The Next Debate: How to Answer Romney

Romney's foibles as a foreign policy candidate are easy targets. But chances are strong that the next debate will again be "won" by Romney -- if Obama retreats to defensive mode.
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The next Obama-Romney debate on October 16 will include foreign policy, and while the president's partisans will expect to see a newly assertive candidate, the foreign focus then and in the October 22 debate does not lend itself to such posturing. In fact, chances are strong that the debate will again be "won" by Romney, if Obama retreats to defensive mode.

Romney's speech today at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) held few surprises. His ideas about the America's role in the world are a mix of neocon wishes and platitudes that have no real policy meaning. I dissected these ideas nine months ago for the Huffington Post and little has changed in the former governor's views since. His two main thrusts were that "Obama has somehow squandered American pre-eminence in the world, and Romney vows to restore this greatness," I wrote in January. "The second is that Obama has let down our guard in ways that actually jeopardize U.S. security."

This is pretty much what he said at VMI. But I caution against expecting his debating points to closely reflect prior speeches. It's the same curve ball he threw last week.

I expect four topics to be the focus of Romney's debate strategy: the attack on the U.S. office in Benghazi, Libya, and its broader meaning for battling terrorism; the administration's failures to convert the Arab Spring into an American triumph; the growing nuclear threat from Iran (and the frosty relationship with Israel); and failures in managing trade relations, especially with China.

The last is likely to be a major point of attack, because of its implications for the U.S. economy. The VMI speech scarcely mentions trade or China, but Romney has pounded the "let's punish China" drum for several months.

Assuming Romney is again Alpha Male, Obama has a severe disadvantage in this upcoming debate: he cannot, as president, easily assume that aggressive persona, because what the president says actually matters in the world. Romney's advantage last Wednesday was that he could improvise at a moment's notice and disregard all his past statements, and Obama did not call him on it. This time, he can zing and it doesn't matter, either. But Obama has to tread carefully because a misstep has consequences in faraway places.

Still, there is enough fodder for Obama's rhetorical cannon.

On China: Romney has vowed "on Day 1" of his presidency to declare China a "currency manipulator" and impose tariffs. As columnist Tom Friedman explains it, what happens "on Day 2 when China, the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. debt securities, announces that it will not participate in the next Treasury auction, sending our interest rates soaring. That will make Day 3 really, really cool." Like a new global recession.

On war and terrorism: Romney made the peculiar claim at VMI that in the Middle East, "it's clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office." When Obama took office, we still had a pretty nasty conflict going in Iraq and an equally vexing conflict in Afghanistan, the Israelis had just attacked Gaza, and Pakistan looked to be headed over a cliff. The Bengazi killings, sad and possibly preventable, do not compare with 7,000 American dead during the Bush years in Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the two wars. Those two wars were not only mismanaged by the Republicans, but Romney stood by Bush's policies every step of the way.

On Iran: Romney's bluster on Iran's nuclear program -- which U.S. intelligence assessments say is not a weapons program -- is perhaps the best example of his foreign policy naiveté. Not only did he display harrowing ignorance in the "47%" video -- showing he does not know the difference between a "dirty bomb" and a nuclear weapon -- but he has relentlessly called for more belligerence toward Iran without explaining how this would change their behavior. The sanctions Obama has imposed are the strongest ever, and they seem to be having an impact. How would Romney alter this? By putting a naval carrier group in the Gulf, ratcheting up the rhetoric, and giving more military assistance to Israel. (Note to Romney: there is a carrier group in the Gulf). This is not serious policy thinking.

On Syria: The neocon answer to seemingly every problem is to use armed force, an approach usually doomed to failure. Romney is risking this yet again, not only in Iran (he said at VMI that we should still be in Iraq, too), but in Syria. The dreadful situation in Syria does make Obama look indecisive, but part of the reason for not aiding the rebels more is to avoid being drawn into a major commitment. It will be easy to take potshots at this, but a war-weary electorate is unlikely to see another involvement as being attractive.

On the Arab Spring: Obama's actions during the tumult in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya are not only defensible but showed a fairly nuanced grasp of an immensely complex and volatile situation. The U.S. denounced dictatorships in favor of democracy -- isn't that what we're supposed to do? Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have had free and fair elections. Not everything is rosy but no one could reasonably expect more. Does Romney believe the United States should have tried to keep the Mubarak government in power?

On weakness: Romney and the GOP generally -- Paul Ryan will say this on Thursday -- like to get up on their hind legs about supposed lack of respect for America under Obama. One assumes this is in comparison with... George W. Bush? Consider the Pew Global Attitudes Survey. "'It is worth keeping in mind when talking about Obama and America's image, he is still considerably higher than during (the presidency of George W.) Bush,' [survey director Richard] Wike said. 'In 2009, we generally saw a real improvement in America's image (and) in general that pattern still holds.'"

It's possible that illegal immigration will be raised, too, though Romney's flip flopping on this issue makes him vulnerable. It would be impolitic to repeat his harsh rhetoric of the GOP primary season when he is now competing for votes in Florida, Colorado, and Virginia. But like he did with Big Bird and green jobs slurs in the last debate, he may want to throw a bone to the right-wing base.

Romney's foibles as a foreign policy candidate are plentiful and easy targets. Obama's record is fairly solid and has many genuine achievements. Even the flap about Israel is unlikely to burden him, given Netanyahu's extremism on Iran and the promiscuous building of Jewish settlements in Palestine.

Of course, Obama needs to own his achievements in a clear and cogent way, just as he needs to be a little unpresidential by getting in Romney's face about his reliance on military bluster. The opportunity is there, if Obama takes the time to prepare.

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