Cliff May
National security and foreign policy have received short shrift in the 2012 presidential-election campaign. Mitt Romney made a quick swing through Britain, Israel, and Poland to suggest he would repair strained relations with America’s closest allies. President Obama has repeatedly reminded voters that he gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden. That’s about it.

For the most part, each campaign has sung a single note: Romney has tried to convince voters he can fix the broken economy. Obama has tried to convince voters that Romney is a heartless, plutocratic tax cheat and, possibly, a murderer to boot.

Consequential international issues should be part of the debate. Among them: In Seoul on March 26, Obama was caught on tape assuring then–Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s factotum, that he would have “more flexibility” after the U.S. presidential election. He stressed that this would be “my last election” — implying that once that chore was out of the way he would no longer need to worry about voters and what they think.

What was Obama promising to be more flexible about? The microphone picked up the phrase “these issues — but particularly missile defense.” Putin, of course, has long insisted that the U.S. leave itself permanently vulnerable to a Russian missile attack, that the U.S. not utilize its cutting-edge technology to protect people and property from offensive missiles that might be fired by Russians.

Even good reporters persistently get this wrong. They talk about Putin’s “fears” that American missile defenses would be “aimed” at Russia. But American missile defenses can be aimed at only one thing: missiles targeting America or America’s allies. You aim a spear; you don’t aim a shield.

There are Americans who agree with Putin, arguing that the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked well and should be maintained. On the other side are those who contend that we now have the technological know-how to prevent offensive missiles fired by any nation from reaching their intended victims, and that we should put this knowledge to use — for both strategic and moral reasons.

This is a hugely consequential policy choice — all the more so following the revelation this week that a nuclear-powered Russian attack submarine recently operated undetected in the Gulf of Mexico. About the same time, a Russian strategic bomber flew into U.S. airspace near California, where it was met by U.S. interceptor jets. And recall that, in May, General Nikolai Makarov warned that Russian forces might consider preemptive attacks on U.S. and allied missile defenses in Europe. Shouldn’t Obama and Romney at least be talking about such matters?

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.