With the presidential race essentially tied and the final 100 days of the world’s most grueling marathon almost here, Governor Romney gave what was widely billed his first big foreign policy speech at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nevada. (Transcript here.)
It was not a speech that will change the election or define an era. No gushing acolytes pretending to be journalists will compare the governor to Abraham Lincoln, FDR and Daniel Webster combined. No phrases like “iron curtain”, “ask not what you can do for your country,” or “tear down that wall” rang through it.
It was a little like Governor Romney himself: deeply earnest, Wonder Bread rather than pumpernickel or rye, flat when it tried to soar, seemingly plainspoken and yet somehow opaque, at its most cautious when sounding most bold. It was in places so bland and vague that one began to despair of it, yet behind the smoke and mirrors there is an impression of something solid, if hard to see. It seemed precisely calibrated and effectively delivered from a political point of view: aiming at opening a number of lines of attack on the Obama administration without offering many targets for return fire.
Judging from this speech, Governor Romney intends to challenge the administration’s foreign policy on the following issues:
- A healthy American economy is the key to a successful American foreign policy, so President Obama’s failure to fix the economy has weakened the country abroad as well as at home. Obviously, this approach allows the challenger to hit once again what the campaign believes is the weakest point in the White House record; during debates, for example, this approach will allow Governor Romney to hammer the President about the U.S. economy even if he is supposed to be answering a question about North Korea or Syria.
- The President has tried to make friends with our enemies while stiff arming our friends. He kissed up to the mullahs and to Putin in hopes of turning foes into partners and got nothing for it. At the same time he was cold to good and loyal friends, offering concessions at their expense to people who will hate us no matter what we do.
- Governor Romney intends to keep playing the Israel card, attacking the White House for not doing enough to support and protect the Jewish state. He and his team know that this issue doesn’t play simply or even mainly to Jews (most US Jews don’t like Netanyahu and wish Israel had a more dovish policy toward the Palestinians). It’s an issue that works powerfully with non-Jewish voters, including many in the swing states. Expect more of this.
- The GOP contender will charge that the President intends to cut the military budget in an ill-considered and irresponsible fashion. He is arguing that by accepting the Congressional deal to hold Pentagon spending hostage to a larger deficit deal, the President recklessly gambled on national security, and now stands committed to military cuts that have no strategic justification. In any case, the line goes, the President intends to make ill conceived defense cuts to support his bloated social programs at a time when the United States needs a stronger military than ever.
- The spate of White House leaks on national security links that have Washington abuzz points to a lack of gravitas in the carrying out of our foreign policy. Should investigations into the leaks continue — or should the administration attempt to slow them down — more will be made of this potential vulnerability. The speech seemed to indicate that Governor Romney and his team believe that this issue has legs and that the scandal will grow. Given that inside gossip points to some of the President’s most senior advisers, the Romney campaign clearly hopes to make some hay with this. Another added advantage: because some of the leaks are connected to the Osama bin Laden attack, attention to this issue subtly taints what is perhaps the President’s most popular foreign policy achievement.
- The President’s strategy for Afghanistan was deeply flawed: the combination of a surge and an explicit withdrawal date was self-defeating. The politicians are overruling the generals while expecting the generals and the troops under their command to do the impossible.
- The President is all talk and no substance when it comes to unfair Chinese trade practices.
- At several points the speech raises the idea that President Obama doesn’t really believe in American exceptionalism and American greatness. This President doesn’t trust America’s instincts, doesn’t believe that America has only to remain true to its core beliefs to triumph. President Obama is a “decline manager” rather than a world transformer. He is Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan.
- The President, the speech says, doesn’t understand leadership. He fears to stand up for America and its rights and values because, good UN liberal that he is, President Obama believes that our job is to fit in with the international community rather than the lead the free world. He thinks that strong American leadership will destabilize the world; he doesn’t understand, the Romney camp charges, that only strong American leadership can keep the world calm.
