Mitt Romney’s Invisible Foreign Policy

Mitt Romney gave what was billed as a major speech during which he would stake his ground on foreign policy, an issue on which he has made several statements that any intelligent person would find, to say the least, embarrassing. You can read the whole speech here, but good luck finding much substance in it.

The speech is little more than a list of vague and/or patently obvious nostrums, interspersed with meaningless tripe that might sound impressive to people who have no idea what to think on the issues. It’s straight out of the Handy Dandy Republican Talking Points Book, with lots of talk about strength and resolve and little definition of either. He calls for “strong, confident, principled global leadership” and waxing on about “the responsibility of our President to use America’s great power to shape history.” This is verbal cotton candy.

When he gets around to criticizing President Obama, he offers more vagueness:

Across the greater Middle East, as the joy born from the downfall of dictators has given way to the painstaking work of building capable security forces, and growing economies, and developing democratic institutions, the President has failed to offer the tangible support that our partners want and need.

Really? Which partners would those be? Mubarak? Qaddafi? Lots of people on the right have actually criticized the president for not stepping in to help those brutal dictators stay in power. Is that what you would suggest, Mr. Romney? Who are our partners in Egypt right now? And how should we be helping them? This is all very easy to say as a Monday morning quarterback, but faced with a situation with a dozen different groups struggling for power, none of which are entirely in line with what we might want, it becomes a little tougher.

In Iraq, the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent Al-Qaeda, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad, and the rising influence of Iran. And yet, America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence. The President tried-and failed-to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains.

No, actually, he didn’t. President Bush signed an agreement requiring that “abrupt” withdrawal — you know, the one that everyone knew was coming two years in advance — and the only way to change that agreement was if the Iraqi government voted to change it, which they had no desire to do. The only other option was to violate the agreement and go back to simply being an occupying power, which would have required another huge influx of new troops to control the country and provoked massive violence against our people there in response. Is that what you would have done, Mr. Romney? Oh, I forgot. You can’t actually say what you would have done because then people might point out that those policies have consequences. Better to just offer empty pablum like this, on Iran:

I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region-and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination. For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions-not just words-that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated.

Which is exactly what Obama has done in every instance. ThinkProgress points out four ways in which Romney’s foreign policy is identical to Obama’s, but they only scratch the surface. My former colleague Spencer Ackerman, who knows more about foreign policy than anyone else I know, says that with this speech it’s clear that Romney is running “for Obama’s second term.”

Mitt Romney thinks Barack Obama is a terrible president. When Romney looks at Obama’s foreign policies, he sees a president who projects “passivity” in a dangerous world, as he argues in a big speech on Monday, leaving allies and enemies confused about where America stands. Which makes it curious that the policies Romney outlines in his speech differ, at most, superficially from Obama’s…

But more often than not, Romney accepts the policy framework that Obama created. On Iran, he’ll propose “new sanctions” and to “tighten the sanctions we currently have,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Iran policy (along with cyberattacks). On Afghanistan, he “will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Afghanistan policy. On Libya, Romney will “support the Libyan people’s efforts to forge a lasting government that represents all of them,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Libya policy. Perhaps most surprisingly, Romney will recommit to negotiating peace between Israel and Palestine, which was a cornerstone of Obama’s Mideast policy before it crumbled into dust.

The differences Romney outlines from Obama tend to shrink under scrutiny. To confront Iran, Romney will pledge to “restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf.” But Obama has kept two carrier strike groups off Iran’s shores for at least a year, an increase from the Bush administration, along with an additional naval surge of minesweepers, gunboats and commandos. On Syria, Romney says he’ll “entify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need.” But the CIA is on the Turkey-Syrian border trying to sort out which Syrian rebels are worth funneling foreign weapons to — a difficult proposition at best — and, as the New York Times‘ David Sanger points out, Romney stops short of promising American weapons to the rebels. Romney doesn’t like Obama’s 2014 timetable for ending U.S. combat in Afghanistan (a “politically timed retreat,” Romney calls it), but, again, he’ll say he’ll stick to it while “evaluat[ing] conditions on the ground,” something less than a pledge to stay longer. But since Obama isn’t leaving Afghanistan after 2014, either, finding distinctions on Afghanistan is like counting angels on the head of a pin.

Daniel Drezner makes many of the same points. There simply is no substance here, only the tired old line that Republicans always try to push about how Democrats aren’t acting sufficiently manly by not rattling the metaphorical — or literal — sabers enough. But Obama is pretty much the last Democrat that can work on, since he has been, by all practical measures, a Republican on foreign policy, from the worlwide drone bombing campaigns to the sudden, and hypocritical, notion that the president can authorize a war without Congressional approval any time he wants.

But this is a symptom of a larger problem. There really isn’t much difference between the two parties on foreign policy anymore. Terrified of being painted as soft on defense or on terrorism, the Democrats long ago decided to go along with most of the neo-conservative agenda. They know full well that the American public almost always gets behind a war when it starts, no matter how absurd the marketing slogans used to sell it. Even the Vietnam war was popular early on. It’s only when the body bags start coming home in large numbers and it becomes clear that we have little to gain by it that the public begins to realize they’ve been had — until the next marketing campaign for the next invasion of some nation full of brown-skinned people who’ve done nothing to harm or threaten us.

