Tuesday, October 23, 2012

McGurn: John McCain Saw It Coming

McGurn: John McCain Saw It Coming

In 2008, the GOP nominee warned that an Obama foreign policy would be naïve—and dangerous for America.

On the ballot, the two candidates for president in 2008 were Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. Even so, Mr. Obama largely refused to run against Mr. McCain. On those occasions he deigned to acknowledge his rival's existence, he presented the Arizona Republican as little more than a Bush clone.
Now we are entering the final weeks of the 2012 campaign. As we saw during the Monday debate in Boca Raton, Fla., once again President Obama is campaigning against his opponent as a Bush retread. The bet seems to be that whatever his own policy shortcomings, the American people will overlook them if he can characterize the alternative as a return to the Bush years.
In 2008 that proved a winning strategy. It worked because that election occurred against a backdrop that underscored the price of the Bush foreign policy. Weary of two wars abroad (not to mention a devastating flood and a financial crisis at home), American voters were not inclined to inquire too deeply about an attractive new candidate who promised to bring our troops home, talk to our enemies instead of invading them and restore our reputation abroad.
imageAssociated Press
Sen. John McCain

Now that backdrop has changed. Mitt Romney alluded to that in the debate when he spoke about what he sees when he looks at what's happening around the world: "Iran four years closer to a bomb"; "the Middle East with a rising tide of violence, chaos, tumult"; "Syria with 30,000 civilians dead and [President Bashar] Assad still in power"; "North Korea continuing to export their nuclear technology"; Russia backing out of its commitment to a joint program to destroy nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Mr. Romney's message: If we're paying a price in the world in 2012, it isn't because of George W. Bush. It's because of President Obama.
Not least of Mr. Obama's promise in 2008 was that his policies were practical and hard-headed. Indeed, the surge of troops he ordered for Afghanistan seemed to confirm he was a new kind of Democrat. Of course the deadline for withdrawal he set in the same speech announcing the surge pointed to something we have since learned about Mr. Obama: The toughest parts of his policy frequently serve as cover for the weakest, in the same way that his aggressive use of drones has become a substitute for, rather than an expression of, a muscular antiterror policy.
Mr. Romney devoted much of the evening to talking about how nations such as Iran "saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength." In particular the president seemed to bristle when the governor referred to his "apology tour" abroad. That was especially true when Mr. Romney cited the line from an Obama speech in which the president had said America had "dictated" to other nations.
Ironically, for all the heat and confusion over Benghazi in the second debate, in this one Libya made only a brief appearance at the beginning. Though the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens was mentioned, Mr. Romney did not note that he was the first U.S. ambassador to lose his life in the line of duty since our ambassador to Afghanistan was killed during a kidnapping attempt in 1979.
Nor did Mr. Romney make any attempt to reprise his attack on the White House response to Benghazi. He might have pointed out that far from failing to recognize the gravity of the attack on our consulate, the White House reaction suggests it recognized all too well what that attack meant—at least in terms of their political narrative. That would explain why they spent so much time blaming a YouTube video. Surely they understood that an al Qaeda attack that claimed the lives of four Americans on the anniversary of 9/11 exposed the full hollowness of Joe Biden's claim: "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors GM -2.68% is alive."
All in all, Mr. Romney did a fair job of illuminating the weaknesses of President Obama's foreign policy without coming across as a man whose solution is to invade Iran. Then again, most of what we heard last night from Mr. Romney in the third debate we heard four years ago —from John McCain.
Whatever his faults as a presidential candidate, to read over the transcript from that first presidential debate back in 2008 today is to realize that ¬almost all of what Mr. McCain warned us about regarding Mr. Obama's foreign policy has come to pass: the danger of setting specific withdrawal dates for our troops; the naiveté of pledging to negotiate with leaders such as Castro, Ahmadinejad and Chavez without first insisting on conditions; the threat to Israel; going too light on Russia; the precarious situation in Pakistan, and so on.
Too bad we wrote Mr. McCain off as a cranky George W. Bush. Because he was trying to warn us that Mr. Obama would be the new Jimmy Carter.

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