On Monday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered a retooled message in a speech on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Governor Romney’s speech was heavy on platitudes, weak on policy, and encapsulated a shift toward the center that Romney’s campaign has actively constructed since the first presidential debate. This vacuous speech proves that the Romney campaign is consistent only in its opportunism. Romney’s policies change with public opinion. If his policies haven’t changed, they are devoid of concrete solutions and chock full of prosaicisms. Although it’s a difficult task, voters must try and read between the lines in Mitt Romney’s campaign, not only in this speech, but in past statements as well to ascertain his true foreign policy approach (if he even has one).
One of Governor Romney’s most important points during this speech—one which he seems to reiterate any chance he can—is that there should be no “daylight” between the United States and Israel on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Truth be told, when you look at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations last week and President Obama’s frequent and adamant declaration that United States will “do what we must” to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, it’s clear that there is already little space between Israel and the United States. International sanctions are wreaking havoc inside Iran, the rial has plummeted, and Iran seems to have “slowed” its march toward nuclear weapons for at least eight months. With these facts in hand, Prime Minister Netanyahu extended his deadline for action on Iran until 2013 in his speech before the General Assembly, replacing the prior deadline at the end of this year. For his part, President Obama has never taken a military option off the table, but realizes that diplomacy and soft power are the only realistic ways to keep Iran from getting the bomb. Most military and intelligence experts admit that a strike on Iran’s facilities will only delay this process and will most likely tighten the country’s resolve to obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as possible.
For his part, Governor Romney claimed that Iran would not obtain “nuclear capability” under his administration. He says he would tighten sanctions, place new sanctions if necessary, and “restore” our military capabilities in the Gulf. President Obama has done all of these things. While Romney’s rhetoric in this speech was awfully similar to President Obama’s—pragmatic and practical, while ensuring the protection of Israel—this metered approach isn’t the stance Romney has always taken. On May 17 of this year, Romney said the United States has to prevent a nuclear Iran to keep us from being blackmailed via dirty bomb “by Iran, the mullahs, by crazy people.”
This statement is problematic not only for its lack of understanding of what dirty bombs are, but more so because it shows that Romney and his advisers believe the Iranian regime is irrational. This lies in direct contradiction with the analysis of many military leaders, including General Dempsey, who explicitly state that the Iranian regime behaves rationally and is calculated in its decisions. Perhaps this is why Mitt Romney continues to insist, outside the timid rhetoric in this latest speech, that he sees eye to eye with Netanyahu on Iran and will respect Israel’s decision to take preemptive action against these nuclear facilities. Even though most military experts believe that the Iranian regime is rational and military strikes will not keep them from getting the bomb in the long run, Netanyahu continues with the delusion that Iran is irrational and Mitt Romney goes along.
The remainder of Governor Romney’s speech at VMI, although markedly neoconservative and hawkish in its tone, was extremely short on strategy. Pick any main foreign policy issue today—Afghanistan, Libya or Iran—and Romney articulated no substantial difference between his current views and the policy of the Obama administration. Some scholars, notably Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, seem convinced that Romney would be a catalyst for vastly different approach toward arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Hamid says Romney “pledged to prioritize the coordination and arming of rebel forces (although he did not specify how directly the U.S. would be involved).” To be clear, Romney said,
In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran—rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East.
Good idea! Except . . . it’s not very original. In fact, it’s the Obama administration’s policy.
As early as June of this year, the New York Times reported that the CIA was active in southern Turkey, attempting to differentiate between factions of the Free Syrian Army, “vetting” them as Romney suggests should be done. In fact, the Times asserts that anti-tank weapons, RPGs, and automatic rifles are being supplied to the rebels through these “shadowy” networks with the help of the CIA; these weapons arm the FSA against “Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets” that Romney is so concerned about. Romney did not offer anything new on Syria in his speech at VMI. His tone sounds more aggressive, but shouting is not a strategy.
Perhaps the most disturbing element of this foreign policy speech was the return of neoconservative bravado without any accompanying strategy or solutions. Romney’s foreign policy campaign team is stacked with advisers who constructed President George W. Bush’s foreign policy in the first half of his presidency. This, alongside hawkish rhetoric, should set off alarm bells for anyone who can think back just ten short years ago. Romney says if America fails to lead, as he claims has been the case under President Obama, the “world will grow darker.” Similarly, Governor Romney claims we can see competition “between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope, and despair” at work in the world today. However, Romney never says who, exactly, these actors are. As Justin Long of the CATO Institute articulates, were the dictatorial regimes overthrown in the Arab Spring agents of justice while the new, fairly elected Islamist influences are forces of oppression? Or is it the other way around?
Romney believes that withdrawing troops from Iraq was a failure. Should our troops have stayed after the democratically elected Iraqi government deliberated and decided it was our time to go? Is democracy promotion, seemingly a main tenet of Romney’s foreign policy, only to be followed to fruition when it suits our needs? Would this rhetoric, combined with the foreign policy team Governor Romney has assembled, set the United States up for another term of endless wars in the Middle East?
The foreign policy challenges the United States faces today are not simple. Nothing we face is clearly cut, with good groups on one side, bad groups on the other. Strong words without any policy differences, no matter how tough and assertive they may sound, are not going to enhance our security and our foreign policy. Similarly, Romney’s ever-evolving positions on Iran do not provide voters with the chance to draw an accurate contrast between President Obama and Governor Romney. The Obama administration’s foreign policy is not impervious to criticism, to be sure, but Romney has consistently changed positions, especially on Iran, depending on who is in the room. At the same time, Governor Romney’s floating neoconservative rhetoric added nothing to the debate because his words are not paired with concrete plans. Whether this is by design, or just due to an ever-changing policy position, the American voter deserves a clearer choice.