Romney is positioned to have a strong performance, though a total knockout similar to the first presidential debate is unlikely. A replay of the fireworks from the second debate is much more probable. But as this is the last leg of the race, a strong enough showing for Romney could help propel him to victory on Election Day.
Here’s how Mitt comes out on top:
Mitt Romney's task is to establish himself as a president who would fully embrace and reinvigorate the title “Leader of the Free World.” He must convince America that he would do a better job than Obama based on his character, ideology, and judgment. The debacle in Libya has cracked the veneer of national security credibility that Team Obama claimed for the last four years. Now Romney needs to shatter the remaining Obama mythology by persuading voters that Libya is indicative of Obama’s failed vision and inability to understand the threats we face as a nation.
Below is a subject specific outline for Mitt’s foreign policy case to America, broken up into the sections announced for the actual debate:
America’s Role in the World
Romney needs to attack Obama’s worldview as the latest liberal iteration of the “blame America first” mantra. Romney has correctly cited the “apology tour” at the start of the Obama administration as evidence of this proclivity. Obama supporters balk at the suggestion, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence -- apart from his failed policies -- that show the President lacks a certain comfort level with a robust U.S. presence abroad and shies away from a full-throated defense of American values.
To draw a contrast with his opponent, Romney needs to show that his first priority will be to protect the life, liberty and interests of Americans. Romney should also strongly convey that any country or non-state actor that attacks Americans or vital interests will be met with the unmitigated might of our military, without compunction or precondition-- even if that means “offending” people.
Our Longest War – Afghanistan and Pakistan
Obama has bungled the war in Afghanistan and let politics influence his strategy at every turn. Despite media attempts to downplay Afghanistan for Obama's political benefit, the fundamental realities on the ground are worse than the administration wants anyone to believe.
As long as the Pakistani sanctuary exists for the Taliban and aligned groups like the Haqqani network, the best our troops on the ground can achieve right now are temporary gains while the enemy refits and regroups. Transition efforts over the next year are a political pretext for Obama to continue fighting “the good war” after ending “the bad one” in Iraq. Obama’s handling of Afghanistan has been beset with politics, such as the decision to surge troops in 2009, but less than the amount requested by generals on the ground.
Romney needs to say its time to end America’s longest war with all due haste and without regard to electoral needs. He should tell the American people that U.S. forces are coming home during his first year in office. Apart from a small contingent of U.S. advisors and support personnel, Afghanistan’s counterinsurgency should be fought by Afghans.
Killing Osama Bin Laden was a success, but Al Qaida lives on. Romney needs to articulate this point. He will have to give credit to Obama on the raid decision, but he should also point out that the intelligence community and U.S. military special operations truly got Bin Laden. President Obama made the right call -- but it was really the only call to make.
And in the aftermath, the rush to claim credit and “spike the football” limited our ability to move on actionable intelligence. Al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is still at large. If there were clues to his location at the compound in Abbottabad, they were rendered useless the moment Obama went on television to announce the raid.
Romney should also remind America that Pakistan-U.S. relations are terrible. Anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan is at an all-time high, terrorist groups continue to train and plot for outside attacks, and the most radical policy change this administration has considered involves scaling back our billions in foreign aid.
Red Lines – Israel and Iran
That Obama has a poisoned relationship with Israeli leadership is well established. There is no love lost between Obama and Netanyahu, despite protestations to the contrary from Vice President Biden during his debate with Paul Ryan. Furthermore, Obama has failed to recognize that peace is made more difficult when the United States pushes on Israel to make concessions before negotiations have even started. Romney must hammer Obama on this issue, throwing in the occasional reference to Obama’s ironic “Peace Prize.”
On Iran, there are apparent policy similarities between both campaigns, but Romney can make a simple, devastating point about Obama: Iran doesn’t believe his bluster about “all options on the table.” Nothing about the Ayatollahs indicates they are concerned about Obama’s efforts to stop them. Iran is closer to having the capability to build a nuclear bomb than ever before, and sanctions won’t stop them. Unless they truly believe they will get hit -- and hit hard -- the Mullahs will continue on their quest for a nuclear bomb.
