Mitt’s world tour revealed more than his gaffes. His foreign-policy ideas are actually quite scary.
In short, does Romney realize that he’s promising to overturn 64 years of U.S. foreign policy, the 19-year-old Oslo accords, and the basic premise of a two-state solution (which most Israelis favor)?
Or, like many American politicians who make this same pledge on their brief stopovers, was he merely pandering? (At least he didn’t promise to free Jonathan Pollard, yet.)
A puzzling notion has taken hold in the American press, including most recently in an otherwise thoughtful New York Times article by Peter Baker, that Romney’s views on foreign policy are barely a hair’s breadth of distance from President Obama’s, that they differ more in “degree and tone” than in substance. This is nonsense, on several grounds—and the Romneyshambles tour underscored the contrasts.
First, on many issues, Romney has articulated no views at all, except contradictory ones. He has criticized Obama for withdrawing prematurely from Afghanistan, but has also said he’d abide by the same 2014 deadline (which NATO set at Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s request). He has blamed Obama for causing “the Arab winter” (as he calls it), but hasn’t explained how he would have handled the uprisings differently or controlled their outcomes any better. (Would he have bolstered Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt? Funneled more aid to the rebels? In either case, how, and to what end?)
Second, there are many crucial issues on which the two disagree profoundly. Romney has denounced Russia as America’s “number-one geopolitical foe” and assailed the New START arms-reduction treaty as a danger to national security. U.S.-Russian relations aren’t without their tensions, but the realms of cooperation opened up by Obama’s “reset” policy—on trade, counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, Iranian sanctions, among others—are well worth preserving. Romney has said he would declare China to be a “currency manipulator,” which could well unleash a trade war that we cannot afford. He has called for spending 4 percent of GNP on the military, as distinguished from Obama’s 3 percent, without saying how he would spend it or where he would get the extra $1 trillion over the next six years.
Not least, there is the issue of Iran. It is often stated that both Romney and Obama call for ratcheting up sanctions against Iran and for taking no military option “off the table.” But Romney went further than this on his European trip, or at least his senior foreign-policy adviser Dan Senor did. “If Israel has to take action on its own,” Senor said in a briefing before Romney’s speech in Jerusalem, “the governor would respect that decision.”
This is a very different stance from current U.S. policy. Obama has sent his top military officials to Israel several times, has made repeated assurances to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and has re-upped security assistance to the Israeli Defense Forces, precisely to dissuade Israel from attacking the Iranian nuclear sites on its own. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have war-gamed this scenario, and have told their Israeli counterparts the results: Israel, they say, may have a good first couple of days, then their world goes to hell—multiple terrorist attacks, a cut-off of oil supplies, a strengthening of the mullahs’ regime, and (this is the twister) a resumption of Iran’s nuclear program within a few years.
Iran’s nuclear program may be the knottiest issue in the world. The trade-offs are harrowing, and Israel’s worries are hardly baseless. But it’s the height of irresponsibility for a presidential candidate, or his top foreign policy aide, to give the Israelis a green light to attack. (Senor later backpedaled a bit, saying that “take action” didn’t necessarily mean military action, but what else could it possibly mean? Sanctions? Already doing that. Cyber-attacks to screw up their centrifuges? Doing that too.)
So in comparing Romney’s foreign policy to Obama’s, a more accurate formulation might be: They’re the same, except when Romney’s is more reckless or mysterious. Not a good bumper sticker.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.