09/25/2012 03:54 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Speaking English

Edward Frothingham Jr. was the general counsel for my office when I worked in counternarcotics for the Department of Defense. He was the best writer I ever ran across in government, and I have been grateful ever since because he took the trouble to teach me to write succinctly and clearly, and, most of all, logically. Both candidates for president would do well to give him a job.

Statements need to reach a logical conclusion, a rule that apparently doesn't apply in the political landscape. If a member of our government says that someone else should not do something because it is against our national interest, there ought to be an "or else... " that indicates our commitment. If we say something is unacceptable, we need to be clear about what we're going to do about the situation.

Each candidate has been guilty of shooting from the hip without loading his gun. Let's start with Mitt Romney. He has made the now oft-quoted statement that the United States should shape the future of the Middle East without explaining exactly how we'd do that. That sort of language usually means one of two things, because no one is gratuitously interested in our worldview anymore. Either we work for regime change in a target country, or we once again saddle up our men and women and send them to some god-forsaken place. Withholding foreign aid doesn't do much anymore, either because the target nation either throws the threat back in our faces, or immediately starts to lobby competitors like China to take our place. Mr. Romney did not finish his sentence, i.e., there was no windup telling us how we'd shape the landscape. Which of these alternatives does Mr. Romney intend? From his attitude toward defense expenditure, he's obviously ready to deploy at minimum, but would, no doubt, be delighted to get rid of governments that are keeping us from "shaping the Middle East."

The president has repeatedly stated that the possession of nuclear weapons by Iran is "unacceptable." Granted, he's not the only one who feels that way, but he is the only American with control of the nation's most powerful assets. The U.N. sanctions regime is having effects, but, at the same time, we are finding evidence of cheating and the complicity of countries we thought would not betray us in this way. Iran is showing more durability than we would like. What happens if, in fact, we discover evidence of an underground nuclear test? Will we really go to war? The Israelis are threatening to drag us there. It would be nice to know what the president is talking about.

A major problem with our current foreign policy is just this language issue. No one is terribly clear about what we're going to do as things deteriorate. This gives the impression of leadership flying by the seat of its pants. Everything is done by fire brigade addressing the day's emergencies, rather than by strategic planning, which was a chronic problem during my own stay in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and, from what friends tell me, still is.

Foreign policy is critically different from domestic because it so often has a component of potential armed intervention. We make a certain move, and people, often Americans, are going to die. The least our leaders can do is to be clear about what the problems are, how we're going to address them, and what achievable outcome we're shooting for. It's amazing how often this very concept is articulated by people who then refuse to follow through on it. The American people, who provide the troops and the money, deserve no less. It also wouldn't hurt if other countries understood what we were trying to do, and how. It might make things go a little smoother.