Foreign Policy Is Hard

In today's Wall Street Journal, Mitt Romney takes to the op-ed page to offer his vision for a new American policy in the Middle East. Apparently, the tragic recent events in Benghazi have convinced Romney and his advisors that something is going on over there, and though they aren't sure exactly what, it's definitely something, and therefore Romney ought to come and say something about it, to show everyone how wrong Barack Obama is. If you thought Romney was being vague about his domestic policy, that's nothing compared to what he has to say about foreign policy.

The first half of the piece is the standard criticism of the Obama administration (he's weak!), and here's the part where Romney lays out in specific detail exactly what he'd do differently:

In this period of uncertainty, we need to apply a coherent strategy of supporting our partners in the Middle East—that is, both governments and individuals who share our values. This means restoring our credibility with Iran. When we say an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability—and the regional instability that comes with it—is unacceptable, the ayatollahs must be made to believe us.

It means placing no daylight between the United States and Israel. And it means using the full spectrum of our soft power to encourage liberty and opportunity for those who have for too long known only corruption and oppression. The dignity of work and the ability to steer the course of their lives are the best alternatives to extremism.

But this Middle East policy will be undermined unless we restore the three sinews of our influence: our economic strength, our military strength and the strength of our values. That will require a very different set of policies from those President Obama is pursuing.

The 20th century became an American Century because we were steadfast in defense of freedom. We made the painful sacrifices necessary to defeat totalitarianism in all of its guises. To defend ourselves and our allies, we paid the price in treasure and in soldiers who never came home. Our challenges are different now, but if the 21st century is to be another American Century, we need leaders who understand that keeping the peace requires American strength in all of its dimensions.

OK, so what do we have here? America needs to support our partners. We need to restore our credibility with Iran, by making them believe that we really, really don't want them to have nuclear weapons. We need to place no daylight between ourselves and Israel. And we need to encourage liberty and opportunity. That line about "the dignity of work" is a little odd—maybe the problem they have in the Middle East is too many 47 percenters? So where's the new policy again?

But in the next paragraph, he says he's going to give us "a very different set of policies." So here it comes, right? The answer is ... "American strength in all its dimensions." Ah yes. Strength. Resolve. If you ask "How, precisely, will you achieve these goals?" then you're obviously a weakling who can't grasp the full majesty of Mitt Romney's chin, which when jutted in the direction of our adversaries will make them quake before us and submit to our demands.

I can muster a little bit of sympathy for Romney here. Middle East politics is hard! A permanent settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians seems all but impossible, particularly given that the policy of the Israeli government essentially comes down to "the beatings will continue until morale improves." The question of Iran's nuclear aspirations offers nothing but bad alternatives. Romney keeps saying he wants America to "shape events" in the Middle East, but as president after president has discovered, that's a tall order. You can certainly shape events by invading somebody, but that tends to come with some problematic repercussions.

But the real reason Romney seems incapable of offering any specific policies he wants to change is that he can't quite figure out which Obama policies he objects to. His criticism is that Obama is "weak," so the alternative he offers is that he'll be "strong." Vagueness in, vagueness out.

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