Mitt Romney has delivered a lot of dishonest speeches in recent months, but Monday’s address on foreign policy may be the most mendacious yet.
It was expected that he would distort President Obama into a caricature of Jimmy Carter. But it was astonishing to watch Romney spin a daydream of himself as some latter-day George Marshall, bringing peace, prosperity, and hope to a chaotic world—this from a man who couldn’t drop in on the London Olympics without alienating our closest ally and turning himself into a transcontinental laughingstock.
To the extent that Romney recited valid criticisms of Obama’s policies, he offered no alternatives. To the extent he spelled out specific steps he would take to deal with one problem or another, he merely recited actions that Obama has already taken.
Let’s go through the text, point by point.
Romney began with the recent attacks on the Libyan consulate, the killing of the U.S. ambassador, and the anti-American riots that broke out across the Middle East—all signs, he claimed, that “the threats we face have grown so much worse” while President Obama does nothing.
Let’s pause here. First, these threats are not worsening; in fact, the number of attacks on U.S. embassies is near an all-time low. Second, the spate of attacks, riots, and American flag-burnings, which followed the attacks in Libya and Egypt, ended almost immediately. Romney himself, after recounting the grim events, noted that we’re now seeing “something hopeful”—protests by “tens of thousands of Libyans” against the militants and in support of the American ambassador.
Yet Romney ignored the reasons why the riots subsided and why the Libyan people went after the militants. These things happened because President Obama had supported the Libyan rebels in their resistance to Muammar Qaddafi—and because, after the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Obama had a long phone conversation with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, spelling out the facts of life: that Morsi had to choose between siding with the Islamist militants (who formed part of his constituency) and rejoining the civilized world. Romney repeatedly bemoaned Obama’s passivity, but one can only ask: What is he talking about?
Later in the speech, Romney criticized Obama for “missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East.” It’s unclear whether, or to what extent, even the protesters in Benghazi “share our values,” but it is clear that Obama’s actions have made them friends—which is why they took to the streets against the militants.
Romney then turned to the topic near and dear to the voters of Florida in particular. “The relationship between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel, our closest ally in the region, has suffered great strains,” he said, adding that they have “set back the hopes of peace in the Middle East and emboldened our mutual adversaries.”
First, yes, there are strains in Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu—but they’re no more severe than the strains in Netanyahu’s relationship with his own military establishment. Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barack, said in a CNN interview two months ago, “This administration under President Obama is doing, in regard to our security, more than anything that I can remember in the past.” Many Israeli security officials think Netanyahu has gone way too far in his pressure on Obama. An American politician can support Israel’s security without supporting the Israeli prime minister in his own domestic quarrels—much less agreeing with everything he says.
“In Iraq,” Romney claimed, “the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence.” This is true. But then he said, “America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence,” adding that Obama tried to secure a more gradual drawdown but “failed.”
The facts are these. First, President George W. Bush signed an agreement with the Iraqi government in November 2008 stating, “All U.S. forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, water, and airspace no later than the 31st of December of 2011.” Second, as the deadline neared, Obama did explore options to keep some of those troops in Iraq for a while longer—but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not want them to stay. Iraq was, and is, a sovereign nation. If Romney thinks he could have negotiated a deal to stay, he doesn’t say what it would have been. He can’t, because there was no such deal anywhere near the table.
Then came a gratuitously outrageous statement. “America,” Romney said, “can take pride in the blows that our military and intelligence professionals have inflicted on al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the killing of Osama bin Laden.” (Italics added.) Really? President Obama deserves no credit for dealing these blows? Obama has personally ordered many of these blows (as some in his own party have complained), and, as is well known, he ordered the raid on bin Laden’s compound against the advice of Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who thought it was too risky.
Romney followed this with the most stupefying attack in the entire speech, worth quoting at some length:
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.
Obama has long been doing all of these things. He has ratcheted up sanctions and persuaded others (including Russia) to go along, to the point where Iran’s currency has plummeted by 40 percent, prompting the merchant class to protest in the streets. Two aircraft carriers have been on constant patrol within range of Iran since the summer. And U.S. security assistance to Israel, as its own defense minister said, is at near-peak levels.
Romney then pledged to boost defense spending, saying, “I will roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense that would devastate our military.” He also claimed that the “size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916.”
