As Mitt Romney prepares to depart for his overseas visits, there are some questions worth raising to which voters being asked to make him Commander-in-Chief deserve an answer.
Not the political questions, including why he's going abroad, and where. Those answers are clear: It's clear that Romney wants voters to believe that, while it may not be his strength, he'd be an acceptable foreign policy president. It's clear that when Romney's in London, he wants American voters to think Olympics and give him points for his role in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games. It's clear that by going to Israel, he wants us to believe he'll be a better friend to Israel than President Obama has been. And it's clear that in Poland, he wants Americans to remember that it was only just last century that the world was divided between Them -- the Soviets, er, Russians -- and Us, and with Them, you can't have it both ways. There's not much nuance here, unless you define nuance as the particular categories of religious and ethnic voters to whom these messages are targeted - and the swing states in which those voters live.
But if this election really is going to be as close as predicted, we have to go over the head of the Romney spokesperson who said last week, in response to a question about Afghanistan policy, "I'm not going to get into the details of that". We have to insist that the presumptive GOP presidential nominee himself get into the details of some basic questions on national security. Like these:
- Who speaks for you on national security? Is it John Bolton, the ultra-hawk who turned off not only the British and other US allies but other conservatives in the Bush Administration with his extremist views; Bolton, who denounces Obama Administration-led international sanctions against Iran -- the toughest ever imposed, the first to include China and Russia -- and crosses his fingers that international negotiations to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons will fail so we can get to the military options? Is it Senator Rand Paul, who last year said it was time to end US aid to Israel? Is it former Navy Secretary John Lehman, who hasn't given up on his 80's push for a 600-plus-ship Navy and who worries openly about the "Soviet push into the Arctic"?
- Where's the beef? We know with whom you HAVE a beef: President Obama. But where's the substance? "I would look at the things the President has done and do the opposite" is not a responsible framework either for bilateral policy with Israel or for US national security policy. Do you or don't you believe we should go to war with Iran? What specifically would you do to address the Iranian threat that is different from what President Obama is already doing? Do you believe there are still viable options for dealing with the Iranian threat short of war? What would your proposed military action against Iran involve, and how would you deal with its potentially destabilizing consequences? Do you or don't you support the framework for security transition in Afghanistan developed by our top military and civilian leadership and supported not only by our NATO and ISAF partners (including Britain and Poland) but by a majority of the American people? If yes, will you say so clearly? If no, will you outline your own plan for continued US military engagement in Afghanistan? Will you really "just do what the commanders say to do" in Afghanistan? Or will you involve them in developing plans that you, as Commander-in-Chief, will frame? Would you stop US support for Israel's "Iron Dome" short-range missile shield? Would you direct the Pentagon to reduce its military assistance to Israel? Both of those actions would in fact fulfill your promise to "do the opposite" of what President Obama has done to support Israel.
- In what century do you plan to conduct your foreign policy? Granted, the world was a dangerous place during the Cold War. It has become an even more dangerous place during the first twelve years of the 21st century. There are fewer simple, bumper-sticker, zero-sum answers to national security issues. We have heard little or nothing from you on topics like al-Qaeda and counterterrorism, let alone issues like cyber security and the rise of a new generation of national and regional leaders from Europe to the Middle East to Asia. Committing US troops to solve every problem, whether military or non-military, is a knee-jerk option supported neither by current international circumstances nor by most Americans, including the military.
- How will you determine what to spend on defense? Faced with the most difficult national economic circumstances in three generations, a Congress divided on how to address them, and a need to find487 billion in defense savings over the next ten years, President Obama directed his military and civilian Pentagon advisors to find those savings -- but to do so based on a national security strategy that would keep America safe and secure, and its military strong and the best in the world. The political and civilian leaders, generals and admirals, working together, did just that. How would you do it? By framing national security in terms of spending 4% of GDP on defense, which you have said you will do? How and why did you come up with that number? (With the2 trillion defense budgets that result, you'll definitely be able to buy lots of700 hammers and toilet seats.) By defining your strategy in terms of cutting almost 20 percent across the board from government spending? Returning veterans and military families, among others, might have some questions about what that means for them.
- How should we judge you as a potential Commander-in-Chief and world leader? Over the next several days, the world will see you rightfully hailing the leaders and citizens of the UK, Israel and Poland -- three strong and important partners of the United States -- as allies and defenders of freedom and democracy. No argument there. But voters deserve to know much more about how you, as a potential President and Commander-in-Chief, view the world. How you understands its realities. How you will deal with the details. How you will make the tough choices. What you will ask of the American people to support your decisions. What role ideology will play in making your decisions and in choosing the team that implements them. Where you specifically differ with the current President, and what specifically you would do differently. Whether you have the political courage to say where you agree with him -- and why. So far, what we have heard is a cacophony of divided, ideological and often-extreme voices echoing from the Bush years and speaking in your name; opportunistic accusations instead of well-articulated policy proposals; and simplistic defense-spending formulations tied neither to clearly-developed national security strategy nor to the economic realities we face. Voters deserve to know if that's all there is. If it is, it sounds like you will be taking us back to the future -- to the George W. Bush foreign policy years.
As President and Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama has stepped up to the plate. He has shown he can and will be tough in protecting America's national interests. And his actions in doing so have by and large been smart and pragmatic rather than reckless or ideologically-motivated. Consequently, for the first time that I can remember, a Democrat is the preferred choice of voters over a Republican as Commander-in-Chief and leader on national security issues. For Mitt Romney just to aim for a "gentleman's 'C'" as an acceptable alternative is not likely to change that. Neither is the prospect of taking us back to the future.
Doug Wilson was the senior Pentagon spokesman and communications strategist as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs from February 2010 through March 2012.