The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – Part I
This portends to be the most contentious part of the debate. The debacle in Benghazi will be a major strike point, but in order to make the case to the American people, Romney must tie Benghazi to broader policy failures of this administration. Events in Libya prove that the evolving reality is that huge swaths of the Middle East are in danger of falling under hardline Islamist or even Salafist domination. Obama has shown no leadership on these issues, and appears to be a backseat observer to seismic events in the region.
Benghazi was Obama’s “red phone” moment, and he failed. Now the Benghazi incident has the capacity to undermine Obama’s entire foreign policy record. But Romney needs to explain why, and he needs this case to be tight and concise, because Obama will bluster, interrupt, and stymie to avoid answering tough questions.
Romney must put Benghazi in this context: The Obama administration’s security negligence and reactionary obfuscation to the Benghazi disaster comes directly from their amateurish handling of foreign policy. Obama chose to get involved in a fight with no national security interests for the U.S. at stake except oil (and if that was Obama’s reasoning then it negates all the talk about the responsibility to protect human rights). Regardless, Obama thought that democratization of an Arab autocracy could come easily. Obama was wrong, and Benghazi was a massive blunder that resulted from this miscalculation.
Romney should explicitly say that the unacceptable security precautions for our diplomats in Benghazi resulted from Obama underestimating our jihadist enemy. We liberated Libya, and the official U.S. representative to the rebels was brutally murdered for his efforts. It’s not American policies that create jihadists, and we cannot appease them. Obama made both false assumptions in Libya.
If Romney lays all that out, he wins.
The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – Part II
While the debate moderator could push the Arab Spring discussion in several directions, two countries are sure to come up:
The Muslim Brotherhood is running the show, and every official in the U.S. from the White House to Foggy Bottom appear to be bystanders while the most important country in the Arab world turns into an Islamist theocracy. Romney will undoubtedly point to Obama’s rudderless foreign policy, and how it has sapped support from the moderates America had hoped would take the reins of power.
Any U.S. action would entail risks, which is why Obama has chosen to do nothing in Syria. Obama justified intervention in Libya on humanitarian grounds, but refuses to lift a finger in Syria, without explaining his rationale. Obama also refuses-- at least openly—to throw support behind certain militants. Instead, the administration has a cynical reliance on recurring 11th hour negotiations from feckless U.N. bureaucrats with no hope of changing anything.
In the background of the chaos in Syria, press reports continue to pile up that Al Qaeda-aligned or inspired elements have become a prominent component of the Syrian insurgency. Romney needs to present the case that a jihadist-controlled Syria is a national security threat to the U.S. and an immediate concern to Israel. While boots on the ground would be advisable only as a last resort to keep chemical weapons out of the hands of terrorists, Romney can forcefully articulate the need to support the more moderate rebel factions.
Romney came out strongly in favor of arming select Syrian fighters already, and is sure to press Obama on his decision to do absolutely nothing while tens-of-thousands of civilians die.
The Rise of China
Romney should establish that his administration would stay ahead of China without confronting it directly. China’s expansionism in the South China Sea and irredentist mania over Taiwan will be easier to contain if strong allegiances with other regional powers -- Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, for example -- become firmly entrenched.
Romney’s focus on China will be mostly economic, and in this realm, he can make a forceful case that President Obama has been outmaneuvered by China at every turn. Romney should also detail the kinds of actions he would be willing to take against China for economic espionage, currency manipulation, and other charges that have been leveled in recent years.
During his Virginia Military Institute speech earlier in the month, Romney built the foundation of a muscular U.S. foreign policy doctrine. Apart from some anchoring statements about trade and his hesitancy to intervene unnecessarily, Romney’s rhetoric echoed Ronald Reagan standing up to Soviet domination, with the forces of global jihad standing in for the red menace.
He will need to convince Americans that he plans to forge new alliances and support the forces of democracy and civil society wherever America has sway but without putting boots on the ground. He must bolster the perception that he would provide real leadership by creating a clear set of foreign policy expectations around the world for U.S. allies and foes alike.
Romney has already established himself as the better candidate on the economy, and because of his stellar first debate performance, Americans realize he is a man of high character and intellect. If Romney is able to breakdown some of the mythology around Obama’s foreign policy successes, come Nov. 6 he will be well-positioned to be the first Republican to take out an incumbent since Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter.