Team Obama doubles down on an oddly incoherent critique of Romney

Team Obama doubles down on an oddly incoherent critique of Romney

Like most foreign policy specialists, I have generally welcomed the way the presidential campaigns have begun to focus more on national security. Even if this election will be decided on economic matters or on base-turnout machines, it still is important for the campaigns to debate foreign policy. In that regard, Romney’s speech yesterday at VMI was timely — I would say, overdue.

Romney’s speech was sound and sensible. One could quibble here or there — a fair-minded Obama supporter can ask what more can Romney do than Obama has done to try to get the NATO allies to honor their defense budget commitments — but as these sorts of speeches go, it was careful and precise. It didn’t answer every question someone might have for the Governor, but it laid down some important markers.

In fact, it was so sensible that it made the Obama campaign’s response — or rather, "presponse," since they released it before the speech was given — look rather nonsensical by comparison. The memo was written by two top Obama surrogates, former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl. I have great respect for both of them, but I having a hard time reconciling the various contradictions in their critique.

On the one hand, they try to dismiss Romney as extreme and ideological, to the right of President Bush. On the other hand, in the very next paragraph, they try to dismiss Romney as merely echoing Obama’s own policies. Is Obama extreme and ideological and to the right of President Bush?

They try to dismiss Romney as vague and lacking in specifics on he would do in the next four years.  But has there ever been an incumbent more reluctant to offer specifics about what he would do with a second term than President Obama? Is there anyone who can say with confidence how Obama intends to handle relations with China or with Russia going forward? Does anyone know what is the significance of Obama’s promise to Medvedev to show Russia more "flexibility" after the election?  Has Obama outlined a coherent strategy for how to deal with Syria? Or what he will do if the current sanctions do not convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions? 

Given how dramatically the administration has retreated on Afghanistan from its "war of necessity" pose of 2009 to its "Afghan good enough" pose of today, does anyone really know what sort of commitment a second term Obama would honor in 2014 when the mission is scheduled to transition to a new phase?

These are difficult issues to debate. I had a chance to discuss them briefly with Flournoy on PBS New Hour last night and I am not sure I made my points as effectively as I should have. Of course there is some similarity between what Obama and Romney are proposing now on Syria or Iran. Obama’s approach has backed us into a corner and there are only so many ways out of a corner. 

Moreover, Obama’s approach on both countries has evolved significantly in the direction of policies Romney has consistently supported for a long time. On Iran, the administration shifted from an unconditional bilateral talks approach of 2009 — an approach they stuck with for far too long and which caused them to squander the opportunities of the Green Revolution and the Fordow surprise — and only ramped up the pressure track after the Europeans and the U.S. Congress led the way. On Syria, Team Obama started off calling Assad a reformer and shifted to supporting the insurgents much later. 

And on Iraq, there is no question that Flournoy worked diligently to secure a follow-on agreement and that Maliki was reluctant to compromise, as she claimed. But there is also no question that Flournoy did not get the help she needed from the White House and that all of the mistakes I listed (and more I could have but didn’t) undermined the negotiations.

It is hard in a few minutes to get to the nub of these issues, but that is where the campaign debate should go. 

I have great sympathy for Flournoy and Kahl. They are both smart and knowledgeable and they have served the country honorably. But in their campaign surrogate role they are operating under extreme constraints and may not be free to speak candidly about Obama’s record. They know better than anyone else the long list of missed opportunities and implementation errors that has dogged President Obama’s Middle East strategy since the very beginning. They were insightful in identifying similar problems in the Bush era. If they applied to Obama the kind of sharp-eyed standards they applied when they were on the opposition bench, the results would be a withering critique of the last four years.  

Perhaps the Obama Team conducts that kind of sober self-assessment in off-the-record sessions. Let’s hope so, because if they get the chance to govern for another four years, it would not be good for U.S. foreign policy if they governed according to the standards of their campaign memos.