US2012: Romney foreign policy – incoherence revisited

US2012: Romney foreign policy – incoherence revisited

For most of this American presidential campaign, the real ideas and details – indeed, even a crisp but cursory outline – of what a Mitt Romney foreign policy would be have been notably hard to nail down. Beyond saying Obama has it wrong, he leads from behind, and he throws an ally like Israel under that metaphorical bus. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Partly this has been because there was a broad national consensus among politicians and analysts alike that the 2012 election was a domestic economic issues election, rather than one that hinged on an international crisis and the responses to it. 

Poll after poll confirmed foreign policy and national security were the orphan stepchildren issues for this election. Moreover, the view went on, the Obama administration had locked down voter perceptions that had reversed a generation-long view among voters that the Republicans were the ones to have around when “the policeman of the world” needed to go to work. In that view, the Obama administration was now the go-to guy. 

For a majority of voters, Obama’s crew had wound down that increasingly disliked Iraq war; they were doing the same in Afghanistan; they had killed the hated Osama bin Laden; had kept the pressure on other al-Qaeda leadership wannabes through drone attacks and quiet military moves; had managed to have an albeit wobbly policy in place to address the evolution outward from the Arab Spring; and they had more or less kept a balance of attention focused on both China’s outward ambitions in East Asia and Russia and its less than totally helpful efforts vis-à-vis Iran. This was in addition to keeping the Iranians and Israelis from coming to blows so far over Iran’s potential nuclear future. 

Even an Obama administration opponent like former Bush aide Danielle Pletka could admit the failure, so far, of Romney’s candidacy to advance a reasoned, nuanced, and convincing critique of the Obama administration. As she wrote the other day, “Criticisms of Mr Obama’s national security policies have degenerated into a set of clichés about apologies, Israel, Iran and military spending. To be sure, there is more than a germ of truth in many of these accusations. But these are complaints, not alternatives. Worse yet, they betray the same robotic antipathy that animated Bush-haters. ‘I will not apologise for America’ is no more a clarion call than ‘let’s nation-build at home.’ ” 

But four things have “conspired” to alter subtly this view of the relevance of foreign policy for the closing weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign. The first, of course, was the string of deadly attacks on American diplomatic missions in the Middle East in the wake of an incendiary film about Islam produced by émigré Coptic Christians and professional Islam-haters in the US. The second is the continuing, confusing, destructive civil war in Syria and its widening, destablising impact on the region. The third has been an ongoing campaign by Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu to inject his views about Israeli security deeply into the US presidential election. The fourth, and perhaps most important of all, has been the continuing, albeit slow and halting, recovery of the US economy. Significantly, the most recent unemployment number just dropped below the politically potent 8% level nationally, and it is even lower in several key battleground states like Ohio. This has been sufficient to take some of the sting out of Republican charges of economic mismanagement by the Obama administration – and it encouraged them to search for another weak point. 

Still, since foreign policy isn’t going to be the deciding factor in the election, the question is why the Romney campaign decided they needed to dedicate a full day – with only a month left – for him to give a foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute (a university similar to West Point)? The answer seems to be that his advisors believe Romney has yet to close the deal with the remaining undecided voters that he is “ready, willing and able” to represent the nation on the world stage – and that he actually has that vision thing about how he plans to do this internationally.

So far, at least, the Romney candidacy has been rather tin-eared on foreign policy subtleties, often falling back on bromides and generalities – or bluster – as even a cheerleader like Pletka admits, whenever his campaign has been forced to comment on foreign policy. Usually his team has tried to steer the campaign’s focus back to “their” chosen issue of economic management; that is, whenever they weren’t swatting at charges about the candidate’s record at Bain Capital, his so-far hidden tax returns, his image as a true-come-to-life Thurston Howell III, or that now-notorious 47% makers/moochers comment.  

Throughout the spring and summer, indeed up through the Republican National Convention, at least four distinct Republican Party foreign policy threads have been in continuing discord. One is the neo-conservative tradition that lingers on in the person of Bush II administration figures like former UN ambassador John Bolton. Second is the kind of economic mercantilism that often seems closer to Romney’s heart and business instincts from his Bain career, and which comes to the surface when he speaks about trade with China. A third is the newest version of neo-isolationism in the person of Ron Paul and other Tea Party adherents – as well as with a number of key Republican representatives in Congress who serve on the committees that deal with international affairs and security issues. A final strain is a modernised establishment internationalism, coming in the tradition of people like senator Richard Lugar or former USTR representative Robert Zoellick.

