On Monday, Mitt Romney gave a major foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute. It was his best speech yet on the subject. In it, the GOP nominee laid out multiple arguments against Obama's foreign policy approach, and implied several more. Namely:
-- The Obama administration's handling of last month's terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassy in Libya was embarrassingly weak, confused, and at times even downright misleading.
-- The administration would like to suggest that Al Qaeda and similar groups are largely defeated as a result of the death of Osama Bin Laden, but, in fact, radical jihadists are alive and well in multiple locations throughout the greater Middle East and, if anything, have gained from the chaos engendered by the Arab spring.
-- The White House has not reacted to these events shaking the Arab world with any overarching strategy, but instead prides itself on a directionless day-by-day response, which it calls "pragmatic."
-- If the United States is serious about preventing Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons - which Obama claims it is - then this will require more than half-implemented sanctions and desultory diplomacy. It will require that Iran's ruthless leaders truly fear the United States. Under the current U.S. president, frankly, such fear does not exist.
-- The U.S. should begin arming the opposition to Syria's Assad, who is an enemy of American interests in the region and an ally of Iran.
-- Obama is not "ending" wars in Afghanistan, or anywhere else. He is simply withdrawing from them, while they continue under conditions less favorable to the United States.
-- There was no need for Obama to signal to Afghanistan's Taliban, years in advance, when exactly the U.S. would disengage from that country. This only encouraged them to wait us out.
-- American defense cuts of recent years should be brought to an end. These cuts have now reached the point where they undermine America's ability to back up its existing commitments overseas - never mind any new ones.
-- If the U.S. does not lead internationally, others will - and this includes a number of hostile and authoritarian regimes whose rise would make the world a significantly worse place.
In making these arguments, Romney got it right. Fashionable opinion in the Western world has given Obama a free pass for the last four years simply for showing up. This nonsense has to stop. There is no doubt that domestic economic issues are Romney's single greatest strength against Obama, which is why they have been emphasized all along. But there is no reason to cede foreign policy as an issue to this administration; and on Monday Romney demonstrated that he has no plans to do so.
The White House and its surrogates reacted to Romney's speech by making three, mutually contradictory arguments, which they have made all year:
Argument 1: Republicans and their nominee are "reckless" militarists who want to start World War III.
Argument 2: Republicans and their nominee propose to follow a policy no different from Obama's.
Argument 3: Republicans and their nominee are vague, ill-informed, and unserious when it comes to foreign policy. They make "gaffes."
To begin with: Democrats want to argue that Romney will intervene with U.S. forces and start new wars or prolong existing ones in a staggering number of places: Syria, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq among them.
In response, note that Romney did not call Monday for sending additional U.S. armed forces into harm's way in any of the above locations. He did not call for U.S.-backed no-fly-zones over Syria. He did not call for bombing Iran. He did not call for U.S. ground troops in Libya. He did not call for more troops to Afghanistan. He did not call for sending U.S. forces back to Iraq.
What he said, quite rightly, is that, without the threat of force, regimes like Iran's (or forces like the Taliban) will not take the United States seriously. And this is demonstrably true. In that sense, Democrats have it backward. The best way to prevent a dangerous misunderstanding with a government like Tehran's - a misunderstanding that could lead to war - is to make it clear beforehand that the U.S. means business. And this requires a credible threat of coercion. Here is precisely where Republicans differ from Obama.
Outside of the most feverish partisan circles, nobody seriously believes that Mitt Romney is hell-bent on foreign wars. The man is obviously a careful, business-minded, practical and methodical executive whose chief priority in 2013 would be domestic economic recovery. Yet he has made it clear for several years now that he believes Obama to be seriously overrated and misguided on foreign policy issues. And he is correct in this belief.
In the foreign policy debate with Romney later this month, Obama will try to suggest that the Republican nominee plans new U.S. military interventions overseas. There is no need for Romney to fall into that trap. Both candidates know that the American public, including independent voters, are tired of military interventions right now. Monday's speech provided a good template for how Romney can (and no doubt will) talk about foreign policy issues in the coming TV debates. The connecting theme is not fresh interventions abroad, but a strong national defense, genuine U.S. leadership, support for America's allies, and resistance to America's enemies - in other words, peace through strength.
Remember Romney's "gaffe" about culture as an important source of economic growth? Here's the thing: it's true. It does, however, go against received liberal shibboleths, which do not permit uncomfortable yet honest observations about cultural differences. So it is reported by a gullible press as a sign of poor information, when in fact it is precisely the opposite.
Contemporary liberal opinion, whose tone is perfectly embodied by President Obama and then followed in much of the elite press, regularly takes the position that no thoughtful or well-intentioned person can truly disagree with what is, in effect, the liberal position on major public policy issues. At the end of the day, a lack of agreement is taken as a sign of ignorance or ill-will, rather than as an honest disagreement between sincere and intelligent people. So when liberal journalists or politicians declare that an opposing argument - for example, a conservative foreign policy argument - is "unserious," what they really mean is: "If you were as smart as we believe ourselves to be, you could not possibly hold that idea in your head."
One of the many good things about Romney's first TV debate with Obama was that he revealed the hollowness of this conceit. Faced across from the President of the United States one-on-one for 90 minutes, Romney was every bit his equal -- more so, in fact, in terms of intellect, preparedness, plausibility, and command. The policy contrasts between the two of them were obviously not the result of any difference in their level of "seriousness." They were the result of a true difference in core beliefs.
On Election Day, there is no guarantee that Romney will be favored over Obama on foreign policy specifically. But the only way to win the argument is to make it - as Romney is now doing. Take on the president's overrated foreign policy record. Fight on the issue of U.S. national security. And fight against the notion that the only practical course left to Americans today is a kind of graceful international decline.
Fight back - and keep it up.