- The President is out of his depth in the Middle East. He dithers on Iran, doesn’t know what to do in Egypt, and turns a cold shoulder to Israel.
Some will think Romney is being both dignified and restrained; some will see a nakedly opportunistic and partisan attack. Some of Romney’s points are effectively aimed at the President’s political weak spots; others may be harder to drive home. We shall see how the voters respond; what is perhaps more interesting is to see what we can learn from the speech about what a Romney foreign policy would look like.
The clues are limited; Governor Romney was pretty successful at attacking his opponent without advancing very specific ideas that could be criticized in their turn. He said that we should be nicer to Israel and tougher on Iran without saying anything specific about what either course of action would actually mean. This is unsatisfactory from the standpoint of the analyst trying to predict what President Romney would do, but as a campaign speech it was exactly what a smart challenger would say at this stage in the race. Again when it comes to the “American Century” rhetoric: the governor said nothing about any specific changes in American foreign policy that would result if we had a president who believed in leading the free world. Slam sanctions on Venezuela? Cut dues payments to the UN? Bomb Iran? Boycott Russia? He would spend more on the military (it’s not clear from this speech where the money would go, though the VA and veterans’ health care would be protected), and he would change the way we manage our foreign aid with Egypt so that we would be more effective at promoting democracy—again, in unspecified ways.
No doubt the campaign will be rolling out some more concrete proposals as time goes by, but this was a political speech rather than an attempt to describe the state of the world, the nature of America’s interests in that world, the dangers and opportunities that we face, and the policy implications that Governor Romney draws from his analysis.
From a policy perspective, the most striking fact about the speech was the degree to which it was dominated by the geopolitics of the last decade. The Middle East was the emotional and geographical core of the speech. China got no more air time than Egypt, and the words “India” and “Japan” did not appear. The governor’s criticisms of China were ideological (it crushes human rights at home) and economic (unfair trade, lack of respect for intellectual property). The absence of any reference to the geopolitical contest in Asia will be noted in Beijing and elsewhere; one must hope that in future speeches the governor finds a way to address any misconceptions this speech may have left about his views.
But the attention to the Middle East was much more lavish. Egypt, Syria, terror, Israel and Iran came in for much closer examination. The secondary theater in the governor’s mind seemed to be Eastern Europe: Russia, Poland, missile defense. Latin America got a few lines (Chavez), Africa nothing at all. The international economy and the European debt crisis also weren’t mentioned.
Now some of this focus is dictated by the governor’s upcoming travel plans. He is going to the UK (or England, as he called it in the speech), Poland and Israel, not Japan, India and Australia. And the first three countries, as the governor and his team see it, all resonate powerfully in American politics and highlight key themes in his attack on the President.
That is fair enough, but at best this highlights the incomplete nature of the campaign’s first major foray into the foreign policy world. What do the European financial crisis and the budget cuts coming with it mean for the future of NATO and America’s defense posture? What kind of relationship would a Romney administration seek with Turkey and how do his foreign policy advisers assess the state of democracy there? Do new energy discoveries in the U.S. and Canada that promise North American energy independence affect U.S. interests in the Middle East and how? What does the governor think of the Obama administration’s most consequential foreign policy move—the so—called pivot to Asia? What are American national interests in Africa and Latin America and how would a Romney administration approach them?
If the Romney campaign hoped to showcase some potentially effective attack points in the campaign against the incumbent, this was a successful speech. If it hoped to establish the governor as a world statesman with a coherent vision of where he wants to lead the nation, it was, at best, a first effort.
2012 is not a foreign policy election today, and barring dramatic developments overseas before Election Day, it won’t turn into one. But a successful presidential candidate needs to impress voters as someone to whom they can entrust their security in a dangerous world. Governor Romney will have to come back to the state of the world before November, and he will have to say more about it than he did in Reno.
[Image courtesy Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com]