Barack Obama and Mitt Romney Are About to Say Something Very Important

Why tonight's foreign policy debate matters.

On Tuesday night, the presidential candidates will meet on stage for a second time to engage in a town hall-style debate on the issue of foreign policy. You might want to pay attention to this one. Foreign policy is the aspect of governance over which presidents wage the largest measure of exclusive power.

You can expect Romney to come out swinging. The murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens in a country we helped liberate from four decades of tyranny was a colossal failure on the part of the Obama administration—if only because it happened on the President’s watch—and it couldn’t have come at a worse time  (on the anniversary of September 11th during an election year).  No matter how many times we’re reminded the President got bin Laden, recent failures resonate a hundred times louder than past successes. He’s just going to have to suck this one up.

His challenger isn’t going to make it easy for him. The GOP nominee has been exploiting the tragedy so brazenly that Stevens’s father and the mother of one the slain guards have both asked him to please stop. But you can be sure it will come up during the debate, probably more than once. As a rule there is little else a presidential challenger like Romney can do to wage a fight on foreign policy than attack the incumbent for real or imaginary lapses of judgment. Under national security guidelines, non-government candidates are limited to pretty much the same information we are when drafting their battle plans, which is probably why Romney’s approach so far has been noticeably opaque.

For examples, look no further than his October 8th foreign policy speech before an audience of cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, which was filled with doomsday prophesying and hyperbole.

“I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced,” he said. “I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever. And I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.”

What does that even mean? The entire second half of the 20th century saw America at the helm, but that hardly made our job as global babysitter any easier. Across the world we are still viewed with equal parts envy and disdain, despite the best efforts of presidents from both parties.

The root of this failure is a fundamental disconnect between what the U.S. says and does overseas, particularly in the Middle East. Obama is the first president since the end of the Cold War to try to bridge that gap—sometimes successfully, other times less so—by replacing the message we have been sending for decades (we love democracy while supporting tyrants) with one that takes into consideration its impact on the ground.

In March 2010, the administration articulated this strategy and introduced the concept of “synchronization”—which involves, simply, “coordinating words and deeds, including the active consideration of how our actions and policies will be interpreted by public audiences … ”

“This understanding of strategic communication is driven by a recognition that what we do is often more important than what we say because actions have communicative value and send messages.”

Put another way: Actions speak louder than words.

Though it hardly received any attention at the time, the plan has become the lens through which President Obama views his foreign policy mission. In stark contrast to his predecessor—who lumbered into two costly wars, one of which was unpopular from the start—Obama has adopted a realist approach to intervention, based on diplomacy, reason and, when necessary, decisive action.

When he has used the military, the President has been patient, thoughtful and deliberate. George W. Bush invaded an entire country and invested two terms as president in an unsuccessful attempt to get bin Laden; Obama quietly went in and got him overnight without even waking the Pakistani Air Force.

In Libya, Obama relied on targeted air strikes and special forces troops to help dislodge dictator Muammar Gaddafi without losing a single U.S. soldier; and through the (controversial) use of targeted killings, he has decimated al Qaeda to the point that it is no longer an organization at all in the truest sense of the word.

His nuanced tactics haven’t always paid off. Sometimes the President has simply been too careful. In the wake of the Arab Spring, some critics said his refusal to publicly rebuke Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak amounted to tacit support for the dictator. And in 2009, he missed an important opportunity to promote change in Iran during the Green Revolution due to his reluctance to throw U.S. support behind the protesters. But contrary to GOP imaginings, the Obama administration has been anything but soft on Iran. Sanctions have proved crippling to the nation’s economy and as a result have helped spark renewed civil unrest. Then there are the unseen actions, like the aggressive cyberwar that America and Israel continue to wage against the Iranian nuclear sector.

Yet in the eyes (and ears) of the hawks surrounding Romney, if you can’t hear the sabers rattling it means they are still sheathed. And that should worry all of us. It has taken us more than a decade to extricate ourselves from Iraq and Afghanistan after much money spent and too many lives lost. The last thing we need is another president with visions of grandiosity and a blustering approach to foreign intervention. Been there, done that.

President Obama may have been naive to think, as he did in 2009, that he could inaugurate “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” based upon “mutual interest and mutual respect,” but at least he got the message right.