The foreign policy debate tonight is a big challenge for Mitt Romney. If he is on top of his game, he will overcome a major hurdle on the road to the White House. If Romney loses, things will go south quickly. Americans may not care much about foreign policy but they do want to make sure the guy who answers that 2 a.m. phone call knows what to do when it comes.
Why will the debate on national security be such a challenge for Romney?
Romney has no foreign policy experience at all. Any time I write about Romney's inexperience, I catch flak from Republicans who come back at me and say that Barack Obama didn't have any foreign policy experience before he became president. But the president did serve on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee for four years, which put him in a lot better position than Romney would be in if he becomes president. Romney's choice of national security advisers doesn't offer Americans any comfort: One of Romney's closest foreign policy councilors is Dan Senor, who was part of the Coalition Provisional Authority which took charge of the mess in Iraq and made it into a disaster.
Romney's lack of foreign policy experience has reared its ugly head many times during the campaign. The first incident was Romney's trip abroad which he started in grand style by insulting our closest ally in the war on terror, Great Britain. In last week's debate, Romney clearly didn't do his homework. If Romney had prepared well, he would have known that the president had spoken out against terrorists in his speech at the White House, the day after the attack on our diplomats in Libya. Have Romney's critics made too much of Romney's blunder? No, because a slip up on a detail like that can start a war.
Polls indicate that Americans give the president good grades for handling foreign policy and that they haven't bought the Romney attack on the president for being soft on terrorism. In his new book 500 Days, Kurt Eichenwald writes that the first instruction Obama gave to his new CIA Director Leon Panetta was to make getting Osama bin Laden his first priority. Once President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, the hunt for the terrorist mastermind fell off his administration's radar screen. Because of the urgency that the president Obama placed on getting bin Laden, Obama was able to do something in two years that George W. Bush couldn't do in eight.
I hope the president pins Romney down on his plans to deal with problems in the Middle East. Romney has harshly criticized the president's lack of aggressiveness in confronting Iran and the Assad regime in Syria, but the GOP candidate hasn't said much about his own plans. Many of Romney's foreign policy advisers were players in President Bush's "shoot first and aim later" approach to the Middle East powder keg. Eichenwald writes that President Bush ignored British Prime Minister Tony Blair's warning against a precipitous attack on Iraq. So would Romney act unilaterally without support from our European allies if Israel mounts a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities or would he plow along alone? Inquiring minds want to know.
Last week Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan attacked President Obama for drawing down our military presence in Afghanistan too quickly. During the debate, the president should press Romney on his administration's plans for Iraq. If the Romney-Ryan ticket thinks the president is withdrawing from Afghanistan too quickly, I would like to know how long Romney would keep American combat troops there. Five years? Ten years? Twenty? I don't know Romney's plans but I do know Americans won't wait for five years and they certainly won't wait 20.
So Romney should be careful about what he says during the debate. Loose lips sink ships—and presidential campaigns.