Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Douglas Kmiec Headshot

The Last Debate -- Why Mitt Cannot Compete on Foreign Policy

Posted: Updated:

Today's final presidential debate is bad news for Mitt. Rumor has it that it will dwell on foreign policy. That's hardly fair to a guy who has a pension for insulting even international friends.

Seriously, can't the Governor answer a few more of those Jim Lehrer fastballs on the economy instead? Governor, do you favor 9-5 with an hour for lunch or do you like to nap like me in the afternoon or during debates when you're running wild all over the rules?

Governor Romney has pulled even with the President, though as several colleagues and myself illustrate in a new e-book out today America Undecided*, the election will turn on 8-10% of undecided voters -- really, unmotivated to vote-voters -- who last time turned out in great numbers for Obama. This cohort, rightly targeted as female by the campaigns, is time politically frustrated and dispirited for themselves, family and close friends.

Somehow, despite a presidency that has been far better than most at keeping its promises -- indeed, remarkably so, given that Bush let Paulsen and company leave town even though the treasury was all but missing and those fellas over at FNMA and Freddie big Mac or whatever went home (they still had one) with tens of millions of dollars in bonuses for essentially ignoring basic lending standards and then bundling derivative packages poisoning the world economy.

The list of accomplishment for President Obama is long: ending the war in Iraq; bringing greater accountability to the operations in Afghanistan; the landmark health reform, including funding for women and children confronting difficult (I would say tragic) circumstances that often lower the sanctity of human life or demean persons on the basis of irrational characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

Moreover, the President clearly has much left to do and unlike the Governor is willing to share a detail or two. In this regard, the President has every appearance of having the energy and the stamina to address the unavoidably tough economic restructuring that lies ahead: bringing sanity to the tax code, so that it is more generous to the middle class and less burdensome to small or start up business; doing the hard negotiation that another highly divided Congress is likely to serve up in terms of the reforms needed to keep Medicaid from imploding and taking either Social Security or Medicare with it, and managing to lessen the tumult and uncertainty in the world (viz., Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya)through non-military, economic and diplomatic means.

If there is one thing Barack Obama excels in over Mitt Romney -- and I believe there is more than one, though Mr. Romney is no slouch in terms of intelligence, hard work and other admirable qualities -- it is the conduct of American foreign policy. The appointment of Hillary Clinton was perhaps Obama's strongest cabinet choice for many reasons not the least of which it allowed the President who broke the racial barrier to facilitate world notice of a strong, capable women proving every day in capitals around the globe that women are not only the equal of men in diplomacy (and many other things), they are equally capable of being endowed with such superior qualities that they can stand toe to toe with the world's most irascible tyrant while possessing an empathy for the fragility of the human condition that surpasses many of us.

No where was this combination of open, understanding heart and tough mindness more evident than in matters of national security. More than once at our Chiefs of Mission sessions in Washington, Secretary Clinton would challenge all of us ambassadorial types to do more within the context of limited budgets. The Secretary well understood how the winding down of the military presence in Iraq and keeping the military on a strict timetable of performance in Afghanistan would necessitate heavier lifting in diplomatic initiative. If there are fewer instruments of force to keep the peace, there has to be wiser means of persuasion to reach peaceful ends. In the Mediteranean where I sereved in the Republic of Malta, these pressures to pick up both the military and diplomatic duties crystallized over Iranian sanction.

The President was wise to extend an open hand to even the least credible opponent of U.S. interests as a means of allowing the world to see that it was not the responsible nations in Europe or the United States that were rushing head-long to grasp weaponry that will inescapably destabilize already anxious and fearful atmospheres in Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt. The Obama open hand always held fast to its unwaveringly solid determination that talk is cheap unless it corresponds to activity that eases tensions, promotes trade, solidifies political borders and the integrity of sovereignty that comes with their clarity and defensibility.
That solid determination was expressed in carefully calibrated, but ever more costly, sanctions applied to an Iran -- a beautiful nation with a proud and ancient people with a fair amount of natural talent for geo-political bargaining and survival, but unfortunately being run by a person with more wind than wisdom and a worrisome knack for playing the part of a toddler let loose in a china shop.

Sanctions are never precise, of course, they always hurt many innocent people both within the nation to which they are applied and sometimes even more so on the nations cooperating in applying them.

Malta, for example, may be tiny in size, but it is sizable in terms of its sea presence and its free port is one of the best and most desired. You can well imagine that sanctions hardly enhance employment, and that is even more the case, when Iran maintained its shipping headquarters there and frequently took advantage of the expert shipping services, from dry-dock to longshoreman. Convincing a small nation that it should disproportionately bear the burden of the region's. if not the world's security in order to nourish a long-term diplomatic hope for Iranian reasonableness is not an easy matter. Yet, because of the clear guidance given to us by the President and the Secretary (in my case, especially the Secretary who seemed to answer my comment that "I wouldn't let her down," with the refrain: "you especially better not"), the Foreign Ministry in Malta established enhanced customs and ship boarding procedures which early demonstrated to Iran that illegal weapons grade materials would be identified, sequestered, and in accordance with the UN rules the rest of the world is playing under, forfeited and destroyed or rendered harmless. If the reports are true, at long last someone -- most likely someone within the religious leadership in Iran --- has prevailed upon a president who has brought his nation to the brink of a devastating defensive challenge from Israel, not known for a bashful reticence to defend her people.

In all of this, and more dealing with the international concerns of fair trade, currency manipulation, and even the occasional impulsiveness of an ally to put our boots on some ground they would like defended even as inevitably the alliance for that defense will then be held up to ridicule as the means by which the U.S. secures western dominance. It can be hard to be the friend and to be openly chastised for helping, while silently being petitioned for help, Nonetheless, in some measure, this is the modern history of NATO which has not yet successfully reinvented its mission to invite collaborative U.S.-EU defense planning, even if -- as Bob Gates stated bluntly in his farewell address, the times they are a changin' and Europe must build commercial bridges that secure the peace or be prepared to bear a larger share of their defense, which yes, is ours too.

President Obama is a natural leader in international and foreign venue; he is accepted as progressive and practical in ways few Americans have been respected and perceived -- at least since General George C. Marshall was personally tasked with the reconstruction of Europe with a proportionately larger checking account than Mr. Obama can rely upon.

Now it is not at all clear how Governor Romney hopes to prevail over the President's combination of good judgment, discerning listening and diplomatic skills and capable assisting personnel. About the only argument I see having resonance is that Romney will be able to argue that prospectively Obama is losing Mrs. Clinton's services. If as appears true, she will be a near impossible personage to replace (and Mrs. C, I especially, have no hesitation in the least to point that out, even if some partisan folks in foggy bottom were suspicious of me merely because I was a former Ken Starr colleague (he was my dean here at Pepperdine before becoming President of Baylor). Regrettably, there were some who need to judge people less by label than by commitment and principle, who could not resist "guilt by professional association," and for that reason always tended to stir up unnecessary suspicion for my efforts based upon what is understandably in your life an unhappy memory. I can say you always had my admiration and I know you deservedly have to this very hour, the President and the people's confidence.

But my reminiscence has taken me a bit off course, but not without good effect because in context it now allows me to ask: again: on what basis will Mitt Romney hold himself out as an equal -let alone the better -- of the President and Secretary Clinton (and rumor has it, the extremely able John Kerry as a possible successor) on foreign policy. Surely, it will not be his blundering recent trips abroad where England practically went to war with Utah over the Governor's intemperance, and that light-hearted jab scarcely broaches the manifold difficulty to Arab-Israeli resolution his one-sided-ness would, and might still, cause if he prevails in November.

My biggest fear for the debate tonight is that without discernible international diplomatic skill himself, or even much of a track record of interest, there is little to suggest that the former Governor has any familiarity with the BBC, al Jazeera, or even the handful of world news stories in the daily news.

So what will Romney filibuster about? My greatest apprehension is that he will mount the same hypocritically high horse that Congressman Daryl Issa and others have mounted to Monday morning quarterback the attack in Benghazi that led to the truly tragic loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens.

If that is your plan, Governor, please don't. Yes, Chris Stevens was a personal friend and colleague; yes, in a perfect world, Chris' request for greater security would have been met positively; yes, it took some time to understand what happened and why and yes, Congress working in tandem with State should quietly assess and improve operations if they can. BUT PLEASE, "Mr. I've run businesses", PLEASE DO understand that bureaucracies spending the people's hard-earned money don't allocate funds like a business, but instead, take account of often the irrational hatreds and uncertainties in vastly different places with vastly different needs.

