Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney is visiting the U.K., Poland, and Israel this week in an effort to broaden his foreign policy exposure. Pledging not to be critical of the President while overseas, in the days before his departure Romney laid out his differences with President Obama in an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom, which is owned by controversial casino owner and funder of Islamophobic propaganda, Sheldon Adelson.
If Romney's VFW remarks were intended as a preview of the policies he would pursue, they were a disappointment. His speech was long on rhetorical flourish, but short on detail. His criticism of President Obama was harsh and unrelenting. Romney charged that this Administration had "diminished American leadership,” weakened the military, fomented a "national security crisis,” and "betrayed the trust that allies place in the United States.”
Delivering lines that sounded as if they had been prepared in the thick of the Cold War by speechwriters for President Ronald Reagan, Romney affirmed his belief that "our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known"; that America must have "the strongest military in the world"; and declared his "one overwhelming conviction and passion" that "this must be an American Century" in which "we lead the free world and the free world leads the entire world.”
If this all sounds Reaganesque or a replay of a George W. Bush speech, it is precisely because many of Romney's foreign policy advisers come out of the "Project for a New American Century,” the group created by the acolytes of the Reagan era who then populated the Bush Administration. George W. Bush's rhetoric often conflated the good/evil world view of neo-conservatism with the Manichaeism of right-wing Christian Fundamentalism. In Romney's case there is a disturbing mix of neo-conservative hawkishness and militaristic American supremacy with Mormonism's narrative of divinely ordained American exceptionalism. Just as Bush's interpretation of Christianity was not shared by most Christians, Romney's America-on-steroids is a minority view among Mormons.
Beyond the rhetoric, there was little else that was noteworthy in Romney's foreign policy preview. As others have observed, many of his criticisms of the Obama Administration were either wrong on facts, splitting hairs, or just plain bad policy.
For example, when Romney accuses President Obama of proposing "arbitrary, across-the-board...massive defense cuts,” he ignores the fact that these cuts are not Obama's but the result of a Congressionally-mandated agreement, owing to Congress' failure to behave responsibly and raise the debt ceiling. And Romney’s charge that this Administration would "weaken... the VA system" is off base. The President has, in fact, increased spending on veterans.
In other areas it is difficult to see where the policies advocated by candidate Romney differ significantly from those of the White House. For example, despite his rejection of Obama's Afghan policy or current policy toward Syria, Romney ends up supporting very much the same approach to both. And the accusation that this Administration has betrayed European allies like Poland and the Czech Republic may score some points at home with disaffected ethnic communities hailing from Eastern Europe, but the reality is that both countries appear quite satisfied with the commitments they have received from President Obama. Other than criticizing the way the U.S. has handled relations with Egypt, a country undergoing dramatic transformations, and Russia, a country that is increasingly asserting itself, Romney offers no prescriptions for a meaningful change in policy.
Romney reserves his sharpest criticism for the way President Obama has handled Israel's difficult Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. This may sit well with some pro-Likud American Jews and right-wing Christians, but it ignores recent history and the imperative for American policy-makers to find a solution to the profoundly unsettling Arab-Israeli conflict—an issue Romney conveniently fails to mention. And while sounding more threatening toward and less willing to negotiate with Iran than the Obama Administration, it is not clear how Romney would deal with that country's nuclear program other than by going to war.
What is deeply disturbing in all of this is the fact that Romney continues to demonstrate how out of touch he is with the changing world the Obama Administration has inherited. Romney describes the world of today as a "dangerous, destructive, chaotic” place. But it was the reckless and neglectful policies of the Bush Administration, not the Obama Administration, that created this state of affairs. Two failed wars, a failure to use diplomacy when it might have made a difference, a penchant for unilateralism, and a reliance on practices that violated the rule of law and tarnished America's image, all combined to produce widespread anti-American sentiment, an expansion and emboldening of extremist movements, and a weakening of American allies.
The Obama Administration started out determined to change course. There have been some successes in rebuilding frayed relations with NATO allies and some Asian and Latin American nations. But when faced with strong domestic pressure in other areas, notably in the Middle East, the Administration's resolve weakened. On too many occasions they failed to build public consensus around alternative approaches to peace-making, to fighting extremism, and to supporting democratic reform. Instead, they resigned themselves to a variation of existing policy—taking the path of least resistance. But even with the justifiable criticisms that can be offered of the Obama Administration's conduct, it must be said that Romney’s full-throated endorsement of the failed policies of the Bush era is far more worrisome. This is what we heard from the GOP's candidate this week before he left. We will, no doubt, hear more upon his return.