Over the weekend, as President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney geared up for the third and final election debate – devoted entirely to foreign policy – Americans paused to recognize the life and career of Senator George McGovern, who passed away on Sunday morning. A former bomber pilot in the Second World War and tireless fighter against poverty, he is most remembered as the Democratic candidate for president who ran on an anti-war platform in 1972 and lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon.
Like Mr. McGovern, Mr. Obama campaigned on bringing an end to a disastrous and unpopular war and re-orienting American power. While Mr. Obama has followed through on his promise to bring America’s intervention in Iraq to an end, it’s no disrespect to Sen. McGovern to suggest that it’s hard to imagine him ramping up America’s lethal efforts against al-Qaeda in the Middle East and South Asia as Mr. Obama has done over the past years.
Despite the aggressiveness with which Mr. Obama has exercised American power against al-Qaeda, in the debate we can expect Gov. Romney to deploy virtually the same arguments against him as were launched against Mr. McGovern: defeatist, soft on our enemies, unwilling to use American power energetically enough. This hawkish conservative critique of Democratic foreign policy leadership has remained virtually unchanged since 1972. It bore little resemblance to reality then. It’s simply a tired rerun now.
Going into Monday night’s debate, President Obama finds himself in a somewhat unique position for a Democrat in modern times, enjoying a lead in opinion polls on national security. As he has hammered away at the president over the past months, Mr. Romney has largely avoided offering much in the way of specifics about how his foreign policy would differ from the current administration, preferring instead to speak in broader terms about American power and leadership, and accusing President Obama of undermining both.
There are a few areas in which Mr. Romney notably differs from Mr. Obama, which will almost certainly come up Monday evening.
The first relates to U.S. “red lines” on Iran. Under President Obama, U.S. policy is that Iran must not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon. Mr. Romney, after initially declaring his position to be the same as the president’s, later shifted to the position that Iran must not be allowed to obtain a nuclear capability. While this might appear to some as a small, even arcane difference, it is an important one. “Capability” is a fairly broad concept – according to some definitions, Iran has already achieved it – and would thus open up the possibility of military conflict between the U.S. and Iran earlier. It would be helpful to see this discussed.
Mr. Romney will undoubtedly criticize the president’s Iran policy by pointing to the fact that Iran continues to enrich uranium, despite several rounds of negotiations between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and Iran. It will be a challenge, and an opportunity, for President Obama to defend the U.S.’s energetic diplomatic efforts, which have resulted in unprecedented pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.
The president should robustly defend his administration’s work to re-engage with international organizations like the UN, which embed U.S. power within an international consensus, and produce considerable dividends for U.S. security. Polls show that Americans are not at all eager for another war in the Middle East. President Obama should explain how his dual-track strategy of diplomacy and sanctions is the best course for avoiding that, while also avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon. Indeed, the best evidence of that is that Mr. Romney himself hasn’t suggested anything markedly different.
Matthew Duss is National Security Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington.