They say Americans don’t vote on foreign policy. That’s usually true, especially in times like these where the economy is in shambles. But Americans do vote on leadership. And ultimately Americans also vote on character, notwithstanding the generous leeway we tend to allow our politicians. In the final presidential debate and beyond, Mitt Romney has a great opportunity to show how the president’s foreign policy record exemplifies his failures of leadership and, sadly, of character.
Although candidates cram tons of verbiage into a 90-minute debate, most voters only take a few compelling moments away with them. That’s why it will be important for Romney to hit the president with attacks that are sharp, compelling, easy to grasp and easy to remember. The following three steps reinforce one another, and also reinforce the rapidly emerging portrait of the president as one who has not been straight with us about vitally important national security issues. This is quite a damning portrait of the president, and its impact could reach far beyond the realm of foreign policy.
Step One: Blow away Obama’s last remaining fig leaf on Benghazi-gate.
Much has been written about how the administration’s statements on Benghazi don’t add up. For two weeks, Obama and his subordinates peddled the nonsense that the September 11 attack on our Benghazi consulate — which killed our ambassador and three other Americans — was the result of a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Islamic video. Romney will undoubtedly be prepared to recite the incriminating timeline of the ignored pleas for security before September 11 and the untrue statements from the Obama administration — including Obama — after September 11. Obama had a clear political motive to blame the attack on the video: the failure to anticipate a spontaneous demonstration about an obscure video might be excusable; the failure to anticipate a terrorist attack on the anniversary of 9/11 is not.
I will focus, though, on one aspect of Benghazi-gate. To shield himself from culpability, Obama has clung to a fig leaf: that he and members of his administration, in touting the fiction about the video, were merely passing along what the “intelligence community” was providing them as their best assessment at the time. This narrative allows Obama to claim that he wasn’t deliberately misleading us.
That fig leaf can be concisely blown away: The State Department, according to sworn testimony, was in real-time communication with the Benghazi consulate during the attack. State Department officials knew there was no demonstration outside of the consulate. They knew it was an organized terrorist attack. Once the ambassador and three other Americans were killed, the State Department’s account would have immediately been elevated up the chain, all the way to the president and throughout the intelligence and national security apparatus. How could the intelligence community’s “best assessment” be at odds with the facts observed by the State Department in real time? And on Friday, AP reported that the CIA station chief in Libya blamed the attack on militants, not phantom protesters — and informed his superiors in Washington of this on September 12. If the State Department testimony blows away Obama’s fig leaf, the AP report decomposes it.
Intelligence chief James Clapper, gallantly volunteering (or perhaps not volunteering) to dive under the bus, took responsibility for providing an initial assessment that the attack resulted from a demonstration about the video. As noted above, though, it is simply not credible that Clapper’s team would have come to such a conclusion. Clapper’s attempt to bolster the president’s credibility, then, has only served to undermine it by providing the very strong scent of a cover-up. (Just in time for the debate, Obama’s media allies are trying to re-affix Obama’s fig leaf with newly released intelligence accounts; The Weekly Standard does a great job of picking these accounts apart.)
There is much more to say about Benghazi-gate, and hopefully, it will dominate the debate. It is a major foreign policy scandal that should (not necessarily will, but should) end the political careers of Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden … and Barack Obama. Among all of the other things that Romney will have to say about Benghazi-gate during the debate and thereafter, he should not neglect to convincingly dispense with Obama’s precarious fig leaf. The president’s “plausible deniability” is clearly implausible. Secretary Clinton has blamed the administration’s misleading statements on the “fog of war,” but the fog of politics is the more likely culprit.
Step Two: Remind voters of Obama’s “hot mike” groveling to Russia
Earlier this year, a “hot microphone” picked up a conversation between President Obama and Russia’s then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, that was not intended for the ears of the American voter. “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space,” Obama said of Vladimir Putin, who was then scheduled to replace Medvedev and has since done so. “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Romney should juxtapose this quote with words that Obama uttered this past week: “I’m going to let you in on a little tip,” Obama told supporters, speaking into the microphone on purpose this time. “When a politician tells you he’s going to wait until after the election, it’s not because their plan is so good that they don’t want to spoil the secret.” Obama, of course, spoiled his own secret about caving in to the Russians on missile defense, and indeed, it was not because his plan was “so good.” (Guy Benson beat me to the punch on this.)
Like the Benghazi-gate cover-up, this reinforces the notion that President Obama isn’t always straight with us on important issues. It also makes one wonder with trepidation what else he has in store if we give him the “flexibility” that would come with a second and final term.
Step Three: Remind voters of Obama’s “hot mike” disparagement of our closest ally in the Middle East
Last year, another “hot microphone” picked up a conversation between Obama and France’s then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Speaking of Israel’s prime minister, Sarkozy said: “I cannot bear Netanyahu. He’s a liar.”
Obama famously responded: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”
Perhaps this is what gave Obama the inspiration for the “liar, liar” name-calling campaign that he would eventually wage against Romney. But more importantly, it feeds the widespread suspicion that Obama is not as strong a supporter of Israel as he insists in public. It feeds the broader suspicion that this president is too solicitous of our enemies and too antagonistic to our friends.
These three steps don’t come close to covering Romney’s “to do” list on foreign policy. He will have to link Obama’s failures on the economy and debt to our diminishing capacity to protect our interests and ourselves around the world. He will have to resist Obama’s inevitable attempts to paint him as a dangerous warmonger. Mostly, Romney will just have to look credible and reliable as a potential commander-in-chief. But by focusing voters on the Benghazi-gate cover-up and the two “hot mike” moments, Romney can accelerate the growing distrust of Obama’s leadership abroad — and at home.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.