Conventional wisdom holds that U.S. presidential elections do not hinge on foreign policy. On this point, conventional wisdom is almost certainly correct. But it shouldn’t be, for two reasons. First, foreign policy is the one realm in which presidents can do pretty much what they want. (Congress may rant at some action but rarely halts it.) Second, in this election in particular, Mitt Romney’s statements on foreign policy range from vague to ill-informed to downright dangerous.
Does Romney believe the things that he’s said about arms control, Russia, the Middle East, the defense budget, and the rest? Who can say? He has no experience on any of these issues. But his advisers do; they represent, mainly, the Dick Cheney wing of the Republican Party (some, notably John Bolton, veer well to the right of even that). While not all presidents wind up following their advisers, Romney has placed his byline atop some of his coterie’s most egregious arguments—not least, several op-ed pieces against President Obama’s New START with Russia, pieces that rank as the most ignorant I’ve read in nearly 40 years of following the nuclear debate.
But let’s begin with an instance of Romney’s own judgment—his remark, during a May 31 interview with CBS News, that Obama’s foreign policy deserves a grade of F, “across the board.”
He allowed that the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound was commendable (one would think that even the most demanding teacher would, on that action alone, give the president a passing mark) but added:
I’d look at the fact that [Obama] was looking to have a force of American troops staying in Iraq, securing what had been so hard won there, and with the Status of Forces Agreement. He failed to achieve it. … In the Middle East, the Arab Spring has become the Arab Winter. That’s hardly a success. As I look around the world, I have to believe his positions in foreign policy have not communicated American strength and resolve.
Let’s take these examples one by one.
On Iraq, several Republicans have accused Obama of muffing negotiations with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, claiming that they were on the verge of striking a deal that allowed the United States to keep a few thousand—some say, several thousand—troops in the country even after the withdrawal of U.S. combat brigades. This is nonsense. It’s worth recalling that it was President George W. Bush’s administration that negotiated the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, which required the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. As the date drew near, and as Obama’s own officials (among them, a few Bush holdovers) negotiated the final details, there were discussions about leaving some American troops behind; Obama was fine with the idea if the Iraqi government wanted them. The obstacle was that the Iraqi government didn’t want them. End of story. Romney does not explain how he would have rammed the troops down the Iraqis’ throats, or whether that’s something we should do with a sovereign ally.
As for the “Arab spring” devolving into an “Arab winter,” the jury, as they say, is still out. But a few facts are paramount. First, “Arab spring” was always a misnomer. Marc Lynch, the scholar who coined the phrase, has expressed regrets, and now refers to it, in the title of his very good book, as, more neutrally, The Arab Uprising. By the same token, “Arab winter” goes too far in the opposite direction. Tunisia, where it all began, shows signs of promise. The Egyptian elections may not have gone ideally, by the measure of U.S. or Israeli interests, but they were free and fair elections; a democracy of sorts is coalescing, even though the military council still exercises great power (no surprise, since the revolution’s first success, the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, was in fact brought about through a military coup).
In any case, Romney does not explain what he would have done differently in Obama’s place. Would he have stood shoulder to shoulder with our old ally, Mubarak? (That would have served America’s image very badly and wouldn’t have saved Mubarak’s hide in the end.) Would he have poured billions of dollars in aid and investment into Egypt at the first sign of Mubarak’s fall? (Extremely doubtful.) Would he have demanded that the military turn over power more completely to the parliament? (If so, how?)
This gets to the main point: Romney doesn’t seem to understand—nor do some of his advisers—the extent to which the world has changed since the end of the Cold War. International politics were never as cut and dried as that era’s image suggested—two superpowers, each dominating its sphere of the globe and competing for influence at the margins of the other’s domain.
Still, the superpowers did tend to view the politics of “strategic regions” in that broader framework, and the leaders within those regions often acceded to the interests of one superpower, in order to stave off the other, or tried to play the two off each other.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the demise of the Cold War system, this wedge of entry is no longer open. This is not to say that the United States is a “declining power.” By every traditional measure of national power, the United States still dominates the rest of the world. But because the world has changed, those measures no longer translate so directly into influence. Or, to put it another way, the rules of the game, the dimensions of the playing field, have changed. The tokens of strength in the old game don’t have the same potency in the new one.
Obama seems to understand this (though, for obvious political reasons, he can’t say so directly); Romney and his people seem not to. In April, one of Romney’s top surrogates, former Navy Secretary John Lehman, told reporters that Obama was “withdrawing in leading the free world,” leaving us open to “huge new vulnerabilities.” Asked to cite an example, Lehman said, “We are seeing the Soviets pushing into the Arctic with no response from us.”
In one sense, the “mis-speak” (“Soviets” instead of “Russians”) can be forgiven; those of us who came of age during the Cold War have lingering attachments to its vocabulary. (In recent years, I have blithely referred to “West Germany” a few times in conversation, once in print.) But in this case, the anachronism reflects a mentality. Lehman and those of his ilk continue to view not just Russia but world politics as if the Soviet Union still existed. (What is he talking about, for instance, with this business of Russians or Soviets “pushing into the Arctic with no response from us”—how are they “pushing,” and what “response” is warranted?) World politics is no longer bipolar; the game of moves and countermoves is no longer zero-sum. Abrogating a particular playing field doesn’t necessarily mean a defeat for us or a victory for … whomever the “other” might be.
Which leads to Romney’s final complaint: that Obama’s foreign policies “have not communicated American strength and resolve.” It’s not clear what Romney means by this; he cites no examples. The one case in which he had to concede Obama did well—ordering the killing of Bin Laden—certainly communicates more strength and resolve than anything Bush did on that front. To the extent America’s image has been tarnished under Obama’s presidency, the main reason has to do with what some see as an excess of “strength and resolve”—the quintupling of drone attacks launched against targets in Pakistan, Sudan, and Somalia under Bush.
Which leads to some questions: What is Romney’s position on drone strikes? What’s his position on Afghanistan? During the Republican debates, he once said that his position was not to negotiate with the Taliban but to defeat them. What does that mean? Does he want to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops there after NATO’s 2014 deadline? To what end? Doing what? He also once said that military spending should consume at least 4 percent of gross domestic product. Obama’s most recent military budget ($525 billion, not counting the cost of the war in Afghanistan) amounts to 3 percent. So Romney intends to raise the budget by one-third, or by about $175 billion a year—by more than $1 trillion in the next six years. Where is he going to get the money? What’s he going to spend it on? No details. None.
Is Romney an extremist? Or, in keeping with the GOP approach to politics in general these days, has he simply calculated that it’s best not to agree with Obama on anything? Either way, one thing is clear: He is not a serious man.