The third and final presidential debate takes place tonight at Lynn University in Boca Raton Florida and the topic is foreign policy. Following President Obama’s takedown of Republican challenger Mitt Romney in last week’s debate, fireworks are certain to fly as each candidate seeks advantage in the final weeks of a campaign that is going down to the wire. In many ways, this should be the President’s strongest showing though he is certain to be faced with accusations and inaccuracies from this opponent.
Mitt Romney attempted to get a head start on the foreign policy debate when he thought he had cornered the President with a “gotcha” moment on the issue of the Benghazi tragedy during the debate at Hofstra University. Thinking that he had caught President Obama being inconsistent in describing how he responded to the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, Romney dug his own grave. Debate moderator Candy Crowley of CNN confirmed that the President did indeed use the term “act of terror” in his Rose Garden press conference following the incident, as he said during the debate. Despite the availability of a written transcript and video from the press conference, conservative pundits took to the airwaves to denounce and discredit Crowley. Her network rightly defended her and also pointed at that Crowley also said in the same breath that Mr. Romney was correct in stating that it took a little while before the administration focused on the attack as an incidence of terrorism; had they cared to take notice.
The tragic killing of five Americans in Benghazi will no doubt be a central line of attack for Mitt Romney tonight. The President does need to provide a fuller explanation of the sequence of events upon the administration’s learning of the attack on the U.S. embassy, the timeline of intelligence gathering, and the steps the administration has taken to investigate the attack and the current status of the investigation. Despite some initial missteps, the President has the facts, the command of the situation, and the track record to expose Romney’s naiveté on national security issues.
With the conflict in Syria, continued turmoil in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the threat of a nuclear Iran, the debate should put in clear focus the difference in world-view of each candidate. Since taking office President Obama has attempted to construct a new American paradigm on foreign policy, clear in its intent to protect the nation and to take on global terrorism but committed to a new diplomacy that rests not on military might but international respect and cooperation. It is the reason that the President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and has continued to work toward a new global conversation on international security. For his part Romney has taken on the appearance of a Bush-era neoconservative with Cold War tendencies. The Republican nominee is supportive of a massive military buildup of the type reminiscent of yesteryear’s U.S.-Soviet conflict and wants to draw a line in the sand in Iran, possibly provoking an apocalyptic response that would have global ramifications. The debate need not delve into shallow and petty bickering because there are substantive differences between these two men on our nation’s foreign policy posture.
One thing the President has failed to do convincingly is to tie his economic and energy policy to issues of national security. While he should, and has every right to, tout his success in bringing terrorists to justice and eliminating Osama bin Laden, he must do a better job explaining the new global reality. The President should also take credit for our nation’s withdrawal from Iraq and stand firm in the commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan as examples of real leadership and keeping his word. Ending those two wars is an opportunity for the President to redirect national resources and invest in our nation’s economy, resulting in our greater security.
Many Americans are still invested in a World War II world view, thinking all our nation has to do is spend mightily on the military and our safety will be secured. If nothing else, the tragic events of September 11, 2001 should have been a wake-up call for the nation and a message that we have entered a new realm of global interconnection. In describing his efforts to protect the nation over the last four years, President Obama must also use the debate to explain how the economy and energy independence increases our security, and how the new challenges of cyber and environmental terrorism requires a different response than a 20th century military could provide. It is why the Joint Chiefs of Staff concurs with the President’s defense budget priorities and rejects the model pushed by the Republican nominee. President Obama, however, must do a better job articulating his vision and he started by refusing to cede ground to Mitt Romney during the last debate when the Benghazi attack became the topic of conversation.
Foreign policy has taken a back seat to the economy as the primary issue in this presidential campaign but the public is splitting hairs if it truly believes both issues are unrelated. The nation is faced with a new global reality and President Obama is the first American President who has had to create a different operating model from the one that had been in place since the end of World War II. Further complicating the nation’s global status has been a historic recession that has destabilized the world’s traditional powers. At the same time, a new generation in the Arab and Muslim world is challenging our nation’s history of entitlement and global supremacy, and through technology and new devices of warfare various corners of the globe have exposed the need for the United States to reinvent its relationship to the world. There is perhaps no better example of our foreign policy dilemma and choices than the differences the two candidates will bring to the stage tonight in Florida.