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  • slc1

    Whatever happened to bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. One would think reading the columns of the Charles Krauthammers of the world that Romney will launch a bombing attack on Iran 1 minute after he takes the oath of office.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Really? Which partners would those be? Mubarak? Qaddafi?

    An obvious example would be Iraq: we should, apparently, have supported the newly democratic government by continuing to occupy the country despite the Bush agreement and the foolish Iraqi insistence that we stick to it.

  • What if he becomes President? He can campaign on Not Obama, but you can’t govern on Not Obama.

  • D. C. Sessions

    you can’t govern on Not Obama.

    Of course you can. Just ask yourself, “what would Obama have done?” Then do the same thing (e.g. healthcare reform) and Congress will go along — something Obama could never have accomplished.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Is it true that if you ride the car elevator to the top floor, you can see Russia?

  • frankniddy

    As always, do not read the comments. Even on Wired, the comments section is full of right-wing trolls (or right-wing morons, it’s hard to tell these days).

  • President Bush signed an agreement…

    I can’t remember the last time I heard a Republican acknowledge the existence of Bush.

  • Michael Heath

    Ed writes:

    But this is a symptom of a larger problem. There really isn’t much difference between the two parties on foreign policy anymore.

    I strongly disagree. The Republican party remains very vulnerable to the neocons within their own party. The reason the Obama Administration’s foreign policy execution is somewhat similar to Bush’s second term is that Condi Rice was handed the reins given the abject failure of VP Dick Cheney in Bush’s first term. However it’s not like the neocon powers which provided the underlying argument to Cheney’s approach have lost significant power within the GOP, they are still able to influence the party and given Mr. Romney’s demonstrated and determined ignorance regarding foreign affairs, have a wonderful opportunity to drive policy in a Romney Administration far more similar to Dick Cheney than Condie Rice / Hillary Clinton.

  • scorinth

    What if he becomes President? He can campaign on Not Obama, but you can’t govern on Not Obama.

    This strikes a chord with me. I voted for Obama partly because of specific positions he held or claimed to hold – gay rights, stepping down the war on drugs, and ending the torture and indefinite detention Bush started – but also partly because I was just tired of Republican rule. Hell, he even won a Nobel prize for just not being Bush. Now it all seems a bit hollow.

    I can only hope Romney would be as ineffectual if he won the presidency.

  • Michael Heath

    Mitt Romney’s foreign policy arguments reminds me of his argument in a NYTs column he authored regarding his opposition to Presidents Bush and Obama bailing out the U.S. automotive supply chain, which many other sectors also depend upon.

    In that column he ranted and raved about Mr. Obama bailing out GM and IIRC, Chrysler. He then ended the column with a completely opposite argument that the government should guide them through a bankruptcy. GM quickly responded they’d cease to exist if they followed the precise prescription which ended Romney’s column, they simply didn’t have the cash flow or cash to work through using that method.

    It was obvious when the column was published what motivated Mr. Romney to write the column as he did; which I and I’m sure many others noted back then. That was to enrage conservative primary voters and get them to see him as one of them, while providing plausible deniability later if the Bush/Obama bail-out succeeded, i.e., that he was right all along where he’d point to the end of that same NYTs column. And that’s exactly what’s happened. In spite of that column’s shrill criticism of what Mr. Obama did, Mr. Romney is now claiming that Obama followed the prescription he noted at the end of his column. And of course his questioners fail to follow-up by noting that there was a difference between what he described and Obama did where GM was clearly on the record that Romney’s approach would have led to their demise and therefore millions of lost jobs rippling well beyond GM or its supply chain.

    The similiarity with Iran is that Mr. Romney is using sabre-rattling rhetoric to criticize Obama when even shallow scrutiny and questions has him retreating to a policy equivalent to what Mr. Obama is either executing or lobbying be done.

  • Michael Heath

    scorinth writes:

    I can only hope Romney would be as ineffectual if he won the presidency.

    First off, President Obama has not been ineffectual on all critical matters. For example’s he’s nominated two justices to the Supreme Court where we can safely predict Republicans would nominate justices more like Sam Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia and than Justices Kagan and Sotomayor.

    I think it’s safe to predict that a Romney presidency would not be ineffectual in getting justices nominated like those conservative justices named above.

    In addition it’s safe to assume that, given their history since southern conservatives left the party, that the Democrats in Congress will not obstruct the country’s business like we’ve seen from Republicans these past several years. So we can safely predict a Romney presidency will see some legislative and administrative efforts pass or be executed in a way anathema to what liberals and moderates support. In particular we’ll so almost no mitigation efforts to minimize the harm and threat from global warming.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    There really isn’t much difference between the two parties on foreign policy anymore.

    As compared to the good ol’ days, when Bill Clinton carried through Bush Sr’s sanctions against Iraq and killed over half a million children in a nation that was never a threat to the US.

    Or the gooder older days, when Richard Nixon, he who was elected with a “secret plan” to end the war on Vietnam, continued Lyndon Johnson’s escalation into a war on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.