3 Ways Mitt Romney's National Security Talk Is About Politics

The Romney campaign shouldn't be focusing on the economy, they need to keep attention on foreign policy.

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Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

So, is this a national security election or not? Pundits, consultants, and donors—plus everyone who took a political science course in college or is old enough to remember "it's the economy, stupid"—have been saying "no" for months. Just last month, I heard two former Cabinet-level officials solemnly tell a roomful of colleagues, at a fundraiser no less, that "it's not about our issues." And yet.

As someone who's spent more than 20 years in Washington and overseas working on foreign policy, plus a few detours into presidential politics, I'll be using this blog space to tease out the connections between the two—plus point out the overlooked-but-vital, and occasionally the amusing or horrifying.

This week the debates begin, with the first set to focus exclusively on domestic politics. Mitt Romney has some nice real estate on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. Filled with what? Benghazi-gate. Romney's advisers are reported to be bickering about what? Whether to "pivot to foreign policy" or "stick to a day-to-day message on the economy." The compromise: Stick to the economy, but announce a foreign policy speech for next week.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

Raise your hand if, quite apart from partisanship, you are confused.

National security serves three purposes in this election, each having little or nothing to do with how the United States secures its interests and acts in the world. 

First, as a touchstone for the conservative base, and various sub-groups. National security voters (a small sub-group) tend to be older, whiter and more conservative—folks Romney needs to lock down and turn out. Specifically, "who lost the Middle East" rhetoric, and calls for closer ties with Israel, are aimed at the campaign's ambitions to peel off Jewish voters in certain key states and—overlooked but numerically more important—to energize and turn out the so-called "Christian Zionist" wing of conservative evangelicals.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Can Mitt Romney Best Barack Obama on Foreign Policy?]

Second, as a subtle way to push the theme of Barack Obama as "other." It's no accident that, with the occasional excursion to China trade policy or Russia's enduring foe-ness, Romney's national security attacks have focused on Obama's relations with the Muslim world and accusations that he doesn't understand or support America or its exceptional nature. When he calls the president "naive," or suggests that he doesn't understand the value of our traditional allies, a dog-whistle is subtly blown. Of course, it isn't always subtle—witness the individual identifying himself as a Romney adviser who asserted this summer that we needed a president who fully appreciated "our Anglo-Saxon heritage."

Third, because for more than three decades, the GOP had the advantage on national security, and used that advantage successfully as a stand-in for overall leadership skills. The Iraq war debacle took that advantage away, and President Obama's successes in counterterrorism and drawing the wars to a close has been reflected in a steady advantage for him in the polls. Don't blame the GOP for trying to get its mojo back. Just don't imagine that Benghazi-gate, or the debate inside the Romney campaign about how to exploit it, has anything to do with actual national security policy, where the important debates consist of what we do next in the Middle East and Asia, how we marshal and use the influence we have, and how much money to spend—whether it's on diplomatic security, economic assistance, or trade preferences.

  • Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Properly Handled the Arab Spring?
  • Read Brad Bannon: Will the Real Mitt Romney Stand Up in the Debates?
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