In a presidential election, the foreign policy debate is won by the candidate who can show himself to be the stronger world leader. President Barack Obama lapped the sometimes reserved Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, in Monday’s debate by coming across as a vigilant, thoughtful combatant.
He skillfully argued that policy must be clear and consistent to friends and enemies. He espoused above all protecting the American people and explained how his military and diplomatic policies emanate from that central focus. In contrast, Romney offered a vague wish to show leadership and get Middle Eastern nations to reject terrorism.
Obama rightly portrayed Romney’s plans as scattershot, noting that Romney opposed the troop withdrawal timetable in Afghanistan but now supports it.
Romney offered few concrete foreign policy solutions that differed from the president’s. He agreed with Obama that killing Osama bin Laden was good, that Israel must be protected, and that Iran shouldn’t have nukes. They disagreed on arming Syrian rebels, with Romney supporting it and Obama voicing caution. The president wisely said that before weaponizing insurgents, the government must make sure they won’t turn on the United States.
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Most troubling is that Romney has called for unspecified but large increases in military spending, arguing, for example, that the Navy has fewer ships now than it did in 1917. Obama ridiculed that observation, saying “we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed.”
What rang most clear was Obama’s call for strategic defense spending. That makes more sense than Romney’s buildup to an unknown end. How many times must the United States be able to wipe out civilization?
Romney’s plan for deep revenue cuts and big military spending is a repeat of the disastrous economic strategies of former President George W. Bush, who pushed the country into two wars without the means to pay for them. The resulting drain on the American economy, along with other factors of course, shoved the country off a fiscal cliff.
Both men tried to tie the No. 1 issue, the economy, to foreign policy, with Romney saying that a weak economy has sapped the nation’s clout abroad. Obama more convincingly argued that the best course was to stop the drain of wars and to nation-build at home by funding education, technology, research and infrastructure.
Disappointingly, the debate gave the impression that the world consists only of the Middle East and maybe Russia and China. There was no talk of climate change or foreign drug trafficking. And there was scant mention of firming up American trade policies to protect domestic jobs.
The debate on foreign policy may not have interested families worrying about whether they will get another paycheck or make the next mortgage payment, but it showed the difference between Obama’s forceful, logical approach to America’s place in the world and Romney’s weak grasps for differences in search of a distinction.
The Philadelphia Inquirer