By Brian Katulis, Special to CNN
EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia. The views expressed are his own.
If we've learned one thing about Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's foreign policy views during this campaign, it's that he's heavy on rhetoric and ideology but light on details.
For the past year, Romney has consistently failed to provide a clear alternative to President Obama's foreign policy program that goes beyond vague speechifying about "strength" and "leadership." Throughout the campaign, it became increasingly clear that Romney's rhetoric isn't an attempt to cover up an empty foreign policy agenda - it is the policy agenda.
There is a similarity between Romney's foreign and economic policy packages on this score. As economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote this past week, "the true plan is to provide an economic stimulus in the form of Romney's awesome awesomeness; the cover story is the pretense of having an actual program."
But relying on rhetoric in a debate format is harder to do. That's why I'll be watching closely and keeping track of how much Romney tries to stick to his playbook. Here is a list of catchphrases and buzzwords I'll be looking out for in Monday's debate. The more he uses these phrases, the less likely we'll hear concrete ideas.
American Century: Romney often says his goal is an "American Century" but has provided precious little detail on what that means beyond cheerleading.
American exceptionalism: Equally frequently Romney has used this phrase in an attempt to smear President Obama as un-American.
Apology/apologize: Romney has repeatedly and falsely accused President Obama of "apologizing for America" overseas, and claims he never will. (link: http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/17/obrien-questions-rep-king-on-validity-of-pres-obama-mideast-apology-tour-statement/)
Leadership: Romney also often accuses President Obama of "diminishing American leadership" but has not provided a basic definition of "leadership" beyond a sense that talking tough will cause others to fall in line.
"Strength" and "weakness": For Romney, "strength" and "weakness" are axiomatic - he is by definition strong, and President Obama is by definition weak because he fails to employ Romney's rhetoric. Romney and his supporters appear to believe that America's adversaries will cower, its allies will fall in line, and its overseas challenges will crumble if only the president mouths the right words and strikes the right symbolic poses. He and other conservatives appear to believe that the sheer force of Romney's rhetoric and personal "strength" and "resolve" will achieve America's foreign policy goals. Actual policy differences and plans of action are mere details, according to this view.
So when I watch the foreign policy debate Monday night, I'll be looking for how much rhetoric Romney uses and how many new, concrete proposals Romney offers that is different from what President Obama is doing. As the challenger, Romney has an obligation to more clearly tell the voters where he stands with and against President Obama in greater detail.