Does President Barack Obama have the next, and final, debate in the bag? Politico’s Mike Allen said yesterday that the town-hall debate at Hofstra University on Oct. 16 represented “Governor Romney’s last, best chance, because the next debate is foreign policy, where President Obama is strong.”
It’s true that Obama is considered by many to be strong on foreign policy and national security. And he has some notable achievements overseas. First, of course, is the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The politicization of this issue can’t obscure the bravery it took for the president to order the operation. If it had gone sideways, Obama would have been looking at his own Desert One -- the debacle that undid the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
Obama is also waging an effective campaign against Islamist terrorists in at least four countries (a fact you would think might be noticed by his Republican critics, some of whom think he is an Islamist sympathizer, or a Muslim himself). It’s also true that Obama has fulfilled his promise to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, which is clearly what the majority of Americans were demanding.
But his record isn’t perfect, and it presents Romney with some fairly obvious opportunities.
On the Middle East peace process, Obama’s missteps have alienated both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, which is no mean feat. American allies in the Persian Gulf have made clear that they don’t trust Obama to stand up to Iran, which threatens them as much as it threatens Israel.
The revolutions of the Arab Spring have resulted in the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the rise of Salafism, a more extreme brand of political Islam, across the Muslim world. Arab liberals, who drove the revolutions, feel abandoned by the U.S. Pakistan, a putative ally in the war on terrorism, continues to pursue policies that lead directly to the deaths of American soldiers. It is fairly clear to anyone watching Afghanistan that the Taliban may one day rule the country again. And the drone war against terrorist targets, for which Obama gets credit, could eventually lead to devastating blowback, especially if more civilians are killed.
On Syria, Obama’s passivity borders on the inexplicable. He intervened in Libya, for humanitarian reasons. But Syria is a far more serious humanitarian emergency -- an estimated 30,000 people have been killed so far -- and it presents an acute national-security challenge that Libya didn’t. Playing the role of bystander, as Obama is doing, means the U.S. is completely disengaged from the effort to shape the next Syrian government, which could be dominated by Salafists. This would have terrible consequences for Israel, as well as Jordan, the best friend the U.S. has in the Arab world. A total collapse of Syria would be disastrous for the whole region.
Romney was handed an additional gift last week by Vice President Joe Biden. Over the past three years, I’ve been impressed with Obama’s seriousness on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, the urgency with which he treats the subject, and the measures he has taken to keep the regime from crossing the atomic threshold. But last week, in the vice-presidential debate, Biden attempted to portray Representative Paul Ryan as a hysteric on the subject, even though Ryan’s seriousness on Iran matches the president’s.
In so doing, Biden downplayed the importance of confronting Iran. Biden said that when Ryan “talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know -- we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk -- what are they talking about?”
A Dramatic Deviation
Biden’s statement represents a mostly unnoticed, but dramatic, deviation from the administration’s line on Iran. It was also technically inaccurate.
A country must do three things to have a deliverable nuclear weapon: Enrich uranium; design and make a warhead; and build a delivery system. The Iranians are already enriching uranium, and are moving their centrifuges underground. They already have ballistic missiles. They could design and manufacture a warhead in as little as six months.
“Biden made it sound as if we shouldn’t worry, we have tons of time,” David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told me. He said weapons manufacturing can also be done more surreptitiously than uranium enrichment. “You only need a very small facility,” Albright said. “It poses a greater challenge for intelligence gathering.”
Biden said the U.S. would know if the Iranians had begun to manufacture a warhead. But the U.S. didn’t know its ambassador in Libya would be assassinated. It didn’t know that the World Trade Center would be attacked. American intelligence doesn’t know a lot of things. Such is the nature of intelligence. Biden’s sanguine approach to weaponization suggests either that he strayed far from Obama administration policy, or that the White House is more relaxed and confident about stopping Iran than it should be.
Obama’s record in the greater Middle East had already provided Romney with ample opportunities in the next debate on Oct. 22. Biden just gave him another.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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