My debate checklist: AEI's Danielle Pletka


U.S. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (R) and President Barack Obama exchange words during the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Fewer and fewer voters rate national security as their top priority in considering how to vote. @DPletka

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  • What’s on @DPletka’s foreign policy debate checklist? The Iran challenge, facing China, a vision for America and more.

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  • On @DPletka’s debate checklist: The serious threat from China is strategic, not economic. How will we face up to China?

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EDITOR’S NOTE:  Danielle Pletka is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are her own.

Fewer and fewer voters rate national security as their top priority in considering how to vote, which begs the question of who will be watching this last presidential debate, since the focus is foreign policy and national security.

Not to worry, the wonks will be out in force, and we'll be looking for a few key things from each candidate.

First, from Mitt Romney:

That vision thing: Romney needs to do more than simply be the un-Obama. We'll be looking for a positive vision that puts some meat on the bones of his call for a new era of American leadership and exceptionalism. Both are fine sentiments, but essentially meaningless without policy to go with them. And in straitened economic times, with a public weary of spending and war, he'll need to make clear that his priorities will keep America safe and strong without breaking the bank or putting more lives on the line.

Iran: Romney has suggested he will be a more credible adversary to Iran, and will strengthen sanctions in order to get the Islamic Republic to the table to negotiate away its nuclear program. Indeed, there are sanctions the Obama administration has left on the table, but none represents a silver bullet that will deliver Iran. So how exactly will Romney better face the Iran challenge?

Russia: Yes, it was probably an ill-considered lapse rather than a sure statement of conviction, but Romney has referred to Russia as America's "number one geopolitical foe." He needs to talk his way around that and explain what the real problem is with Russia. Not hard, but must be done.

China: Most of Romney's China bashing has been on the economic side, specifically on the topic of currency manipulation. But the serious threat from China is strategic, not economic. How are we going to face up to China's predations in the South China Sea, its massive military buildup, cyber attacks and more?

The Arab Spring, Syria and Libya: The Arab Spring has taken a decidedly dark turn, and the murder of our ambassador in Libya, the death of tens of thousands in Syria, the return of al Qaeda across the Middle East and Egypt's growing radicalism are all going to be major problems for the U.S. and our allies in the coming years. We need a credible policy that supports democracy but protects our interests.

And what of Barack Obama?

Oddly, the president believes that foreign policy is his strong suit. But there are only so many times he can beat the "I killed bin Laden" horse. There's plenty he's going to need to defend:

Benghazi: This is an important question, not least because we lost four Americans to a likely al Qaeda-related terrorist attack. What did the president know, when did he know it, and why wasn't he doing more to prevent it? This isn't just about Libya, it's about the rise of al Qaeda throughout the region, from Yemen to Iraq to Sinai and Syria. Does he have a strategy to face al Qaeda and related groups?

Afghanistan: Apparently, Obama's policy is to leave "on schedule" in 2014. But Vice President Joe Biden suggested in his debate that all troops will leave then. Rather, this week the Department of State began negotiating the terms of a troop presence beyond 2014. Will Obama keep drawing down troops without regard to his commanders' military requirements? Does he want to win? Or just leave?

The Arab Spring, Syria and Egypt: In Libya, the president insisted we were fighting to oust Moammar Gadhafi to save lives. But in Syria, life is apparently cheaper. Why? And what does the president intend to do with the likely radicalized post-Bashar al-Assad Syria, not to speak of growing trouble with our erstwhile ally, Egypt.

China: The administration has trumpeted a "pivot" to Asia. What exactly will that pivot be? How will we have sufficient resources after sequestration and devastating cuts to the defense budget to actually have anything more than a hollow "pivot" that does little to deter China and a lot to encourage those in other regions that the U.S. has left them behind.

Iran: Iran is showing no sign of responding to sanctions; negotiations have failed. If all options are on the table, what are they?

Weakness: Mitt Romney has accused the president of projecting American weakness. It's something many allies (and enemies) perceive as well. How does Obama think he is going to restore American leadership in the world with a military that's suffering up to 10% per annum cuts, few new weapons systems, a debt service that by the end of the decade will cost more annually than the entire defense budget and a foreign policy made up of targeted assassinations and "ending" wars?

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