President Barack Obama came out swinging at last night’s debate, repeatedly calling Governor Mitt Romney “reckless and wrong” on a range of foreign policy issues. But to extend the over-used boxing metaphor, Romney deflected many of Obama’s attacks, didn’t get caught in the corners, counterpunched often enough and relentlessly pivoted to the economy. Indeed, Romney acted, looked and sounded more measured and reserved overall. But let’s look at some of those punches and counterpunches, hits and misses.
Romney began the evening by noting that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess”—an implicit critique of Obama’s drone war, which is a tactic dressed up as a strategy—and that “al Qaeda is not on the run”—an implicit critique of Obama’s post-bin Laden narrative. Romney pointed to Mali and Libya. We can add to Iraq to this list. Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq (AQI) had been decimated and effectively destroyed before Obama’s abrupt withdrawal of American forces. But a year later, AQI numbers some 2,500 fighters and “is carrying out an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq,” AP reports. “The Iraqi efforts to combat terrorist groups have been negatively affected by the U.S. pullout,” said an Iraqi military spokesman.
Obama brandished his “leadership in organizing an international coalition” in Libya. In truth, he famously “led from behind” (which is not leadership). As Britain and France strained to try to do what the United States used to do effortlessly, the White House talked about a “time-limited, scope-limited” mission; the president promised that America’s military would play a “supporting role”; and incredibly—laughably, if it were not a matter of life and death—when NATO asked Washington to extend air operations at one critical point in the mission, a NATO official took pains to emphasize that the extension of U.S. air power “expires on Monday.” Now that’s leadership.
On pure debating points, Obama “scored” when he mocked Romney’s concerns about Putin’s Russia by saying, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” But it probably came across as smart-aleck to many voters. And the more thoughtful ones—the ones who have read about Putin’s massive nuclear war games, his recent decision to end the Nunn-Lugar threat reduction program, his plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes, 400 new ICBMs and 28 new subs in the next 10 years, his grim vision for military expansion into the Arctic—may conclude that Romney has a point.
Romney counterpunched effectively by turning to Obama and saying he would never ask for—or promise—Putin more “flexibility.”
Obama repeatedly talked about his steadiness and clarity in an attempt to paint Romney as unsteady and “all over the map.” “As commander-in-chief,” he intoned, seemingly reassuring himself with the practiced words, “I’ve learned you’ve got to be clear.”
Well, where to begin?
Was Obama clear when he initially defended Hosni Mubarak—as some in his administration openly called Mubarak America’s friend—and then tossed Mubarak aside when the crowds got too loud in Cairo? What kind of message did that form of clarity send to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and America’s other Arab allies?
Was he clear with America’s NATO allies on Libya (see above)?
Was he clear on Syria? Recall that in announcing his decision to attack Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in Libya, Obama declared, “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy…where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.” That sounds like a fairly accurate description of what has transpired in Syria. And yet Libya’s rebels got Obama’s help, albeit halfhearted, while Syria’s rebels got the back of Obama’s hand. “Imagine if we had pulled out of Libya,” Obama said during the debate, referencing Romney’s reticence about toppling Gadhafi. We don’t have to imagine that, because we can see what staying out of Syria has yielded.
Was he clear in Iran? As the Iranian people rose up against a sham election and as Ahmadinejad’s henchmen crushed the popular revolt in 2009, Obama sat silent. “When the students took to the streets in Tehran and the people there protested,” Romney recalled, “for the president to be silent I thought was an enormous mistake.” The sad irony of the president’s silence as democracy died in Tehran in 2009 was that it answered his own rhetorical question of a year before, albeit in a manner his supporters would never have imagined. “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked during his 2008 rock-concert speech in Berlin. Now we know the answer—and so do the friendless Iranians. They expected more from America.
Was he clear on China? In 2009, Obama envisioned “spheres of cooperation” between China and America, and insisted that “the United States does not seek to contain China.” By 2011, he was proudly unveiling his “Pacific pivot” aimed at, well, containing China. Whether China should be contained (it should) is not the point here; it’s whether Obama’s message “as commander-in-chief” has been clear (it has not).
Was he clear about America standing up for freedom and democracy? In 2009 Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced, “The foreign policy of the United States is built on the three Ds: defense, diplomacy and development.” Noticeably, strikingly, jarringly absent was something every administration since Woodrow Wilson has, at least rhetorically, promoted: democracy.
Was he clear about America’s mission in Afghanistan? Obama famously concluded in 2009 that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” Setting aside the bizarre notion that “our vital national interest” has an expiration date, his tacit message to Hamid Karzai and the ever-dwindling number of Afghan troops willing to fight the Taliban was: Don’t count on us for the long haul. Doubtless, that message was amplified by the president’s hasty pullout from Iraq.
Speaking of Iraq, Romney tried to remind viewers that Obama at least pretended to support keeping a residual force of several thousand troops in Iraq. In a not-so-clever sleight of hand, Obama kept repeating Romney’s call to keep troops in Iraq (which was accurate) without conceding the point Romney was making (which was also accurate). In fact, Obama’s commanders and Obama’s own vice president—“ I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” Vice President Joe Biden said in 2011, referring to a status of forces of agreement to cover a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq—as well Iraqi military commanders and State Department officials, counted on a force of perhaps 20,000 to help provide security and training. As Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained, “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” But Obama, no doubt with an eye on the U.S. political calendar, offered a residual force of just 3,000 troops—a force not even large enough to protect itself. When Baghdad balked, as Kagan reports, “The White House then dropped the matter entirely and decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year, despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.” That’s worth repeating: “no military commander supported” a complete withdrawal.
