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Dems plan to press national security advantage in Charlotte

U.S. President Barack Obama‘s campaign message at this week’s Democratic National Convention will be that Mitt Romney‘s campaign has been avoiding foreign policy — and when the former Massachusetts governor does talk about it, he puts forward a set of policies that is backwards-looking and frightening. "We’re living in an upside-down world, because for the ...


U.S. President Barack Obama‘s campaign message at this week’s Democratic National Convention will be that Mitt Romney‘s campaign has been avoiding foreign policy — and when the former Massachusetts governor does talk about it, he puts forward a set of policies that is backwards-looking and frightening.

"We’re living in an upside-down world, because for the first time in a generation the Democrats and President Obama hold a decisive advantage in the polls going into the election in terms of the confidence the American people have on foreign policy and national security issues," Colin Kahl, former Obama defense official and co-chair of the Obama campaign’s national security advisory team, told The Cable in an interview.

The polls have consistently shown Obama with a double-digit advantage when it comes to foreign policy and national security, and that could be in part because the Republicans have avoided focusing on the issue, especially at their convention in Tampa, he said.

"In Tampa, Republicans were ignoring foreign policy," Kahl said, pointing out that only Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke about foreign policy much at all, while Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, barely mentioned it.

"We will honor America’s democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world," Romney said in his acceptance speech in Tampa. "This is the bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan. And under my presidency we will return to it once again."

Kahl pointed out that Romney didn’t mention Afghanistan, the troops fighting overseas, or veterans during his speech.

"The most bizarre element of Mitt Romney’s speech is here’s a guy who is auditioning to be the commander in chief of the most powerful country on Earth and he forgets to mention the war in Afghanistan, where we have almost 80,000 men and women in harm’s way," Kahl said. "He didn’t even mention the war in Afghanistan much less let the American people know what he wants to do about it."

The Obama campaign will hammer that theme by making sure its officials and surrogates talk about the ongoing war in Afghanistan with a particular focus on veterans. There are a host of veterans’ panel and training events, some being run by the DNCC’s Veterans Advisory Group, the DNC Veterans and Military Families Council, and the Truman National Security Project, a center left advocacy organization.

In addition to holding training sessions for veterans and military families on messaging and getting out the military vote for Obama, groups like the Truman Project will hold public events such as a breakfast panel Sept. 5 with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, the other co-chair of the Obama campaign’s national security advisory group, and Iraq veteran and congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth.

Obama and his team this week will also tout the president’s record on fighting terrorism, his decision to green-light the mission that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and the fulfillment of his 2008 campaign promise to end the war in Iraq.

Kahl said that the Obama campaign will push back on Romney’s claim that Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism. "Guess what: Democrats think American is exceptional and great too. We love our country as much as the Republicans do. So that’s not a distinction between us," he said.

Kahl speculated that the Romney campaign has been reluctant to talk about several foreign-policy issues, such as the war in Afghanistan, because in many areas the former governor’s policies aren’t actually all that different from the president’s.

"They like to describe our current policies but masquerade that description as criticism. Any criticism on Afghanistan obscures the fact that Mitt Romney basically endorses the president’s way forward, as far as we can tell. On Israel and Iran, Romney talks tough but his policies would be identical to those of President Obama," he said.

Romney does have distinctly different policies from Obama on dealing with major powers like Russia and China, but those policies are risky and backward-looking, Kahl argued.

"In those few areas where there are differences, [Romney’s] policies are downright scary, whether it’s calling Russia our No. 1 geopolitical foe or threatening to start a trade war with China on day one of his administration," he said.

In his acceptance speech in Tampa, Romney touched on a few foreign policy issues, briefly.

"Every American is less secure today because he has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat. In his first TV interview as president, he said we should talk to Iran. We’re still talking, and Iran’s centrifuges are still spinning," Romney said. "President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus…"

Kahl said those arguements are just rhetoric and that Romney doesn’t have policies that would change the U.S. approach to Iran or Israel in any significant way.

"On Israel, by any objective measure Obama has been a better for Israel’s security than any president in modern times," said Kahl. "On Iran, Mitt Romney’s writings on this have been descriptions of the president’s policies described as criticisms. The only difference you get is bluster and tough talk. Some of his surrogates like John Bolton want to go to war yesterday, but it’s not clear that’s where Mitt Romney is."

Republicans often accuse Obama of "spiking the football" after the killing of bin Laden, but Kahl said that Republicans have no right to claim the moral high ground on that issue.

"That’s a little ironic from a party whose last president landed on an aircraft carrier and declared ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Iraq," he said. "Brining justice to Osama bin Laden is something that all Americans should be proud of. This was an extraordinarily tough call."

Democratic groups will be speaking about a range of other national security and foreign policy issues this week in Charlotte as well. Flournoy and former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs Douglas Wilson will speak at an event on the defense budget hosted by Bloomberg  Sept. 4.  Nuclear non-proliferation will be discussed at a Sept. 5 event put on by the Council for a Livable World and featuring former ambassador Peter Galbraith. Former State Department official Tamara Wittes will speak at a Sept. 5 event on the role of women in the new Middle East.

On Thurs, Sept. 6, Truman will hold a series of discussions on foreign policy featuring Kahl, Wilson, Zvika Krieger, senior vice president at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, Janine Davidson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans, Steven Koltai, former senior advisor for entrepreneurship to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Paula Broadwell, author of All In, a biography of CIA director and retired general David Petraeus.

Also on Thursday, the National Democratic Institute will team up with the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition to put on an event featuring Albright, Flournoy, former U.S. Ambassador to India Tim Roemer, former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, and White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew.

All of those events lead into a national security themed segment of the final program Sept. 6 at Bank of America stadium, which will feature a speech by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA).

"The American people understand that President Obama has been a strong commander-in-chief, and we’re looking forward to highlighting these important issues at the convention," an Obama campaign official said. "Senator Kerry will speak to how the President has restored America’s leadership in the world, has taken the fight to our enemies, and has a plan to bring our troops home from Afghanistan just like he did from Iraq. He will contrast the President’s strong leadership in this area with Mitt Romney, who has embraced the go-it-alone, reckless policies of the past that weakened America’s place in the world and made us less secure here at home."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin