Romney gets it right

Having been quite critical in these pages last week about the Republican candidate's exclusion of the war from his speech accepting his party's nomination for president, it seems only fair to praise him for the magnificent speech he gave on the anniversary of September 11th. Governor Romney's speech was warm, personal, and unifying -- a beautiful combination on a day of painful remembrance for our country.

Most importantly, Romney sounded like a strong and compassionate Commander in Chief, expressing his appreciation for the first responders on 9/11 and the military that has fought our wars since. It was a nice touch that he gave the address to the National Guard, the arm of our military responsible both for defending the nation and assisting civil government in dealing with national disasters. In the past ten years of war, Guard units have become part of the regular rotation of forces to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have shattered the stereotype of weekend warriors not being the peer of their active duty counterparts. It also showed a real elegance of orchestration that the campaign tied in Romney's visit last week with hurricane victims in New Orleans and the important work our Guard does when help needs to be mobilized.

Romney alluded lightly to the significant differences the candidates have on the war in Afghanistan. He said "...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. We can all agree that our men and women in the field deserve a clear mission, that they deserve the resources and resolute leadership they need to complete that mission..." In four sentences he summed up the president's mistaken focus on ending rather than winning the war, and under-resourcing the war. And he did so without a sharp edge inappropriate to the occasion.

Romney's own words reflect a commitment to allowing conditions and commanders' recommendations to drive the timeline of our transition to Afghan responsibility for the war. To providing the resources and leadership our military efforts need in order to achieve our war aims. The most important of those resources is political attention, something President Obama has consistently shrifted short the wars conducted while he has been Commander in Chief.

When the Obama administration was winding down the war in Iraq, officials claimed our timeline was a function of conditions on the ground. It was flat out untrue. On Afghanistan, they aren't even attempting to pretend the readiness of Afghan security forces, regional political developments, and the ability of the Afghan government to continue the war effort have any affect on their exit timeline. Romney's commitment to the 2014 withdrawal date show both an appreciation for the coalition agreement but also leaves room for adjustment should General Allen believe more time is need.

Romney was rightly critical of the Veteran's Administration backlog of claims, the delays in providing mental health care, and the crisis of suicides among veterans. These are all serious problems that deserve focused managerial attention. I do believe, however, that the current Secretary of Veteran's Affairs, Eric Shinseki, both shares these concerns and is doing an admirable job addressing them. Much of the backlog and delay is the result of increased claims filed and demand for services, not mismanagement by the VA. If I were influential with the Romney campaign, I'd advise them to carry Shinseki over into the Romney administration to continue the direction he has begun.

The nicest part of the speech was Romney's description of calling families after visiting Massachusetts Guardsmen in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was really touching, the kind of tribute military people themselves actually appreciate. And it's a more difficult balance to strike than many people understand. Romney explained he thanked them for their sacrifice, and they responded by telling him it isn't a sacrifice, it's a privilege to defend our country. That perfectly captures the feel of the culture of our military. In a time when those of us not bearing the burden of fighting the country's wars are the 99 percent, military families appreciate we are polite enough to thank them for their service, but they also often feel that convention distances them from us, especially since it is so rarely coupled with effort to understand or help bear those burdens. Most Americans never catch that subtlety, but Governor Romney did. And he tried to bridge that gap, as a Commander in Chief should. President Obama often talks of veterans as though they are all disabled; Governor Romney today talked about our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in a way that celebrated their strength, their patriotism, and their honor, and held them up as an example for us all.

Full Disclosure: I am in a small way advising the campaign on European issues. I'm very much at the margin of the effort, in no way influential in policy formation. I don't speak for the campaign or the candidate, whom I've never even met.

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Shadow Government

Setting the foreign policy agenda for the next term

If Mitt Romney is elected president, he will immediately face several urgent foreign policy crises. (For that matter, President Obama will face the same crises if he is reelected). What's worse is that the crises are the most urgent, but arguably not the most important issues he will face. He and his team will have to decide rather quickly their basic stance on these crises, and then clear the decks so they can focus on the longer-term and more important issues.