When asked about America’s role in the world, Romney talked about defending freedom, leading, standing by our allies (noting Obama’s sad record in Poland and Israel) and standing by our principles (noting the missed opportunity in Iran).
Obama answered by retreating into a litany of poll-tested talking points for his inward-looking base, mentioning “nation-building here at home,” declaring that “our alliances have never been stronger” and promising to “hire more teachers.” (Even Bob Bob Schieffer had to interject, “Let me get back to foreign policy.”)
But Obama would not be deterred. He said he would “put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges.” What a patronizing, small thing to say. There is no dishonor in building bridges or roads or doing any kind of work that is ethical. But to say that his plan for veterans—the avengers of 9/11, the liberators of Iraq and Afghanistan, the hunters of bin Laden and Zarqawi, the defenders of our homeland, the protectors of the global commons—is to have them build bridges reveals what he thinks of these men and women. They have done everything their country has asked of them. They are the strongest, smartest, most lethal and yet most restrained military in history. And their commander-in-chief wants them to fill potholes.
When asked about defense spending and defense cuts, Romney answered with a thoughtful statement of the federal government’s main responsibility, explaining that he would “get rid” of programs “we don’t absolutely have to have” so that we can put resources into programs that we absolutely need—namely, national defense. After all, the Constitution calls on the government to “provide for the common defense” in the very first sentence; then grants Congress the power to declare war, “raise and support armies…provide and maintain a navy…make rules for calling forth the militia…provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the militia”; authorizes the president to serve as commander-in-chief; and discusses war, treason and America’s enemies in Article III. On the other hand, the Constitution says nothing about retirement pensions, social safety nets, stimulus programs, health care or education.
Romney expressed concerns about the Navy shrinking down to its smallest size since 1917, the Air Force growing older and smaller, the two-war strategy being jettisoned by Obama—and was right to do so: According to Air Force Magazine, the average age of the active-duty air fleet is 20.4 years; the average age of the bomber fleet is 30.3 years. Right now, the Navy is trying to stretch a 10-carrier fleet to do the work of 12 carriers. And as The New York Times reports, rather than being able to fight and win two wars in different regions, Obama’s plan for a military with fewer resources and a smaller reach calls on the Pentagon only to be capable of “denying the objectives of—or imposing unacceptable costs on—an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” That’s not an insignificant difference.
What Obama fails to understand is that the two-war strategy gave the military resources to carry out other important missions—missions that are less intensive than full-blown conflicts against nation-state rivals: counterterrorism ops in the Philippines and Abbottabad and Somalia, air wars in Libya and Kosovo, counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa, freedom-of-navigation maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz and South China Sea, humanitarian rescues in Japan and Haiti. In other words, the two-war strategy gave the Pentagon and the commander-in-chief a tool box full of resources that could be used in several ways. As the number of tools in the toolbox diminishes, the number of missions the Pentagon can perform will as well.
Revealing the worldview of poli-sci professor, Obama explained that “We spend more on the military than the next 10 countries combined.” Of course, the next 10 countries don’t ask their militaries to do what ours does. But Obama didn’t stop there. He offered a pedantic, petty comment about the military having fewer “horses and bayonets” than in 1917. “We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them,” he sneered. “We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities?”
Again, his smart-aleck comment is better suited for a college debate class than a commander-in-chief. By the way, numbers do matter. Just ask CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis, who requested an extra aircraft carrier to send a deterrent message after Tehran had threatened to attack U.S. ships in the Strait of Hormuz. That request was denied because the extra carrier was needed in the Pacific. There weren’t enough ships.
In his offensive against defense spending, Obama even declared, “We need to be thinking about space.” This is the same man who canceled the space shuttle’s successor program—a program that was endorsed by bipartisan majorities in Congress and presidents from both parties—and flat-lined NASA spending.
That takes a lot of chutzpah, but Obama had plenty last night. In his priceless closing statement, Obama criticized the “record deficits” of the previous administration and promised to reduce the deficit, pursue energy independence and cut spending. Again, this is the same man who added $5.3 trillion to the national debt in less than four years, regulated coal to death, blocked oil drilling permits and the Keystone XL pipeline, and ballooned federal outlays with $1.8 trillion in new stimulus and ObamaCare spending.
On Iran, Obama boasted about his success in building an international sanctions coalition. “We made sure all countries participated,” he intoned, applauding himself for “painstaking” work. In fact, “all countries” are not participating. Japan, South Korea, China and India—some fairly important countries—are all still receiving oil from Iran.
Obama suggested that his intelligence agencies would “give us a sense of when [Iran] would get breakout capacity.” So, the same intelligence community he is scapegoating for Benghazi, the same intelligence community that failed on North Korea’s nuclear detonation and the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein’s WMDs is going to be able to tell us when the mullahs are on the verge of nuclear capability?
During his flurry on Iran, Obama also hit hard—and low—on Romney’s visit to Israel, wrapping himself in the Holocaust and declaring, “I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers” while touring Israel.
If Romney wanted to score a cheap point, he would have hit back at Obama with something like, “No, Mr. President you only attend fundraisers after deadly attacks on our diplomats.” But Romney wasn’t out to score cheap points. He wanted to show the center of the country that he was up to the task of being commander-in-chief. We will soon see if he succeeded in this goal.
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