What Would Ronald Reagan Do?

Mitt Romney shouldn't shy away from a fight on foreign policy. He can win it.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

An economy in shambles. Unemployment high, even in double digits in some states. Overseas conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The U.S. military strained by budget cuts. A growing sense that America has abdicated its leadership role — being, in the words of the Republican presidential candidate, "unwilling or unable to fulfill its obligations as the leader of the free world." And an incumbent president calling his Republican challenger a warmonger whose proposed defense buildup would yield more conflict and endanger America.

The year is 1980. Or 2012.

There are many foreign-policy similarities between this year’s race and the one that ushered in the Reagan revolution and the end of the Cold War. And with a recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and his trip to Britain, Israel and Poland, Mitt Romney has begun outlining a foreign policy that embraces Ronald Reagan’s legacy. He has highlighted the Obama administration’s neglect of allies and its obsession with engaging enemies, and the resultant sense of an America adrift in a dangerous world.

This Reaganesque vision has been overshadowed by the media’s obsession with several Romney "gaffes," and Boston’s view that any day spent talking about something other than jobs and the economy is a lost opportunity. The campaign is also likely hesitant due to public opinion pollingthat shows President Barack Obama with a sizable advantage over Governor Romney on national security, the first time in decades that a Democratic candidate for the presidency is polling better than his Republican challenger on the issue.

Despite these challenges, as he delivers his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Tampa this week, the former Massachusetts governor has a foreign-policy message to be proud of — a vision of an America that will once again lead rather than follow and that has the military resources to ensure the respect of its allies and the deterrence of its enemies.

It’s troubling, then, that Romney has cited a story about then-President Reagan telling his close aide James Baker that he wanted no more meetings scheduled on foreign policy for the first 100 days of his presidency, because attention needed to be on turning around the economy. The story appears apocryphal, but in any case it’s a poor model of presidential decision-making. Our enemies certainly won’t wait 100 days to test Romney if he is elected president.

Just as Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate has encouraged the campaign to tackle controversial issues such as entitlement reform head on, so too should he be willing to engage President Obama on his national security record. Americans generally give President Obama — who ordered the daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden — strong marks on national security. But his record is actually dismal.

Iran is increasingly closer to a nuclear weapons capability. Syria is imploding, as Bashar al-Assad’s regime brutalizes its citizens. After Obama’s "reset" of relations with Russia, Moscow is blocking efforts to assist the Syrian people and ramping up its repression of its own citizens. The war in Afghanistan is being mismanaged, as commanders are overruled and hard-fought gains put at risk — just as eight years of American sacrifice in Iraq are now in jeopardy thanks to Washington’s desire to talk only of ending wars and "nation building at home" rather than victory.

Perhaps most concerning, the president’s repeated defense cuts are weakening our military and undermining our ability to combat current threats and future challenges such as the rise of China. The U.S. Navy currently has the smallest number of ships since 1916. If budget "sequestration" occurs in January, adding $500 billion to the already $487 billion in cuts to defense spending over the next 10 years — says Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the U.S. Air Force would be the smallest in its history. And American ground forces are set to decrease by 100,000 soldiers and Marines in the coming years. This gutting of the U.S. military has left America’s friends confused and its enemies emboldened.

On all of these issues, Romney has begun to lay out an alternative vision. One that will replace "leading from behind" with actual American leadership and the resources necessary to ensure that this is another American century.

"Who does not feel rising alarm when the question in any discussion of foreign policy is no longer, ‘Should we do something?’, but ‘Do we have the capacity to do anything?’ The administration which has brought us to this state is seeking your endorsement for four more years of weakness, indecision, mediocrity and incompetence." So declared Reagan in his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican convention, and the words are as true today.

In that race, Reagan embraced the foreign-policy critique of President Carter. In their sole debate, Reagan noted, "[W]e cannot shirk our responsibility as a leader of the free world because we’re the only ones that can do it. Therefore, the burden of maintaining the peace falls on us. And to maintain that peace requires strength."

Not a bad message for 2012. A neo-Reaganite foreign policy to undo the damage caused by four years of Barack Obama. It’s a message Romney has at times articulated, even if the media wants to cloak his foreign-policy record in supposed gaffes and his political strategists want to fight the battle on more comfortable ground. Rather than just reading the polls and talking only of jobs and the economy while ceding national security to Obama, Romney should keep up the foreign- policy fight. He can win it.

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