If he does not do so, it will be because his national security advisers are quarreling among themselves and Romney is afraid to follow the footsteps of his father, who was driven out of a presidential campaign after saying – quite honestly – that he’d been “brainwashed” by the generals on Vietnam.
Norquist, who is known as a libertarian fundamentalist for opposing taxes and cutting spending, is trying to build Republican support for ending the trillion-dollar Afghanistan War as rapidly as possible.
Think of it. Romney could say tonight that he is deeply troubled by reports of corruption and cronyism in Afghanistan, by the New York Times editorial Sunday calling for withdrawal, and by his businessman’s sense that you never should throw good money after bad. Refusing to inherit “Obama’s War,” Romney could pledge to end the war in 2013. He would leave President Obama flat-footed.
But Romney will worm his way through the contradictions of his advisers, pledging to respect the 2014 deadline (for what?) and follow the advice of the Pentagon commanders, who are openly worried about 2014. Romney in effect will outsource military decision-making to the military and CIA. He will claim that the recent attack in Benghazi is evidence of an Al Qaeda resurgence, and might even blame Obama for the shooting of the 14-year old Pakistani girl last week.
While remaining vague about Afghanistan, Romney will try to take the national security polling advantage away from Obama by claiming that US foreign policy is in a shambles – which in many ways it is – while avoiding any disturbing alternatives, like war with Iran.
Tonight’s debate is primarily about foreign policy, and it may be Obama’s last stand if he does not turn the tables on Romney.
He is likely to stumble over Benghazi, where the New York Times says the assault clearly came local Islamic militants in more or less spontaneous retaliation for the insane video made by right-wing American xenophobes. (New York Times, October 16, 2012) Romney, perhaps with help from moderator Candy Crowley, will claim that the attack was proof that Al Qaeda is back. And Romney will condemn Obama for saying that the Libyan operation was an example of “leading from behind,” which Obama did not say, but facts no longer matter in this campaign.
All things are relative, but Obama has been a maverick again and again within the insulated circles of the national security establishment. As a presidential candidate, he campaigned against the Clinton Democratic Party on a pledge to end the Iraq War; the generals, the Republicans and Hillary Clinton were opposed. As president, Obama carried out essentially a full withdrawal despite military and Republican objections. In Afghanistan, he has ended the surge of 33,000 troops, inflicted damage on Al Qaeda and is winding down the US combat mission by 2014 -- his military and the Republicans are opposed. Net savings over five years of having ended both wars would approach one trillion dollars in direct tax costs.
Similarly, on the Arab Spring, Obama was virtually alone in supporting the overthrow of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. “What I want is for the kids in the square to win and that Google guy to be president. What I think is we’re going to be in for a long, protracted transition,” Obama said, according to David Sanger’s history, Confront and Conceal. (p. 297)
The list could go on. But Obama’s achievements, opposed by Republicans, have been stained terminally in the eyes of his liberal-left base by his drone wars and limitations on civil liberties. The center he covets is unstable and murky.
Besides defending his record, Obama’s best approach tonight is to attack Romney’s even greater militarism, as symbolized by Romney’s extra two-trillion dollar defense increase “that the military doesn’t even want,” then offer an agenda for the next four years to mobilize new hope among voters, for example, by proposing reductions of nuclear weapons arsenals, and a new White House-led effort to stop global warming.