November 21, 2011 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
When presidential candidates last debated in Washington, men wore hats and restaurant patrons puffed on Chesterfields while dining.
The Oct. 7, 1960, debate featured but two candidates: one a sitting vice president known as a staunch anti-communist, the other a freshman senator from Massachusetts with no foreign policy experience.
The top issue that night was the threat of "global communism." It should have been a slam-dunk for Vice President Nixon. That's not how history remembers it.
The Democratic standard bearer carried some unwanted baggage. His party had "lost China," let the State Department be overrun by agents of the Kremlin and -- in the 1930s and 1940s -- been rife with leftists sympathetic to the communist cause.
Kennedy's task was simple yet daunting: convince Americans that he was more anti-communist than Nixon.
In that night's debate, he swayed enough of them to become the 35th president of the United States.
This Tuesday, all eight candidates for the Republican nomination will find themselves in JFK's debate shoes. Remarkably, President Obama polls better for his efforts on foreign policy than for any other aspect of presidential leadership.
Furthermore, while Americans of all political stripes tend to rank national security as an important issue, they know little about the security platforms of the candidates.
Instead, most tend to assume that the candidate they support for other reasons must also have the best ideas for keeping the nation safe.
During the Nov. 22 debate at Constitution Hall, televised nationally by CNN, the eight Republicans who would be commander in chief will have a chance to convince Americans to think differently.
The entire 90-minute program will be dedicated to foreign policy and national security issues.
For the candidates, the debate should be much like an open-book test. They know what the key issues are, and they have had plenty of time to get ready.
Their challenge will be convince Americans that their own approach to foreign policy and defense will be better for the nation's future security, freedom and prosperity than that of Mr. Obama ... or anyone else onstage that night.
The discussion should start with a delineation and critique of the Obama Doctrine. That doctrine relies on downplaying "hard" power capabilities and relying more on "outsourcing" U.S. security concerns to international institutions like the United Nations, negotiating with military competitors (think: the New START nuclear agreement with Russia) and embracing "soft" power initiatives (think: diplomatic "engagement" with Iran).
The Obama Doctrine reflects a willingness to just "do less" globally and hope that we can defend America on the cheap. The problem is that the enemy gets a vote.
Others see our withdrawal from the world stage as an opportunity to make mischief. Thus, we have a more aggressive Iran, a dangerous North Korea, an uncooperative China, an opportunistic Russia and an al Qaeda determined to get back in the game of killing Americans.
A second defining characteristic of Obama-style foreign policy is that everything gets filtered through a domestic political lens. Policies in Afghanistan and Iraq are a case in point.
There is no serious strategic logic for disengaging other than boosting the president's popularity with his base. The problem is that being commander in chief is about winning peace, security and prosperity for all Americans -- not winning elections.
At 8 p.m. on Nov. 22, the Republican candidates will get to make their case on defense and foreign policy issues -- to sketch their own alternatives to the Obama Doctrine and explain the advantages of their alternative approaches.
Let's see if they make history.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner