Until last night, U.S. President Barack Obama had not been on stage with a political opponent since 2008, when he faced his rival John McCain — and it showed. Obama seemed unprepared for Mitt Romney’s onslaught, which is not surprising given that Obama has enjoyed four years of grace provided by a fawning, liberal American media. Obama is not used to being asked tough questions.
In his next debate with Obama (on Oct. 16 in New York), Governor Romney should press the fight further and go after Obama’s sorry foreign policy record.
Romney can easily make the case that Obama is embarrassed about America and about projecting American power in the world — in a splintering world that desperately needs American leadership. Obama spent the first year of his term in office traipsing around the world apologizing for American leadership and for the exercise of American power. At a time when a strong and confident U.S. global posture is critical to confronting the growing power of Iran, radical Islam and Russia, Obama appears to be very hesitant.
Obama certainly gives the impression that America under his leadership suffers from strategic fatigue; that it is exhausted; that it certainly has no stamina for truly confronting a nuclear Iran.
America under Obama also suffers from strategic confusion. It has no clue how to deal with the Middle East, even as successive Arab regimes crumble and the regional architecture cries out for direction.
Obama “threw [deposed Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak under the bus” and inexplicably failed to support Iran’s dissidents when they bravely rose up against Ahmadinejad. He has failed to confront Russia or Iran over their support of the ongoing slaughter by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of his own people, nor has he responded to Palestinian defiance of American diplomacy in the attempts to rekindle Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Despite his insistence that defense and intelligence cooperation with Israel is “closer than ever," there is no-one in the world who doesn’t recognize the yawning political gap (“daylight”) that Obama has purposefully created between Washington and Jerusalem.
Romney can remind voters that Obama spent most of his first term, before the election cycle kicked-in, distancing himself from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attempting to wedge Israel into a 1967 borders negotiating track against its will, and making a fuss about Israeli construction in Jerusalem.
But America need not be in decline, project confusion, or harass Israel. Romney can articulate a return to America’s global responsibilities with strategic wisdom. He can articulate clarity of purpose, as he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars earlier this year: “In dealings with other nations, President Obama has given trust where it is not earned, insult where it was not deserved, and apology where it is not due…. I believe that our friends and allies support our strength by linking with us. We in turn reinforce them as they face various foes that seek to weaken them…. A strong nation is admired by its friends and respected by its adversaries.”
Romney should repeat that he will “not show a dime’s worth of distance between ourselves and our allies, like Israel.” He should say that unlike Obama he does not consider Israeli leaders as bothersome “noise” makers. He should make it clear that a Romney administration will not apologize to Muslim rioters for cartoons, and will respond swiftly and forcefully (like the Turks did this week against Syria) when American sovereignty (like an embassy compound) is violated. He should say that America will not accommodate or show forbearance to manufactured radical Islamic grievances.
Romney should voice the suspicion, which I share, that, if reelected, Obama will offer Iran a “grand bargain” involving tacit recognition of their hegemony in the Gulf region and an agreement to press Israel to forgo its nuclear arsenal in exchange for Iranian promises not to enrich uranium beyond 20 percent. (This would leave Iran’s nuclear development facilities intact, including the Fordo underground center, instead of dismantling them, and allow the Iranians to quietly continue refining their nuclear skills). Romney would be right to raise concerns that Obama might quietly acquiesce to the Iran’s current nuclear status in exchange for understandings with Tehran on the division of power in the region – at the expense of Israel and other American allies in the region.
Romney can point out that Iran has clandestinely crossed every virtual “red line” set by the West over the past 20 years — bringing nuclear plants online, building heavy water facilities, refining uranium, working on explosive triggers and warheads, and generally breaching all its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — and has gotten away with it, without ever really angering Obama. Romney can make it clear that he is truly angry about Iranian defiance and threats, and that he will set clear red lines beyond which the Iranians would dare not proceed.
Romney should make it clear that he will end the damaging attacks on Israel’s deterrent power and operational military capabilities dealt out by the Obama administration through purposeful leaks of information relating to Israel’s strike abilities against Iran. He should make it clear that his administration will not support a UN conference scheduled for Finland in early 2013 on a nuclear-free Middle East which would likely concentrate pressure on Israel.
Romney can usefully turn Obama’s own awkward terminology on its head. “I have Israel’s back,” Obama keeps saying. Romney should ask: “Why then do Israelis and many American supporters of Israel nevertheless feel that the President has been stabbing Israel in the back?”