By Ian Rosoff
Since 1967, when national security was one of the top three issues for the electorate, Progressives lost the election. That’s probably a good sign for Progressives in 2012 since domestic issues have dominated the presidential race.
On Monday, Mitt Romney took center stage to deliver only his third major foreign policy address of the campaign. As soon as he finished his speech at Virginia Military Institute, the critics started hammering away. Most said Romney’s speech was lacking details. Madeleine Albright went so far as to quip, “If one of my students turned it in, they’d get a C.”
While it’s true that Romney’s speech was lacking clarity and nuance in spots, Romney attempted to differentiate his vision for US foreign policy from Obama’s in several key areas.On Iran, he sharply criticized Obama for standing idly by while the Iranian government cracked down on the Green Revolution in 2009. He said, “And yet when millions of Iranians took to the streets in June of 2009; when they demanded freedom from a cruel regime that threatens the world; when they cried out, are you with us or are you with them, the American president was silent.” Romney also vowed to tighten sanctions and position an aircraft carrier permanently in the region.
Obama has been open to criticism when it concerned the 2009 elections, which he has taken even from his own party. Presumably, his willingness to be more proactive during the Arab Spring is his way of atoning for the sin of omission. As for sanctions, the Obama Administration has enacted the strictest sanctions any regime ever foisted on a country, no doubt contributing to the 40% drop in the value of the Iranian currency. As for battleships and aircraft carriers – the United States already has two aircraft carriers stationed within range of Iran since the early summer.
On Egypt, Libya and the Arab Spring, Romney vowed to support the establishment of viable democratic institutions in a post Arab-spring Middle East while reserving the right to attack terrorists who plan and plot attacks against the United States from within any of the countries in the Middle East. Romney did talk about the conditionality of aid tied to the government of Egypt fostering policies that promote democracy, free enterprise and trade.
We are all for conditionality of aid. It should have been the case the entire time Mubarak was in power and now, already two years post revolution, the Obama administration has yet to get a clue on this issue. On Libya specifically, the President is open to criticism in the handling of the murder/assassination of Ambassador Stevens and three other US officials. However, short of actually invading, both Obama and a President Romney would employ the services of the CIA, Special Forces and other international groups to track down the culprits.
Romney quoted a Syrian woman who said “we will not forget that you forgot about us,” referring to Obama’s Syrian policy. Romney says that he would work with “partners” and members of the opposition in Syria who “share our values” to ensure they obtains the arms they need to defeat Assad’s army. To date, Obama and Hillary Clinton have done little more than send speeches to Syria, leading allies in the region frustrated with the lack of leadership. Then again, the fact that an election is due in less than 30 days has most likely been the single most important factor hindering Obama from doing anything more in the Middle East this season. This is a Catch-22 if there ever was one on foreign policy. In any case, Romney’s aggressive stance on Syria might be a point that contrasts most starkly with the current President. Romney makes a strong case that if we acted in Libya then acting on Syria makes sense as well. In fact, it almost makes more sense to move on Syria as a way to further dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities by undercutting its ally in Damascus.
Romney’s campaign has been least clear on Afghanistan and about a viable alternative strategy that would appeal to the American voters. As Obama vows to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2014, Romney says that a hasty withdrawal would invite Al Qaeda back to Afghanistan as a base of operations. However, he still called for a “real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.” So it’s possible that Romney would keep US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 if he were advised to do so by military commanders on the ground but it’s also possible he would complete a withdrawal by then. Therein lies the problem with much of Romney’s platform – lack of specifics.
Romney chastised Obama for throwing Israel under the bus and he reiterated, as presidential candidates are wont to do, his unshakable friendship with Israel and her current leadership. He gave a tip of the hat to working for a two state solution. It’s also interesting to hear Romney call for bold leadership on forging a new path ahead on Middle East peace when the infamous 47% video quoted him saying, “So what you do is, you say, you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem…and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”
Romney scored points by taking aim at the President’s drone use. The Obama presidency has been marked by a drastic increase in drone strikes. Drone strikes were originally a tool used by President Bush, but there has been an almost six fold increase under the current administration. Romney was fair in his assessment that the president has used drone strikes instead of defining a clear strategy for the Middle East.
The overall gist of Romney’s speech seemed like a throwback to the days of George Bush when the United States steamrolled its agenda in the international community. The biggest weakness of Romney’s foreign policy pitch is his inability to leverage the world community, and worse, it appears at times he views the U.S. as a lone ranger in the realm of world affairs.
Let’s be honest. Unlike 2004 and 2008, to some extent, the 2012 election is not a foreign policy election. And by extension this speech won’t impact the outcome of the election very much, but it was a continuation of Romney’s move to the middle. Jamie Rubin commented in a CNN article about the speech saying, “It wasn’t the extreme wing of the Republican Party, those who would bomb first and ask questions later.” The voters Romney needs to win over will vote for him because they believe he can improve the economy, so it is crucial that Romney’s foreign policy isn’t radical.
While this speech was probably a draw for Romney, the Obama campaign is happy to keep the discussion on foreign policy, where they believe they have an advantage. After all, President Obama has killing Osama Bin Laden on his resume. Romney will most likely pivot back to the economy, but all of the remaining debates will include foreign policy. The final debate is supposed to be on national security, but don’t be surprised if he argues that low taxes secure freedom at home and abroad.