Monday night is the final presidential debate and it’s on foreign policy. Given the dead heat between the two candidates, a strong showing in this debate could well determine who wins the election. Romney has already acquitted himself on the economic issues. He’s made that sale. But Romney still has to convince the American people he can keep them safe in an increasingly dangerous world. And that depends on which Mitt Romney shows up Monday night – the George W. Bush Romney, or the Ronald Reagan Romney.
We already know which Barack Obama will show up: Obama-the-Usama-Slayer. He will try to wrap Romney in the tattered flag of George W. Bush and accuse him of trying to get us into another Middle East war.
A few weeks ago that looked like enough for Obama to win the debate and coast to victory in November. “General Motors is alive, and Bin Laden is dead” was proclaimed at the Democratic Convention. The September 11th massacre in Benghazi changed all that, and people are now taking a second look at Obama’s foreign policy record.
While the president rightfully deserves credit for killing Bin Laden, that's about all he's got to brag about. Most of his other foreign policies have a been failures.
- Al Qaeda is not “on its heels”, as the President claimed at the Democratic Convention, just five days before the Benghazi attacks. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are planting the flag into new regions around the globe and are now active in more than 30 countries.
- President Obama helped topple dictators during the Arab Spring, but the anti-American Muslim Brotherhood is taking their places. Libya, the country President Obama fought to liberate, is where four Americans were just assassinated by Al Qaeda terrorists.
- President Obama has been helpless to stop the bloody Syrian civil war.
- Iran's nuclear program continues apace. Obama stubbornly clung to his hope of negotiating with the Iranian regime, rather than support the anti-regime protestors who launched the first Arab/Persian spring uprisings in 2009. So far, his efforts at sanctions may have made life difficult for the Iranian people, but not enough to bring them back into the streets demanding regime change.
- President Obama kept his pledge to end the Iraq war, but in doing so he’s snatched defeat from the jaws of victory: Iraq is growing ever closer to the Iranian orbit.
- The Afghanistan war, which Candidate Obama deemed “the war of necessity,” is not a war are likely to win. We could well end up fighting our way out of Afghanistan in the next two years, as the country descends into ethnic and tribal violence.
- Obama’s "reset" of our relationsihp with Russia has failed.
- We remain woefully vulnerable to cyberattack.
There is much for Governor Romney to criticize. But as we have seen with the economic arguments, it’s not enough to say where the other guy screwed up. What moves the meter is a well-articulated policy and vision for the future.
Throughout the campaign Romney has stayed away from national security, issuing broad statements like, 'we can’t let Iran get the bomb,' 'Israel is our closest ally in the region,' or 'we shouldn’t cut defense spending.' He’s pledged to lead from the front rather than from behind. While good as far as they go, they won’t be enough to carry a 90-minute foreign policy debate.
So which Governor Romney will show up with the details? Will it be the George W. Bush Romney? Or the Ronald Reagan Romney? The NeoCon Romney arguing for an immediate preemptive military strike against Iran, or the Traditional Republican Romney, focusing on economic warfare, enhanced sanctions and coalitions?
If Romney channels Reagan he will emphasize three things:
First, rebuild America’s economy. Unless we restore America’s economic health, spending on national security will be collateral damage. America has lead the world for the last seventy years not only because of our military might but also because of our economic clout. In 1980 Reagan understood that we needed to rebuild the American economy first, before we could use that economic might to win the Cold War without firing a shot.
Second, Peace Through Strength. Reagan believed, “The defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor. We maintain our strength in order to deter and defend against aggression – to preserve freedom and peace. Some chant the mantra “Peace Through Strength” to justify big defense budgets. That’s part of it, but not all of it. The other part is that if your military is strong enough, no one will start a war because with America, because they know they’d lose. As Reagan said, “No one ever picked a fight with Jack Dempsey.” And since America wouldn’t take the first swing either, peace would prevail.
Finally, the Power of Ideas. In his recent foreign policy address, Governor Romney talked about using the power of our ideas, and our economic prowess to shape history, not just America’s military might. Romney said we would help our friends “build and sustain free societies and free markets”. He would hold countries accountable and make clear America’s assistance would not be given indiscriminately to friend and foe alike. We would support allies and help them in the “painstaking work of building capable security forces, and growing economies, and developing democratic institutions.” In that he was echoing Reagan, and later George H.W. Bush, who supported reformers behind the Iron Curtain before, during and after their revolutions.
As for dealing with our adversaries, Reagan knew the economic weapon could be even more powerful than force of arms. His victory over the Soviet Union wasn’t achieved on the battlefield but in the treasuries and town squares throughout the Communist world. Through a series of delft diplomatic, political and economic maneuvers, Reagan knocked the foundation out from under the Soviet economy. Once they realized they didn’t have the money to import grain to feed their people, they capitulated.
The biggest national security question the United States faces after righting the economy, is nuclear weapons on the hands of the mullahs of Iran. And therein lies the toughest question Romney will face in the final, foreign policy debate. The fate of the election could hang in the balance. Both Reagan and George W. Bush advocated a freedom agenda. One used military might to achieve it, the other economic power. The question for Romney is, which one is he channeling?
Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland is a Fox News National Security Analyst and host of FoxNews.com's "DefCon 3." She served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations.