THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF only gets one chance to make the right call on national security, and the consequences are enormous. New Hampshire, too, gets only one chance every four years to ask the tough questions of every candidate who seeks to wield the awe-inspiring power of commander in chief.
We face a vastly more complicated and ever-changing world than at any time in our lifetimes. A President’s decisions have long-ranging consequences that are difficult to unwind and are all-important for our security.
Our nation is safer and stronger today because President Obama kept his word to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end. For years we knew that the only solution in Iraq would be political, not military, and that meant that our troops had to come home and, after all our sacrifice, Iraq had to belong to the Iraqis. Yet, when President Obama took office almost six years after the war began, we had close to 150,000 combat troops in Iraq. Today, there are none.
Our presence in Iraq now is a diplomatic one because our challenge there now is diplomatic; we’ve left behind a robust civilian presence to help the Iraqi people shape their future. It will require frequent and frank discussions with Iraqi leaders that Vice President Biden has had time and again, urging them to make smart decisions. But make no mistake: By withdrawing troops and resources from Iraq, we have empowered ourselves to take the fight more forcefully to al-Qaeda in other parts of the world. As a result, al-Qaeda in Pakistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is in a watery grave at the bottom of the ocean.
None of these outcomes came about by engaging in ideological fantasy and hoping for the best, or saying what was easy instead of doing what was hard.
That’s why New Hampshire voters may want to ask the tough questions now about the national security approach of the current Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney. At this stage, Romney has failed to articulate any core beliefs on foreign policy, instead careening from one reckless stand to another, seeking to make headlines and curry favor with his right-wing base.
Just look at Iraq, where Romney has criticized the President for withdrawing troops without offering any credible alternative. Romney has said he would have left as many as 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely, but he has yet to outline any specific plans for what those troops would do, or for how he would eventually bring them home. Now that they are home, he says he would not consider sending them back, a strange rationalization for a supposedly different goal.
Curiously, Romney has also argued that the President should have “put in place a status of forces agreement” with the Iraqi government that would have guaranteed immunity for U.S. troops to remain there indefinitely. But any follower of American foreign policy knows that despite the Obama administration’s clear position about what it would take to keep a residual American military presence in Iraq, the freely elected Iraqi government made it clear that immunity from the Iraqi legal system was never an option.
Given that, President Obama — as he did in Pakistan when he ordered the bin Laden raid — made the deliberate but definitive decision that only Presidents can make: He would not leave American troops susceptible to Iraqi justice, and all our troops were coming home.
The real question is: Would Mitt Romney have done differently? Did he want tens of thousands of troops to remain in Iraq at a cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars? More importantly, would he have left U.S. troops in Iraq without legal protection? Would a candidate who prides himself on running such a disciplined and methodical campaign really have set the stage to be the first President in history to recklessly station tens of thousands of American troops for the long haul in a country that would deny them the legal protections any previous American President would’ve insisted upon?
This seems to be a test for the coming vote ahead in just days: to force a wouldbe commander in chief to explain what his policies would look like in reality. I suspect that Romney in his heart of hearts knows that he would never actually undertake such irresponsible moves as commander in chief, but he’s doing what he believes it takes to win over Republican primary voters in a year the candidates are battling to see who can be the furthest to the right, and where his conservative credentials are so suspect.
Tough talk is no substitute for tough decisions. Americans deserve a President who is comfortable using American power to promote our interests and who stands up for our troops, our nation, and our allies on the international stage. I believe they have that President now — a commander in chief who looks a little further down the road.
We don’t know what kind of commander in chief Mitt Romney would be. But judging from rhetoric that can be at once reckless, extreme and naïve, New Hampshire voters would be well-advised to ask the tough questions now in order to test that proposition.