Like most foreign policy specialists, I have generally welcomed
the way the presidential campaigns have begun to focus more on national
security. Even if this election will be decided on economic matters or on
base-turnout machines, it still is important for the campaigns to debate
foreign policy. In that regard, Romney's speech
yesterday at VMI was timely -- I would say, overdue.
Romney's speech was sound and sensible. One could quibble
here or there -- a fair-minded Obama supporter can ask what more can Romney do
than Obama has done to try to get the NATO allies to honor their defense
budget commitments -- but as these sorts of speeches go, it was careful and
precise. It didn't answer every question someone might have for the
Governor, but it laid down some important markers.
In fact, it was so sensible that it made the Obama campaign's
-- or rather, "presponse," since they released it before the speech
was given -- look rather nonsensical by comparison. The memo was written
by two top Obama surrogates, former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy
and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl. I have great
respect for both of them, but I having a hard time reconciling the various
contradictions in their critique.
On the one hand, they try to dismiss Romney as extreme and
ideological, to the right of President Bush. On the other hand, in the
very next paragraph, they try to dismiss Romney as merely echoing Obama's own
policies. Is Obama extreme and ideological and to the right of President
They try to dismiss Romney as vague and lacking in specifics on he
would do in the next four years. But has there ever been an incumbent
more reluctant to offer specifics about what he would do with a second term
than President Obama? Is there anyone who can say with confidence how
Obama intends to handle relations with China or with Russia going forward? Does anyone know what is the significance of Obama's promise to Medvedev
to show Russia more "flexibility" after the election? Has Obama
outlined a coherent strategy for how to deal with Syria? Or what he will
do if the current sanctions do not convince Iran to abandon its nuclear
Given how dramatically the administration has retreated on
Afghanistan from its "war of necessity" pose of 2009 to its
"Afghan good enough" pose of today, does anyone really know what sort
of commitment a second term Obama would honor in 2014 when the mission is
scheduled to transition to a new phase?
These are difficult issues to debate. I had a chance to discuss
them briefly with Flournoy on PBS New Hour last night and I am not sure I made
my points as effectively as I should have. Of course there is some
similarity between what Obama and Romney are proposing now on
Syria or Iran. Obama's approach has backed us into a corner and there are only
so many ways out of a corner.
Moreover, Obama's approach on both
countries has evolved significantly in the direction of policies Romney has consistently
supported for a long time. On Iran, the administration shifted from an
unconditional bilateral talks approach of 2009 -- an approach they stuck with
for far too long and which caused them to squander the opportunities of the
Green Revolution and the Fordow surprise -- and only ramped up the pressure
track after the Europeans and the U.S. Congress led the way. On Syria,
Team Obama started off calling Assad a reformer and shifted to supporting the
insurgents much later.
And on Iraq, there is no question that Flournoy
worked diligently to secure a follow-on agreement and that Maliki was reluctant
to compromise, as she claimed. But there is also no question that
Flournoy did not get the help she needed from the White House and that all of
the mistakes I listed (and more I could have but didn't) undermined the
It is hard in a few minutes to get to the nub of these issues, but
that is where the campaign debate should go.
I have great sympathy for Flournoy and Kahl. They are both
smart and knowledgeable and they have served the country honorably. But
in their campaign surrogate role they are operating under extreme constraints
and may not be free to speak candidly about Obama's record. They know
better than anyone else the long list of missed opportunities and
implementation errors that has dogged President Obama's Middle East strategy
since the very beginning. They were insightful in identifying similar
problems in the Bush era. If they applied to Obama the kind of sharp-eyed
standards they applied when they were on the opposition bench, the results
would be a withering critique of the last four years.
Perhaps the Obama Team conducts that kind of sober self-assessment
in off-the-record sessions. Let's hope so, because if they get the chance
to govern for another four years, it would not be good for U.S. foreign policy
if they governed according to the standards of their campaign memos.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images