By Danielle Pletka, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Danielle Pletka is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are her own.
The pressure’s on President Barack Obama for a stellar debate performance tonight, but the discussion has been dominated by questions of style over substance. Much as Obama’s somnolence is the lingering impression of the first presidential debate and Vice President Joe Biden’s manic performance saturated the second, the third is likely to be an exercise in prurience. Who will sigh? Who will squeeze into the other’s personal space? Will Romney finally admit he prefers the 53 percent? Will Obama pronounce some mysterious Arabic phrase as only a Muslim would?
But there are serious questions to be answered by each man, and their answers should illuminate the race more than any turn of phrase or unseemly grin. Presumably, as this is a town hall format, the public will dominate the topics, which means that questions on unemployment, taxes, healthcare and education will come before national security. That’s only natural, but we are at war, and the American people deserve some answers from the commander-in-chief and the man who seeks to take his job.
Last night, Hillary Clinton took responsibility for failing to inform the White House about the dire security situation in Benghazi that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. But Clinton’s willingness to take the bullet for the president four weeks after it was fired raises more questions than it answers. Why did she, too, insist the attack was precipitated by a video? Where was the CIA and why do accounts suggest they did not inform anyone of the elevated threat level in Libya? Is al-Qaeda really “on its heels” as administration officials keep insisting? Or is it in fact experiencing a substantial resurgence notwithstanding an aggressive drone campaign that has taken out senior leaders?
We have no sense of how either Obama or Mitt Romney will respond to the likely threat of a nuclear Iran. Both have obliquely threatened military action, but is either actually prepared for a strike?
Both have called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, but neither has made clear what direct steps the U.S. should take to hasten that outcome. Romney has suggested he would facilitate arming the rebels. Is Obama doing the same? And what about the aftermath? Will the devil we don’t know beat the devil we do?
On Afghanistan, Romney and Paul Ryan have suggested that they, too, will bug out in 2014, but indicated that if circumstances dictate we should remain, they might consider the option. But what circumstances? And is Obama committed to leaving “on schedule” if the job in Afghanistan is not done? What is that job, exactly? Obama certainly hasn’t told us lately.
How will each contend with the challenge of the Arab Spring? The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood? The economic slowdown in China? The Euromess? Drugs in Mexico? Iranians in Venezuela? We’ll have a debate devoted to national security next week, but the challenges we face are not the stuff of an hour on TV.
The world is an increasingly dangerous place for American values and American interests. Not unnaturally, most people are focused on jobs and prices and fears about the future. But Benghazi reminded us that we have enemies; it’s the commander-in-chief’s job to face them and keep them from our shores. Let’s hear a little about that tonight. Please.