Bring It On, Mr. Romney
The Mitt Romney campaign seems to be taking a page out of Karl Rove’s election strategy – go after your opponent’s strength until you turn it into a liability and a weakness. This Rovesk strategy worked in the 2004 election, where the Bush strategy portrayed a combat decorated veteran (a Bronze and Silver star, and three Purple Hearts) as a sissy while Rove’s man, who had a much less distinguished military record, was a hero. Knock out an opponent’s strength, and his fatal wounds will follow him to the polls.
The same stage is being set for this year’s election. At the end of March, Romney advisor Richard S. Williamson, a Romney campaign senior foreign policy adviser, described President Obama’s foreign policy as naïve and feckless, and said that “we welcome having that debate.” President Obama’s team should learn from John Kerry’s failed response, not running from this debate or going on the defensive. While no president’s foreign policy or national security record is without reproach, President Obama’s record is better than many presidents in this regard, especially given the hand that he was dealt in 2009.
The first two years marks the president’s learning curve period and is usually bedeviled by at least one foreign policy or national security disaster, according to Difficult Transitions: Foreign Policy Troubles at the Outset of Presidential Power by James Steinberg and Kurt Campbell. For President John Kennedy, it was the Bay of Pigs. Lyndon Johnson had the Gulf of Tonkin. Ford faced the Mayaguez incident (a commercial vessel taken by the Khmer Rouge that marked the last official military battle of the Vietnam War, with several Americans killed including three Marines who were left behind and executed by the Khmer Rouge, and are the last names on the Vietnam Memorial). President Carter had the Iranian hostage situation. The Gipper had Beirut and Granada, George H.W. Bush had the Tiananmen Square massacre and the first Gulf War (Ambassador April Glaspie’s missteps arguably got the United States into that war), and Bill Clinton had Blackhawk Down in Somalia and Rwanda. George W. Bush had a near war with China over a U.S. Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals intelligence aircraft and a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-8II interceptor fighter jet and misspeaking on April 26, 2001, saying that the United States would do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan (the United States deliberately had remained vague on its response previously and the Bush comments seemed to signal a change in U.S. policy that required significant clean up)…all before the September 11th attack (I do not solely count 9/11 has a Bush mistake; however, the Iraqi invasion in 2003 was).
What of President Obama’s record from 2009 through 2011? He ended the war in Iraq, and thus far the dire predictions have not come true of the nation falling apart. (It’s important to note that President Bush’s bold surge decision, along with some other key events, helped set the conditions for this fairly orderly withdrawal.) President Obama made his own surge call in Afghanistan, the very deliberate decision making process for which was criticized by some; however, given that committing America’s men and women is the most serious decision a commander-in-chief can make, if only all American ventures where we risk lives and treasure were taken so seriously. Unlike Ford’s Mayaguez, the U.S. Navy rescued Captain Richard Phillips from pirates with no loss of U.S. life, three pirates killed and a fourth captured. In short, no major foreign policy disasters in those first two years.
The remainder of President Obama’s first term also heralds some notable triumphs. The world is a better place with Osama bin Laden and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi dead. Egypt, as well as other Middle Eastern regimes, has the first real chance for democracy. This is true regime change done in the most sustainable way, by the people of the host nation with outside support where desired. One could argue that not all of these are President Obama’s successes, but those of highly trained U.S. service personnel who executed the missions. But just as a president is held to account for bad luck or disasters that happen during his watch, one should not write off successes from a president’s watch, either.
That’s not to say that the world is sanguine or challenges do not remain ahead, as a bellicose Iran, missile launching North Korea, and bearish Putin all demonstrate, just to name a few. Which brings us back to Mitt Romney. Candidate Obama got flack from candidate John McCain (and, ironically, Sarah Palin) for being inexperienced. I argued that judgment mattered more than experience, and candidate Obama’s judgment had been documented (voting against the Iraq War, for instance). Candidate Romney’s record is, to be generous, sparse. His own campaign website’s bio lists nothing that can be chalked up to direct foreign policy experience.
So if candidate Romney wants a fight on foreign policy or national security, trying to take one of President Obama’s strengths and turning it into a weakness, bring it on. But the Democrats need to know that the record will not speak for itself. Obama and his surrogates must pound the drum on the President’s proven record in this area, and hammer Romney’s lack of experience and proven judgment in this critical area. The Democrats need not run scared on national security debates any longer. Frankly, Democrats never did need to cede this ground, and doing so hurt the country as a whole as a great nation requires a vigorous debate on these issues from two strong national security visions – a vision that the Republicans currently lack. This time round, the Democrats have the better case to make, and make it, we must.
Dr.Tammy Schultz is a Truman Security Fellow. The views expressed in her writing are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or the United States Marine Corps.