10/09/2012 10:53 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Obama Faces Big Challenges Despite Debate Winner Romney's Latest Geopolitical Whiff

In what was at least Take 4 for Mitt Romney in trying to make a major impression of geopolitical expertise, the conservative Republican presidential candidate didn't do himself any favors. Even as President Barack Obama struggles to deal with several crises, and to recover from his sleepy Denver debate performance, Romney continues to struggle with having a critique, let alone a coherent policy.

Rommey definitely got the best of it with last week's crisp debate performance in which he morphed back into moderate Mitt. But his ballyhooed speech Monday at the Virginia Military Institute on his big new geopolitical vision ended like his July Veterans of Foreign Wars speech in Reno, Nevada, his July-August international tour, and his September attack on Obama for supposedly sympathizing with those who stormed US missions in Cairo and Benghazi. Not at all well. Here"s the full text of Romney's speech.

Frankly, it was a lot of rhetoric of the America is Number One variety, a lot of vagueness, and a lot of similarity with, well, Obama, except in a few notable areas in which the differences are not well conceived.

On Iran, Romney's tough talk of war has disappeared with his old business colleague and friend Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's seeming to back away from strikes, at least this year, in his UN speech last month in New York.

So what does he want to do differently from the "disastrous" Obama? Er, tighten sanctions. Which Obama has done and likely will keep doing.

Oh, and ensure "the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region." But they only have to be there if things are going wrong. Does he expect his policy to fail? Perhaps it's just a subtler form of saber rattling, after all.

On Afghanistan, Romney's language seemed vague and conditional, but critical of Obama's plan to withdraw by the end of 2014. So much for the thought he might want to get out of a bad situation. Romney seemed to sidestep how things are actually going there. Things are going very badly, with the "real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014" he speaks of looking illusory.

On Iraq, Romney actually criticized the US withdrawal.

"America's ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence," he intoned.

Actually, it was the Iraqi government that wanted US troops out of its country. As did the American people.

On Libya, Romney had little of substance, after disastrously claiming last month that the Obama Administration sympathized with the people who attacked the US mission in Benghazi and embassy in Cairo. He didn't even get into criticizing the obvious lack of security around the US mission in Benghazi that led to the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

One wonders why. And notes that the name no one mentions, that of General-turned-CIA Director David Petraeus, would otherwise loom large in this matter, given how big an operation the Agency had going in Benghazi. Of course, Petraeus is a particular sacred cow in the Republican Party, where power brokers entertained a major political role for him, at least until Obama moved him off the game board -- as he did a few years back with Jon Huntsman and the China ambassadorship -- by making him director of central intelligence.

On the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, Romney attacked Obama for lack of progress.

Which was an especially cheeky thing to do since, in reality, Romney told supporters at a Florida fundraiser that he doesn't believe in a peace process, because "the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace."

On the multi-dimensional crisis in Syria, Romney declared: "The President has failed to lead in Syria." But he neglected to say what he would do.

On the crisis in the South China Sea and the issue of the rise of China in general -- you can see the archive of my articles dealing with the geopolitical pivot to Asia and the Pacific here -- Romney simply had nothing to say.

He did claim that Obama is making dangerous cuts from the US Armed Forces. Our spending is greater than that of the next 14 nations in the world combined.

But he did get specific about the Navy. "The size of our Navy," Romney declared, "is at levels not seen since 1916."

Unfortunately for Romney, this is nonsense. You don't even have to have been in the Navy, or any other branch of service -- Romney was a Mormon missionary in France during the Vietnam War -- to know this.

Actually, there are far more ships in the US Navy of today than in the US Navy of 1916. And even more important, the ships we have today are far more capable and powerful. For one thing, there were no aircraft carriers in 1916, which Romney should know. For another, he equates little gunboats and patrol boats with modern warships like Aegis cruisers and nuclear submarines.

And yet, Obama lost a debate to this man.

There's no excuse for Obama's poor debate performance, but he undoubtedly had other things on his mind.

Like major developments in Iran, where the economy is in danger of collapse after months of tough international sanctions against the Tehran regime's nuclear program.

Like the specter of war between Turkey and Syria after repeated border incidents spurred by the deaths of five Turkish civilians, killed by a Syrian mortar shell.

Like his dispatch of major US naval forces to flash points the far western Pacific in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

Iran's currency collapsed by more than 40% since late September, leading to major demonstrations which were clamped down upon by the theocratic regime. Things have suddenly become much more expensive for Iranians. Iran's economy is under big pressure from international sanctions against the regime's nuclear program.

The US and allies have rejected an Iranian bid to have sanctions removed in exchange for throttling back on its nuclear program on grounds that Iran's proposal retained too much capacity. Spinning up the sanctions again would take time and require a fresh round of maneuvering. Perhaps a new Iranian proposal will be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Syria are not far from war. A Syrian mortar round landed in a Turkish village late last Wednesday, killing five Turkish citizens.

Turkey spun up a big response, with the national parliament authorizing expansive retaliatory raids against Syrian territory. This resulted in some long-range artillery attacks.

Syrian rebel forces have made progress against the Assad regime. It's doubtful that Assad's forces could hold off the Turks if they went into Syria in force. Turkey has a large, well-trained, and well-equipped military. Of course, if Turkey goes in, Syria's remaining allies, which include Iran, Russia, and China, might have something to say about that.

Of particular note is the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO. If a NATO member is attacked, its fellow members of the collective security organization are bound to come to its defense.

While Obama was supposedly in prep to debate Mitt Romney, something I very much doubt he has much interest in, he quietly moved not one but two Navy aircraft carrier strike groups, plus an amphibious assault task group with a Marine brigade, into maritime regions China is trying to dominate.

In the East China Sea, where Japan and China are feuding over islands that both nations claim, the USS George Washington carrier strike group is now on patrol. In the South China Sea, which China, much to its neighbors dismay, claims nearly in its entirety, the USS John Stennis carrier strike group is now on patrol. And in the nearby Philippine Sea, USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault vessel carrying the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, is on station with its escort vessels.

China did recently commission an aircraft carrier -- actually an old Soviet cruiser that the PRC bought from Ukraine -- after years of refitting. But it's not clear that Chinese pilots have mastered carrier landings.

With war talk from Israel quieting down, for now, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu tonight announced that he is disbanding his government and calling early elections. His mostly right-wing coalition has been unable to agree on budget cuts, so next year's parliamentary elections are being moved up from October 2013 to February.

That's a bit of good news, or at least stable news. Which is what often passes for good news in this arena.

Clearly good news for the Obama Administration comes from the Philippines, where the government has concluded a peace deal with Islamists to end one of the longest-running, least reported wars in the world. The government had battled the MILF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, for more than 40 years.

And on top of that, the Philippine government is signaling that the US Navy is welcome back at Subic Bay, the massive old naval base I've been to more than a few times facing the South China Sea. The US was rather unceremoniously kicked out 20 years ago.

Bad news is that the poor security for the US mission in Benghazi, especially for Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was precisely the sort of popular and effective diplomat in the Islamic world that jihadists don't want, is coming under very critical scrutiny now in Congress and elsewhere.

I wrote about this here some three weeks ago, when I noted the problem and said that this was what Romney should have attacked Obama on. Fortunately for Obama, Romney's initial attack had been so off-base that he didn't want to risk another. Unfortunately for Obama, others don't have that problem.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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