1. Afghanistan and Pakistan. The war in Afghanistan is not the most important foreign policy issue facing the United States, but with 80,000 U.S. troops in combat, it is still the most urgent, despite the media's criminal neglect of it. Romney would do well to follow in his predecessor's footsteps and order another Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review to reexamine the nature and extent of U.S. involvement there. The review should look closely at where we've made progress, where we are still lacking, when we can afford to transition, and what sort of stay-behind force should take shape after transition.

In my view, the review should affirm the importance of the war, recognize the slow security gains made in recent years, affirm the goal of transitioning to Afghan lead as conditions warrant (with 2014 as an aspirational, flexible deadline), pledge a larger commitment of civilian aid to bolster the Afghan government's capacity, and prepare for a stay-behind force of perhaps 30,000 to 35,000 troops to continue counter-terrorism, training, and village stability operations. It should also lay out a series of steps to increase pressure on Pakistan to compel it to stop supporting militants.

2. Iran. Do we bomb or not? This is one of the hardest questions for foreign policy wonks to answer because it is nearly impossible to know 1) how close Iran is to getting a nuclear weapon, 2) what Iran would do with it, and 3) what Iran would do if we bombed them. Bombing Iran could be a brilliant and low-cost means to stabilizing the Middle East (if we live in a Panglossian universe) or the prelude to general catastrophe.

At the very least, we need public redlines which will trigger a strike (such as enriching a certain amount of weaponized uranium, or assembling a nuclear-capable warhead, or some other step prior to a nuclear test), otherwise our vague threats are not credible. We also need a declared policy for how to respond if Iran successfully builds a nuclear weapon (a nuclear attack anywhere is an attack on the United States; the use by any actor of a weapon traceable to Iranian sources will be treated as originating from the Iranian government, etc.)

3. Syria. Do we intervene or not? Syria's descent into civil war is messy and awful. Less clear is whether the U.S. has any direct interests at stake in Syria's awfulness. The Obama administration has established a strange redline: the president threatened a U.S. military response against Syria if Assad uses chemical weapons against the rebels. Why would that make a difference? The use of chemical weapons might make Assad more awful, but it doesn't mean U.S. interests are more threatened. Are we now establishing a "no-use" taboo for all weapons of mass destruction? Is the U.S. going to enforce a global norm against any and all WMD, everywhere, forever? Because the Obama administration doesn't have a policy towards Syria, the Romney administration will essentially have to start from scratch. I may be in a minority amongst conservative foreign policy types in my hesitance to advocate an intervention in Syria.

4. The European financial crisis. I'm not going to pretend that I understand much about the financial crisis in Europe, other than that it is a Bad Thing, which also means I have little idea what to do about it, other than Something. Unfortunately, I get the sense that my level of expertise is typical for the foreign policy establishment. The United States is not in a position to bail out the EU, but it is not in our interest to stand by and watch our largest trading partner collapse, nor our strongest allies plunge into depression. The Europeans do not often welcome an American role in EU affairs, but is there room for some old-fashioned U.S. shuttle diplomacy between the Greeks and Germans (or the Germans and the Spanish, Portuguese, and Italians)? Could the U.S. play the role of a trusted outsider, an impartial third-party? Is it time for the U.S. to call an international summit to reform or replace the world's financial architecture? Doing nothing for four years has accomplished little.

With a policy in place on these three issues -- ideally in NSC meetings held in the first few weeks of the new term -- the Romney administration could then take a moment to breathe before starting more in-depth reviews of bigger challenges: China, Russia and its stance towards Europe, globalization and state failure, the global Islamist insurgency, the environment, the role of democracy in U.S. foreign policy, and lots more -- which I hope to address in a future post.

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