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.