The Republican primary candidates had good reason to hold their debate on national security issues this past Saturday night during a major college football game. If the American people at large were to scrutinize their positions, they would see a GOP field woefully unprepared to lead. Exhibit A is their presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, who did a fine job illustrating why Republicans are ceding their traditional national security advantage.
Take the threat posed by Iran, which arose early in the debate. Ignoring the fact that the Iranian regime has been pursuing nuclear weapons for decades, Romney blamed the President for Iran's progress on the bomb. But Mitt should look instead to the last Republican to occupy the White House, and who he hopes will be the next one. The truth is that Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq, which Romney supported, took America's eye off the ball, made it tougher to win sanctions against Iran, and made a nuclear option look ever more attractive to the regime. If Romney thinks the American people will buy his finger-pointing, he'd better hope they forget a few key facts first.
The reality is that President Obama has, unlike Bush, taken major steps to forestall an Iranian bomb. Obama convinced the Security Council to impose robust sanctions on Iran last June, which Iranian president Ahmedinejad recently acknowledged have been painful; Obama promised bunker buster bombs that could penetrate Iran's hardened facilities to Israel and other key allies like the UAE; he convinced Russia not to sell Iran an advanced air defense system; he succeeded in negotiating the installation of an advanced early warning system in Turkey that would share information with Israel (over Turkish objections); and has entered into closer than ever cooperation with Israel on missile defense systems. (And that's even stingily denying unconfirmed covert ops that has left Iranian nuclear scientists dead and their centrifuges breaking). All on top of repeating yet again on Sunday what he has said since 2007: that the U.S. will not rule out military force when it comes to stopping Tehran from acquiring a nuclear capability. Romney proposed nothing that Obama is not already doing. And darn well knew it.
Romney continued his disingenuous diatribe as he moved east to Afghanistan. Perhaps having a Perry moment, Romney failed to recall his statement in June of this year that U.S. troops should return home "as soon as we possibly can -- as soon as our generals think it's okay." Instead he blasted Obama's timetable as a politically motivated "mistake." In substance, though, the broadside amounts to a quibble. Obama plans only to withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of 2011, and another 23,000 by September 2012. Romney in the debate called for all 33,000 to remain until December 2012. And he then agreed with Obama's 2014 timetable for complete withdrawal. Even with Obama's plan, Romney should be feel comforted, the U.S. would have some 70,000 troops by the end of next year, twice as many as when Obama was elected in 2008. Obama's plan, moreover, calls for accelerated training efforts for the Afghan military, the key to standing the nation up on its own -- as must eventually be done. Polls show Americans support the President's strategy, as does former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. If Romney has a few dissenters whispering in his ear that's one thing, but it is not even the beginning of a coherent policy. As Romney himself might have acknowledged just a few months ago.
A review of the other candidates' efforts to rile up their Tea Party base, such as Perry's "zero dollar baseline" foreign aid policy, or Bachmann's claim that Obama hasn't stood with Israel (someone should tell its defense minister) would only compound the pounding. But when Romney as the GOP's front-runner is carrying the mantle of unreliability so proudly, the public can be understood for wanting to change the channel. When it comes to national security and foreign affairs credibility, the Republicans are clearly at fourth and long.