Cadets at Virginia Military Institute listen to Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney give a foreign policy, Monday, October 8, 2012, in Lexington, Virginia.
Yesterday, standing in front of the flags of all five military branches at the Virginia Military Institute, Mitt Romney offered his “vision for a freer, more prosperous, and more peaceful world.” He didn’t stray far from his expected talking points: get closer to Israel, get tougher on Iran, lead the Middle East, fight the perpetual war on terror, spend more money, and sign more free-trade agreements. It's your basic neoconservative vision for ushering in another “American century,” one that pits the “torch” of America’s exceptional and “proud history of strong, confident, principled global leadership” against the “dark ideology” of terrorists.
The Republican presidential candidate suggested we are at a special moment in time, a “struggle that is now shaking the entire Middle East to its foundation.” During this “struggle between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope and despair,” and “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.”
What Romney seemed to be advocating was a Marshall Plan for the Middle East. Name-dropping George Marshall—a graduate of the school where he was speaking—Romney said that “statesmen like Marshall rallied our nation to rise to its responsibilities as the leader of the free world. We helped our friends to build and sustain free societies and free markets. We defended our friends, and ourselves, from our common enemies. We led.”
Does Romney think that we need to bring back the Marshall Plan? Not likely—the famous aid program afforded the opportunity to mention World War II, and as an extension, the American exceptionalism he has found wanting under President Barack Obama’s watch. The speech was less of a foreign-policy platform than an attempt to portray himself as a strong leader and Obama as a weak one. In the process, his speech highlighted the error of this play—it is exceptionally hard to make President Obama look soft on terror, weak on global leadership, and “passive” on the “opportunity” to shape the Middle East in our image.
What the speech did accomplish is showing voters that a Romney presidency would be very similar to George W. Bush’s.
When it came to policy suggestions, the former Massachusetts governor offered nothing new, and many of the things he did offer were either copied from Obama or inaccurate. For instance, 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.
Aside from the Orwellian peace-through-military-action trope, this is already happening. Obama has said that a nuclear Iran will not be tolerated; there are tough economic sanctions, and the aircraft carrier presence that Romney would make “permanent” is already there. The only difference between Romney and Obama on Iran is the addition of fearmongering on Romney’s end; twice in his speech, Romney said, “Iran has never been closer to nuclear-weapons capability.”
I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
Just like President Obama.
On Israel and Palestine:
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.
This statement is mildly humorous, considering that President Obama gave this option a shot but it fizzled, and in the infamous leaked “47 percent” fundraiser video, Romney essentially said he’d punt the issue.
On Syria, Romney would “work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.” This might involve spending more than the current administration is. He didn’t say that he’d support actual intervention, but he doesn’t want to keep “sitting on the sidelines.”
Into the inaccuracies folder goes Romney accusing Obama of undermining the “ability to influence events for the better in Iraq” by “the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence” from the country. We do have troops still there. They’re just not labeled “combat” troops.
As for military spending, global military leadership apparently involves spending even more than we already do—and we outspend the rest of the world exponentially. Romney, who otherwise laments most governmental spending, accused Obama of arbitrary spending cuts that would “devastate” the nation’s ability to defend itself. This was patently disingenuous. In trying to pin sequestration’s automatic spending cuts on Obama, he neglected to mention that the cuts were forced on the country by the Republican-created “Super Committee,” that his vice-presidential running mate Paul Ryan had voted for them, and that the administration has been working to undercut them.
Foreign policy has been one of Romney’s weak points throughout the campaign cycle. Obama has a strong record, and Romney doesn’t bring any particular experience of his own (beyond running the Olympics and sending jobs overseas). This speech won’t help him much, at least among people who pay attention to foreign policy. If “America’s security and the cause of freedom cannot afford four more years like the last four years,” then why exactly is he proposing to do exactly the same things as Obama, except perhaps more of it?
Among people who pay less attention, maybe he was trying to sound like a powerful statesman, walking loudly and carrying a big stick—George W. Bush-style minus the swagger. Perhaps it will give them the impression that he would be an active leader like Romney the debater last week, as opposed to the passive-seeming Obama. Certainly he was hitting the usual tropes, like harping on the attack on the consulate in Benghazi (“Our nation was attacked again”) in order to say "September 11" twice in one sentence. Trigger fear, then insert these words over and over again: “lead," "leader," “led.” (In World War II, “We led. We led.”)
Will this win over any undecided voters? I would be surprised. More likely, Romney has simply handed the Obama campaign cue cards for the next debate.