Through the primaries, Mitt Romney essentially avoided discussing foreign policy issues, choosing to concentrate on swatting off his zanier competitors for the nomination by stressing his fidelity to a pro-business, job creation, tax-cutting agenda, salted with enough social conservatism to win the nomination. In contrast to the likes of Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich or Michele Bachmann, Romney explained his positions as saying he would be tough on China, tough on Russia, tough on Iran, give a blank cheque of support for Israel, and that he would take the military’s advice on troop withdrawals from Afghanistan; assuming this would be about enough to get by on foreign policy until a later date. 

By the time the Republican convention rolled around, Romney’s acceptance speech could skip lightly over foreign and international security policy, in preference to his favoured theme of economic mismanagement on Obama’s part. He essentially left foreign policy heavy lifting to Condoleezza Rice, the former Bush II secretary of state.  

As the New York Times observed in its convention reporting, “Mitt Romney stuck fast to his foreign-policy playbook in his acceptance speech Thursday night — sloganeering about American exceptionalism, sneering at President Obama’s record on Iran and Israel, and obscuring his own lack of new ideas. He said he would ‘honour America’s democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world’ and he praised the ‘bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan,’ but said nothing specific about how he would follow in their footsteps. The vagueness seems like a strategy in itself, and there’s a good explanation: the disarray in his own party over national security.” 

In place of Romney making his own integrated case for bringing together these disparate Republican threads, Rice attempted to knit connections between her own neo-conservative heritage, economic mercantilism and the engaged internationalism of an earlier era. She took her start from the 2008 global financial and economic crisis (rather than the awkward heritage of the Bush “war on terror” and its US military aftermath), arguing that financial crisis “still reverberates as we deal with unemployment and economic uncertainty and bad policies that cast a pall over an American economy and a recovery that is desperately needed at home and abroad.”

Rice then took up the more avowedly neo-conservative-style values (and concerns) arguing American exceptionalism and the desire for liberty and freedom “is, indeed, universal, as men and women in the Middle East rise up to seize it” even though “the promise of the Arab spring is engulfed in uncertainty, internal strife, and hostile neighbours challenging the young, fragile democracy of Iraq. Dictators in Iran and Syria butcher their people and [are a] threat to regional security. Russia and China prevent a response, and everyone asks, where does America stand?”

Rice answered her own rhetorical question, and grasping the tradition of a bipartisan foreign policy, argued “…since World War II, the United States has had an answer to that question. We stand for free peoples and free markets. We will defend and support them. My fellow Americans, we do not have a choice. We cannot be reluctant to lead and you cannot lead from behind… From Israel to Columbia, from Poland to the Philippines, our allies and friends have to know that we will be reliable and consistent and determined. And our foes can have no reason to doubt our resolve, because peace really does come through strength.”

From her neo-con perspective, she turned again to old-style internationalism, saying, “We must work for an open, global economy, and pursue free and fair trade, to grow our exports and our influence abroad. If you are worried about the rise of China, just consider this – the United States has negotiated – the United States has ratified only three trade agreements in the last few years, and those were negotiated in the Bush administration…  Sadly, we are abandoning the field of free and fair trade and it will come back to haunt us.” However, little of Rice’s effort to stitch together the strands of Republican thinking made its way into in any depth into Romney’s acceptance speech – or in Romney’s rhetoric thereafter.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Romney advisors have been trying to shape a consensus for him. Robert Zoellick, fresh from his tenure as head of the World Bank, became the candidate’s foreign policy transition committee head, a task that included narrowing down the field of who might become Romney’s secretary of state, defence secretary, US trade representative and national security advisor, among other posts, if Romney won the election. This is in addition to the finer points of what, exactly, Romney means to include as he stakes out as his foreign policy agenda.

