. And if we can’t do either, I don’t want to give it away in yet another entitlement program — this one for foreigners.
Al Qaeda (and Yemen)
The president likes to suggest that al Qaeda is “on its heels.” I wish he were right. I could cite a few examples — the return of al Qaeda to Iraq, the appearance of al Qaeda related groups in Sinai, the involvement of those groups in Syria, Mali, Somalia… But let’s just talk about Yemen. We’ve had two terrorist attacks aimed at the homeland sourced out of Yemen and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has gained dramatically since 2009. They control substantial territory in Yemen. This administration’s policies aren’t working, and we can’t tell lies to the American people. I don’t want us to invade Yemen, and I don’t want us to put too much faith in a government that isn’t going to help us. But most importantly, I don’t want to base American foreign policy on a lie. Al Qaeda is back and we’re going to need to recognize that, and work to have a more sophisticated policy than just assassinations and self-deception.
After the loss of thousands of lives and billions of dollars, President Obama likes to trumpet that he “ended” the war in Iraq. What really happened was that we turned our back on Iraq at the very moment that we succeeded. If we had pushed harder to negotiate some residual troop presence — not for the Iraqis, but because we have serious interests on Iran’s border and in the Gulf — al Qaeda might not be making their way back into Iraq right now. I know he likes to say that it was the Iraqis who wouldn’t give us a Status of Forces Agreement, but the reality according to folks on the ground is that we didn’t try. If al Qaeda in Iraq chooses to restrict their activities to just Iraq, maybe the president will be proven right, though I mourn the sacrifice of so many of our young people only to have that outcome. But if al Qaeda in Iraq comes back in force, that’s going to represent a much greater threat than we’re prepared for. And it all could have been averted if the president didn’t insist upon subordinating his foreign policy to political talking points.
The New York Times reported this weekend that the Obama administration has agreed to bilateral talks with Iran on its nuclear program. Feels like an October surprise to be sure, but let’s leave it to President Obama to confirm or deny. Instead, take a look at the record. The president likes to suggest that he has helped orchestrate the toughest sanctions regime ever on Iran, and I don’t disagree. My complaint is not with the sanctions, it’s the fact that they’re not working. We’ve been at this sanctions game for 20 years and in the years since Barack Obama took office, Iran has made more progress on its nuclear program than in the previous years combined. We need a foreign policy that reassures our allies that they won’t be left to face a nuclear armed Iran. We’ve left substantial sanctions on the table; Iran is still selling oil and gas and reaping the benefits. Iran Air is still flying the world with few constraints. Iranian officials are still free to have fun in Florida or the South of France. We need to advertise exactly where we draw the line on Iran’s activities, not because the Israelis want it, but because only then will the Iranians really be willing to forego the nukes they’re so close to. And if Obama is going to finally negotiate with the Iranians, he owes it to us to explain what concessions he’s prepared to make. Is he prepared to agree that Iran can continue enriching uranium? That’s not a concession I would ever make, because I think the Iranians have demonstrated that they can’t be trusted with such a dangerous technology.
President Obama takes pride in his “reset” policy with Russia, but he has little to show for it besides a one-sided arms control treaty which benefited Russia a lot more than us. Meanwhile, other “benefits” of the reset are Russia arming the Syrian regime and blocking sanctions in the Security Council and Russia standing with Iran. In fact, it’s hard to figure out what exactly was reset; it certainly wasn’t Moscow’s foreign policy. And we can only begin to imagine what exactly the president meant when he suggested to Medvedev that he would have more flexibility after the U.S. elections. Flexibility to do what?
The president has announced a “pivot” to Asia, which primarily seems to be made up of turning our back on the Middle East. There’s a lot to worry us from China: Anti-satellite weapons, carrier-killer missiles, cyber attacks, support for North Korea, intimidation of our allies around the South China Sea, and military spending that grows dramatically each year. And that’s not even considering the repressive Chinese political system. What we need to do in Asia is ensure that we’re not pulling back our military assets in the Pacific, making clear our commitment to remaining a Pacific power. We need to stand by the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and others that are increasingly feeling Beijing’s boot on their necks. We don’t need to look for trouble with China; we need to be sure that they know we’re not abandoning the region. Because even if we were ready to let down our allies, we need to recognize that the economic implications of a China that controls much of Asia will be very serious for the United States.
I have no idea what principles or strategy the president brings to Syria. In Libya, humanitarian concerns were enough to get us involved. Apparently, 30,000 dead isn’t enough in Syria. Mr. Obama is letting our Gulf friends arm the Syrian rebels, but the fact they’re arming al Qaeda allies doesn’t seem to trouble him much. We should be vetting, and if necessary, arming genuine Syrian opposition leaders. We should be calling for a safe zone or safety corridors patrolled by regional powers to begin to protect the Syrian people. We should be beginning the process of recognizing and supporting a Syrian transitional government. Most importantly, we should stop standing around and pretending the United States has no interest in either the wholesale murder of innocent people or the decapitation of Iran’s most important Arab ally. The United States should care about both. Right now, we care about neither.
It’s not easy to call for any particular policy in Libya because the American people have been told so many lies about what is happening there. How did three Americans and our ambassador get killed? What did the president know and when? Was the attack part of a demonstration about a movie as his administration insisted? Or was it just a spontaneous attack, as some are leaking now — something that has become an Obama administration trademark. We need an independent investigation to discover what happened, who was at fault, and who is lying. I can’t pretend to be able to sort through the tissue of obfuscations the Obama administration has thrown out. One thing is for sure, however: There are al Qaeda related terrorists operating in Libya, as there are through a lot of the Middle East. Men and women who are serving the American people abroad deserve security, protection, and honesty. I pledge a thorough investigation and justice… not a drone strike that will kill a few people and have no systemic effect, but genuine justice that reaches back into the Washington establishment and demands responsibility.