For more than a year, we've heard the same refrain from politicians, pundits and political science professors: this election is all about the economy. No other issues even comes close, and certainly not foreign policy. This is a domestic policy year because we're in such a deep and intractable recession. On more than one occasion, we've all heard echoes of James Carville's famous rallying cry from 1992: "It's the economy, stupid."
While I certainly acknowledge the preeminence of the economic themes and subthemes — unemployment, GDP stagnation, the national debt passing $16 Trillion, printing money under the acronym of QE2 and QE3 and so on — I have always maintained that foreign policy could suddenly, at any time, rise to the top of the issue ranking. Several foreign policy issues arose over the summer — Iran's continuing nuclear development, Israel's saber-rattling, the near-meltdown of the Euro and riots opposing austerity measure in Greece, Spain and elsewhere, the genocide in Syria and sever others — none really captured the American political stage until the tragic attack on our consulate in Benghazi that claimed the lives of four Americans, including our Ambassador to Libya, the personification of American that troubled a war-torn nation.
I moderated a panel — which may be the only kind of moderation I support — on foreign policy at the first CPAC Chicago conference, the regional version of the Conservative Political Action Conference under the auspices of the American Conservative Union. When I suggested that foreign policy could suddenly jump to or near the top of hot issues in this race, one of the grey eminences on this panel, said "If that happens, Romney will lose." When pressed as to why, he cited the Gallup poll that gave President Obama a 13 point advantage over Romney on who would be best in handling foreign policy. He was convinced that Obama was vulnerable on the economy and nearly invulnerable on foreign policy.
Obama's perceived advantage on foreign policy is almost entirely based on the Navy Seal's successful assault on bin Laden. The absence of any major terrorist attack on US soil probably contributed to his positive rating. But I've always maintained that Obama's foreign policy has been a near disaster, a failure, and if the people would only pay attention, his polling advantage on the subject would burst like the hollow bubble that it is. Former Ambassador John Bolton has probably said it best: When asked by Greta van Susteren on her Fox News Channel TV show VAN SUSTEREN: If you were to write a book on the last three and a half years of President Obama's foreign policy, what would be the title?
Ambassador Bolton said he would write about "the failure of Obama's foreign policy. Look, the question for America and for citizens as voters is as it's always been. What is America's role in the world? What do we need to protect and advance our interests around the world, promote peace and be sure that our friends and allies are protected?
Under generations since Franklin Roosevelt, we have followed a "peace through strength" policy, that America's strong place in the world, politically, economically and militarily, help protect our interests. Barack Obama has reversed that. He believes in withdrawing American influence. He thinks we are too much in the world that the world would be a better place with a receding, declining America. I think that's a prescription for disaster, both at the level of grand strategy and in any number of imminent threats we face."
Ambassador Bolton's comments bring me back to that CPAC Chicago panel. Its title was "Two Sons of Illinois: how do Reagan's and Obama's foreign policy differ?" Ambassador Bolton cited Reagan's "Peace through Strength," a phrase that Reagan wielded so effectively that it had political, diplomatic, cultural and military effect. I argue that a phrase which equally succinctly describes the Obama foreign policy is "Peace through Weakness." Instead of a policy of projecting strength so that it did not need to be used, as was the case with Reagan, Obama projects a policy of weakness that invites attack, as we saw in Benghazi. Weakness is provocative, and Obama projects weakness. So when Romney made his foreign policy speech this past week at the Virginia Military Institute, I was looking for the language of Reagan, rather than the language of Obama, and I found it.
Let me now draw your attention to another word to describe Obama's foreign policy. Credit for this one goes to Paul Ryan, Mr. Romney's running mate. That word is "unraveling."
No patriotic American wants to see our country ridiculed and mistrusted as an ally. No patriotic American wants to see our foreign policy unravel. But both Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan are clearly articulating a different posture, if not fundamentally different policies, in the foreign policy realm. Those who criticized the Romney VMI speech as offering nothing new were looking too closely at the policy details, and not broadly at the language of that policy. The contrast between Peace through Strength and Peach through Weakness could not be greater, and now that the American people are paying attention to foreign policy, I predict that the Obama poll advantage on the subject disappears and is replaced by a Romney advantage.