Over the summer, this “inner circle” of foreign policy advisers has now been coalescing slowly. It now includes Richard Williamson, a former Reagan administration official; Mitchell Reiss, the president of Washington College in Maryland and veteran of Romney’s 2008 campaign; former Missouri senator Jim Talent, who has a growing role in defence strategy; Dan Senor, the former spokesman for the American occupation in Iraq; and Liz Cheney, Dick Cheney’s daughter and a veteran of the Bush state department. (Once Paul Ryan became the vice presidential candidate, Senor shifted over to a senior role in that campaign.) While John Bolton has made his displeasure over Robert Zoellick’s prominence well known, Romney advisors are generally telling the media policy disputes are being put on the backburner – at least until 7 November.

Thus, as part of the gradual evolution in Romney’s foreign policy positioning, on Monday, 8 October, Mitt Romney began to fill in a few of the gaps with his speech on foreign policy at the VMI. Sensing some weakness within the Obama administration following the killing of four American diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Romney argued, The attack on our Consulate in Benghazi on September 11th, 2012 was likely the work of the same forces that attacked our homeland on September 11th, 2001. This latest assault cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the Administration’s attempts to convince us of that for so long. No, as the Administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West… It is time to change course in the Middle East…”

Romney went on to argue for a new burst of international leadership, “For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions – not just words – that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated… I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel. On this vital issue, the president has failed, and what should be a negotiation process has devolved into a series of heated disputes at the United Nations. In this old conflict, as in every challenge we face in the Middle East, only a new president will bring the chance to begin anew… I believe that if America does not lead, others will –others who do not share our interests and our values – and the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us.”

Romney, of course, had already cut a wide, disconcerting swathe through international affairs, what with his precipitate statements on Benghazi as events were still unfolding, and his remarks on British Olympic preparedness and Palestinian cultural mores during his three-country tour to the UK, Israel and Poland before the nominating convention. But beyond his critique of Obama as failing to project American strength abroad, Romney has yet to fill in many details of how he would conduct policy toward the rest of the world, or even resolve the deep ideological rifts within his party and among his foreign policy team. “Would he take the lead in bombing Iran if the mullahs were getting too close to a bomb, or just back up the Israelis?” one of his senior advisers asked anonymously to reporters last week. “Would he push for peace with the Palestinians, or just live with the status quo? He’s left himself a lot of wiggle room.”

Indeed, while the theme Romney has hit the hardest in his speech at VMI — the Obama era has been one of “weakness” and the abandonment of allies — has some political appeal and perhaps some political traction, the specifics of what Romney would do on drawing those red lines over Iran’s nuclear program and threatening to cut off military aid to stroppy allies like Pakistan or Egypt actually sound rather close to the Obama approach. 

And his speech seems to have elided around positions Romney has taken in the past, such as his opposition to expanding intervention in Libya to hunt down Muammar Qaddafi, as when he labelled it “mission creep and mission muddle.” And then a few months ago, Romney was caught telling a group of campaign funders he thought there was “just no way” a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could work. 

Instead, the Monday speech now called for a less than crisply defined level of support for Libya’s “efforts to forge a lasting government” and to pursue the “terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed Americans.” And he said he would “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security” with Israel – but as in so many other areas in foreign policy, Romney has not yet identified what resources he would devote to those tasks, should he become president. The still-remaining two presidential debates, just as the campaign reaches its final lap – first in a town hall format where a group of voters will frame questions to both candidates and then the head-to-head foreign policy debate at the end of the month – may finally crystallise the distinctions between the two candidates in foreign affairs, giving voters one last chance to judge what they hope to get, come 7 November. DM

Read more:

  • Romney Strives to Stand Apart in Global Policy in the New York Times
  • Romney’s Missing Foreign Policy, a column by Danielle Pletka in the New York Times
  • Mitt Romney and the (foreign policy) vision thing in the Washington Post
  • Republicans, in Search of a Foreign Policy: Transcript of Condoleezza Rice’s speech at the RNC at Fox News
  • It’s Mitt’s World
  • No escape from the Middle East, a column by Fred Hiatt in the Washington Post
  • Mitt Romney on Israel in the Economist
  • Mitt Romney to tackle President Obama on Libya at the Politico website

Photo: Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally in a downpour in Newport News, Virginia October 8, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton


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