Both statements are highly misleading. First, these “deep and arbitrary cuts” in the defense budget (he also calls them “catastrophic”) will go into effect only if Congress cannot agree on a deficit-reduction plan. Last year, Congress agreed that if they couldn’t devise such a plan by the end of 2012, the entire federal budget—including defense—would be cut across the board. (Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, voted in favor of this pact.) Obama’s actual, existing military budget for next year—which amounts to $525 billion, plus $88 billion for overseas operations (in Afghanistan and elsewhere)—is only 1 percent below this year’s budget.
As for the Navy, a single modern aircraft carrier has enough firepower onboard to destroy 1,000 targets with impressive accuracy. To compare the might, range, and speed of today’s vessels with those of 1916 is absurd—and an insult to the Navy.
Romney neglected to note that his own budget plan calls for adding $2 trillion to military spending over the next 10 years. He may have sidestepped this fact—even though it might have appealed to his audience of cadets at the Virginia Military Institute—because, time and again, he has declined to specify how he will pay such a whopping bill. Nor has he specified why such increases are necessary: for what contingencies, against what enemies.
On foreign aid, Romney said, “I will make it clear to the recipients of our aid that, in return for our material support, they must meet the responsibilities of every decent modern government,” including the protection of rights for women and minorities, free media, and an independent judiciary. He seems not to realize that the United States hands out aid to promote U.S. interests, not just the recipient’s needs, and that our own leverage has limits: If an allied government doesn’t want to make this deal, it can go elsewhere.
Romney’s line on Syria was very delicately phrased: “I will 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.” (Italics added.) First, and again, it’s unclear any of the rebels “share our values.” Second, it’s unclear whether, once the good guys among the rebels (a.k.a. the non-Islamists) get these heavy arms, they won’t share them with their Islamist brothers. Third, he left unclear where the rebels will “obtain” these heavy arms. More to the point, he didn’t say that he would provide them. So what would he do that Obama hasn’t? He didn’t say, perhaps because he doesn’t know.
On Afghanistan, Romney seemed simply muddled. First, he said, “I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.” Then he denounced Obama’s “politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country.” But Obama’s policy also calls for pursuing a transition to the Afghan forces by the end of 2014. In fact, this is official NATO policy—and a policy that Afghan President Hamid Karzai supports, even demands. So what would Romney do differently?
Then Romney restated his main theme: “There is a longing for American leadership.” Everywhere, “the question is asked: ‘Where does America stand?’ ” He especially raised concerns about Asia, where “China’s recent assertiveness is sending chills through the region.”
Again, one wonders what world Romney is watching. In Asia, Obama has responded, even taken the initiative, renewing security arrangements with Japan, sending Marines to Australia, stepping up joint naval patrols, challenging Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, while also seeking cooperative forums with the Chinese military. The defense analyst Robert Kaplan (no relation), one of the first to warn of Chinese ambitions, said at a panel sponsored by the New America Foundation that the Obama administration was doing pretty much all that needed to be done—both in its activities and in its shipbuilding program.
Finally, Romney proclaimed, “The 21st century can and must be an American century.” This is where he and his advisers, many of them Bush-Cheney neo-cons, share a dangerous assumption about the world. They seem to believe that the United States can wield the same force and influence it did during the Cold War, if only a strong president sat in the White House again. Yet the rise of American power after World War II was facilitated by the geopolitics of the day: a bipolar international system, a faceoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, with much of the rest of the world choosing, or falling into, one camp or the other. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union imploded, this international system collapsed as well—and, as yet, nothing has taken its place. Power has dispersed as power-centers have weakened.
As he has on other occasions, Romney asserted that a president must “use America’s great power to shape history,” not to let events shape America. But the fact is there are no superpowers in today’s world; no country has as much power to shape history—or as little immunity to the influences of others—as America did in the Cold War era. To exercise true leadership, a president must come to grips with the limits of his or her power. This has nothing to do with notions of “American decline.” It has to do with the shattering of the Cold War world.
Romney is right that, in some cases, most notably Syria, Obama has not done as much as he might have to influence the course of events. However, there is almost nothing in Romney’s speech to suggest that he would do better—and a great deal to indicate he’d do much worse.