It is obvious to any one who has spent an hour with a government department that the best strategy in seeking to augment your own resources is ask high and understand that the high will permit -- after a period of jostling -- to settle low. This is so patently obvious with respect to the current needs in Libya -- and our recent history of not being quick to provide foreign assistance there, except to buy -- rather disrespectfully -- regional stability in exchange for looking the other way at an oppressive dictator like Gaddafi. This was only now being turned around by Chris under the Secretary's cautious guidance. The work must continue, Governor, please don't sacrifice our brief return too a principled foreign policy.

Like Chris, I had come to know the Libyan people; like Chris, I saw in them a love of their ancient land, and an appreciation for family and friend -- often captured in song and literature. These qualities and more would make -- and still can make -- the modern Libya a country where open government will be a natural adjunct of the Libyan nature, and while the Libyans will need to contemplate how every new government structure in North Africa can honor its Islamic culture while remaining open to the freedom that honors gender equality and religious liberty, our presence there is something to be celebrated and advanced and not encumbered.

The President has responsibly called upon Libya to apprehend and deal justly with those who took from us someone who both George Schultz and Ambassador Tom Pickering described as the best of the best of our diplomatic corps. In my judgment, and that of many who said farewell to Chris last week at his memorial service in San Francisco, Chris was an exemplar of good will and mutual respect, fully informed by practical intelligence -- both his and the kind generated by human source. Why? Because Chris knew (and illustrated in public briefing) what you seem to be pretending on the stump -- indecently I might add -- was hidden from his understanding. Your made-up narrative of foreign policy neglect and failure is just that, made-up and should stop.

Governor Romney, the Obama-Clinton record in diplomacy is a matter of record, and fairly, the people understand it as a matter of pride. It is deeply disturbing to think that you would attempt to divert the public's attention from your own remedial needs in this area by explicitly or implicitly suggesting the opposite.

Not every President or presidential candidate has had an encyclopedic grasp of world events or leaders. One of your predecessors embarrassingly could not identify the heads of government in a few cases. Another GOP president confused two highly different nations on the African continent and ended up sending an unintended person to be the ambassador there. Of course, these presidents made up for this by occupying foreign lands we had no business being violently within.

Stay with commerce, Governor, you likely have a great deal of insight to contribute to our export-import imbalance and the ways in which you might specifically handle unfair trade practice, the international theft of intellectual property and its overlap with international crime syndicates purveying illegal drugs, weapons or the misery of human trafficking. Talk of those things, don't make up a false interest in an equally false need for public or extraordinary investigation just to get votes.

Honor the memory of Chris Stevens by speaking knowledgeably about that which is of long-standing and authentic concern, for unless you can honestly point to a single sentence you uttered about diplomatic security and its need for enhancement before the day of the attack in Cairo or Benghazi, you are by taking up this subject now a mere political opportunist, and whether the tea party would or would not relish such behavior, it is beneath you, the legacy of your father, and well below that standard of character needed for the presidential office.
In short, Governor, change the subject. Or better yet challenge Barack to some one on one on the White House court. Nah, better make that a game of H-O-R-S-E.

And hey, you can snap up a copy of America Undecided off Amazon and find out how the President's record, informed by a deep sense of faith (even though largely unchurched) together with some previously unpublished insights about the influence of the President's time living and working in a Catholic parish during his community organizer days, instilled in him an abiding concern for the least among us that -- sorry -- just cannot be met by "trickles" alone. Oh, and if you are planning to mix it up on abortion or the exaggerated, but largely unsuccessful, attempts to have religiously motivated citizens whipped into a litigation frenzy over religious liberty, the book reveals the hollow core of that as well.

As I say, check with Jim, I'm certain he's got a humdinger of one of those polite Newshour-type questions on the difference between a Roth and SEP IRA (the investments, not the revolutionaries).

What's that? You never knew mutual funds were all that revolutionary.

Good luck, Governor. -- I know you'll want to do the right thing and not take partisan advantage of the splendid gift of life Chris Stevens represented. I also know that campaigns, especially close campaigns bring out the worst advice, so if you need help resisting the temptation, lift up your heart to an idea or ethic of kindness.

*Which for a limited time we are offering for the price of a song, .99, on Amazon Kindle,