On Wednesday, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a foreign policy debate between Romney campaign national security adviser Dov S. Zakheim, and Obama National Security Advisory Committee member Richard Verma. Both were energetic and knowledgeable about their candidates??? foreign policy positions. From a presentation standpoint, Verma was very polished, while Zakheim had a somewhat exasperated ???you gotta be kidding me??? demeanor reminiscent of Peter Falk???s Lt. Columbo character interrogating a suspect.
Verma???s opening statement included a lot of stale boilerplate, including the bizarre assertion that under President Obama, al-Qaeda has been ???decimated.??? On the contrary, al-Qaeda is seen by various intelligence services as on the rise across the Middle East, and they just delivered a very painful reminder of their continued vitality. As Zakheim pointed out, Verma???s optimistic view of the situation in Libya was rather at odds with the testimony being delivered to the House Oversight Committee at that very moment.
Verma also threw a reference to Big Bird into that opening statement, in keeping with the Obama campaign???s new all-Muppet-all-the-time strategy, making a strange assertion about the supposed relationship between cuts to PBS and military funding. This was a pre-emptive feint against Zakheim???s talk about the dangers of Obama???s sequestration cuts to military spending, which was among his stronger points.
Zakheim wondered how it would be possible to maintain America???s international credibility or engineer a ???pivot??? to focusing on Asia with a reduced military. He stressed the importance of ensuring peace by projecting strength, recalling the grim history of aggressive powers taking advantage of perceived weakness on the part of peaceful neighbors.
Zakheim also hit the Administration hard on the situation in Libya, noting that a great deal of intelligence about the danger to the Benghazi consulate was ignored. Verma harped on Mitt Romney???s entirely accurate and timely criticism of the Cairo Embassy???s initial response to the Egyptian ???Innocence of Muslims??? protest, which is probably a bit of media laundry the Obama team would be better off leaving at the bottom of its spin cycle.
Like everyone in the Administration, Verma was defensive about the Benghazi debacle, floating the same defense being simultaneously offered in the House Oversight chambers: Republicans voted to reduce funding for embassy security too. However, disturbing testimony before Oversight has indicated that the Obama State Department was worried about the political costs of providing American security teams for its diplomatic staff, not payroll costs. And maybe no one told Verma that those funding bills all ended up buried under a mass of cobwebs on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid???s desk.
To listen to Verma talk, you???d think the Administration had only a few confused moments on the morning of September 12, instead of offering weeks of outright lies about the nature of the consulate attack. It???s amazing to watch Team Obama try to whistle past the graveyard, filled with a strange conviction that no one remembers anything they were saying about Benghazi prior to Tuesday night.
Verma was on much firmer ground when discussing the sanctions against Iran, which he argued the Obama Administration has pursued much more aggressively than its predecessor. There are significant indicators that the pressure of these sanctions is being acutely felt in Tehran. Zakheim said that Iran???s oil exports should be choked off even further, and they should be made indisputably aware that their quest for nuclear weapons is doomed to failure.
The exchange about Syria policy was interesting. The Romney campaign has advanced the idea of arming the Syrian opposition, to hasten the fall of dictator Bashar Assad. Verma said this would be dangerous, because we don???t know enough about the people we would be arming, and could be creating a future security risk for America and her allies. But that wasn???t much of a problem for this Administration when it was time to arm the enigmatic rebel forces in Libya, and Zakheim noted that the Obama Administration often speaks of its close contact with the very same Syrian opposition that Verma described as an ominous mystery.
Much of the debate about defense funding revolved around Romney???s call for more Navy ships. Verma noted that the United States already has a larger navy than the next several maritime powers combined, and felt confident that Obama???s spending plans would provide for a sufficient naval presence, especially given the qualitative technological and crew advantages of American ships. Zakheim explained that projecting force through carrier battle groups requires more ships than the Obama Administration thinks it does, given the need to rotate naval assets out of deployment.
Barbs were traded about Iraq and Afghanistan, with Verma sardonically inviting Romney to run on George Bush???s Iraq policy, and Zakheim inviting Obama to try defending his own record in a rapidly deteriorating Afghanistan. A weird moment came when Verma, asked by an audience member to explain how Candidate Obama???s talk about victory turned into President Obama???s haste to get out of Afghanistan, extolled the virtues of training up Afghan security forces. Has he noticed where those Afghan forces have been aiming their guns lately? Still, for all the perils of Obama???s exit strategy and its clearly telegraphed withdrawal deadlines, it???s hard to find a lot of enthusiasm among Americans for a long-term continued presence there.
As for Iraq, as Zakheim pointed out, President Obama wanted to keep U.S. forces there longer, but the Iraqis refused. He took this as an object lesson in the dangers of making long-term plans around the unpredictable behavior of representative bodies in nascent democracies. Actually, that???s probably a sound assessment of the risks of long-term planning in 236-year-old republics, too.