Mitt Romney spoke at the Virginia Military Institute today in what was billed a major foreign policy address. The Obama campaign responded preemptively by painting Mitt Romney’s foreign policy as both to the right of Bush’s and not that different from the president’s own. Romney’s address touched on most of the parts of the world American foreign policy does. Despite efforts to bring daylight between his foreign policy and the president’s, Romney’s differences lay largely in rhetoric and in results; where Obama has failed to achieve certain foreign policy goals, Romney says he’d succeed.
Romney recounted the terrorist attack on the consulate in Benghazi on 9/11, saying it was not an “isolated incident,” but rather accompanied the protests at and assaults on U.S. embassies around the Muslim world. The interpretation is a lot more rooted in reality than the Obama Administration’s, which insisted anti-American outbursts on and after 9/11, including initially the Benghazi attack, were attributable entirely to an anti-Muslim film whose trailer was found on YouTube. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice insisted on Sunday talk shows the week of the Benghazi attack that it was precipitated by the film even as the FBI was trying to get there. The strategy led the president and his subordinates down a road that attacked free speech even as it tried to defend it.
Romney, instead, places the Benghazi attack on the “fault lines” of a struggle between democrats and extremists in the Muslim world, matching the rhetoric and ideological underpinnings of the Bush foreign policy. Bush’s 2004 inauguration speech laid out a similar foreign policy vision that saw America as a steadfast ally of democrats the world over. Palestinian elections in 2006, which saw Hamas victorious, showed that sometimes the democrats can be extremists, but more importantly, in a lesson repeated during the Arab Spring, that democratically-elected governments may not always be ones of which America’s foreign policy establishment approves.
Of course, America’s preferences for foreign government are a bit more than that so long as America remains a primary foreign aid spender. Romney knows this, placing specific requirements on U.S. foreign aid recipients: “they must meet the responsibilities of every decent modern government—to respect the rights of all of their citizens, including women and minorities, to ensure space for civil society, a free media, political parties, and an independent judiciary, and to abide by their international commitments to protect our diplomats and our property.” The last bit is an expectation of any country that hosts the diplomatic facilities of another. Romney mentions aid to Egypt specifically, promising to use America’s influence to maintain its peace treaty with Israel (upon which U.S. aid is already theoretically contingent). If money hasn’t bought friends yet, Romney’s thinking seems to go, more money will buy them.
On Iran, Romney continued beating the war drums, claiming Iran’s never been closer to a nuclear weapon. He insisted Obama’s attempt to bring “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel a “dangerous situation,” helping bring Iran the closest it’s been to getting a bomb since sometime around 2007. President Obama’s daylight comment came in 2009; the president said eight years of an airtight relationship between George Bush and Ariel Sharon and then Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime ministers then. Notably, while George W. Bush was the first American president to endorse a Palestinian state and a two-state solution, today both Obama and Romney support it. The Israeli prime minister for the entirety of Obama’s term, meanwhile, has been Benjamin Netanyahu, who spent the last month demanding a red line be drawn for an Iranian nuclear program he claims is just months from weaponization. Israelis themselves have shrugged off his warnings, interpreting them as a bluff meant to pressure the U.S. into action. Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Kadima, the main opposition party to Netanyahu’s government, asked whether the prime minister was more interested in ousting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, or Obama. Netanyahu and Romney have been friends for years.
Romney blamed Obama’s failure to extend the war in Iraq for the continuing violence there, attacked a timeline for withdrawal that’s much murkier than advertised, but not the lack of a mission there, and bundled Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria as “fights for liberty,” in the course making the case for more intervention in Syria and accusing Obama of “leading from behind” there. The president, in fact, signed off on covert support this summer and Western intervention has already been blamed for deepening the conflict there.
Romney’s one reference to President Obama’s due process-smashing drone war in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan was that they were “important tools” but “no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East.” In fact, Romney pointed out that Al-Qaeda forces “remain strong” in Yemen and Somalia, where the local Islamists became an Al-Qaeda affiliate after years of U.S.-backed intervention.
No Romney speech on foreign policy would be complete without an attack on non-existent cuts to defense spending (“deep and arbitrary” and “catastrophic”) and a promise to reverse them. The cuts, of course, are just reductions in the rate of spending. Refusing to acknowledge the reality of rising defense spending cuts doesn’t bode well for actual reform and spending reductions. America “cannot afford four more years like the last four,” Romney said, but not referring to the mounting fiscal costs. In fact, he insists the world wants more from the United States, that America’s “friends and allies across the globe do not want less American leadership. They want more—more of our moral support, more of our security cooperation, more of our trade, and more of our assistance in building free societies and thriving economies.” The appeal to trade is stark; Romney noted the U.S. hasn’t signed any new free trade agreements during Obama’s presidency and promised to be a champion of free trade himself. No such luck on the intervention front, where Romney acknowledged and then dismissed any concerns: “I know many Americans are asking… “Why us?” I know many Americans are asking whether our country today—with our ailing economy, and our massive debt, and after 11 years at war—is still capable of leading.” The world, in Romney’s vision, depends on it.