Mitt Romney’s big speech this morning at the Virginia Military Institute was his usual combination of bluster and vagueness. But here’s his problem on foreign policy.
On the one hand, Barack Obama is widely perceived as successful when it comes to foreign policy and national security, mainly because Osama bin Laden is dead and the United States is out of Iraq. On the other hand, perhaps the most unpopular Obama policy — the surge in Afghanistan and continued U.S. casualties there — is something that Romney’s party, if anything, wants more of.
This is not to say that one might make no legitimate criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy. But those criticisms — either from the dovish side (such as complaining about drone attacks) or from the hawkish side (threatening military action in Iran, Syria, or really anywhere else) — are difficult for Romney to make because Obama has pretty much captured the popular position on those issues. In other words, criticisms that might be welcome to international affairs specialists of one stripe or another are unlikely to be electorally helpful to Romney.
And if there are areas where Romney can promise marginally more popular policies than Obama’s, it’s almost surely in third-tier issues — and don’t forget that most voters don’t seem to care about even top-tier foreign policy issues most of the time.
There’s also one more piece of context: the imperative from Republicans to cast everything Obama has done as a complete disaster. They can hardly manage to admit that the death of bin Laden happened on his watch, but beyond that, the way to pander to Republicans is to say, as Romney once did, that his policy will be “you can just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite.”
Given all this, it’s no surprise that Romney tends to wind up strongly anti-Obama in rhetoric but otherwise as vague as possible. As Dan Drezner puts it:
If one pushes past the overheated rhetoric, then you discover that Romney wants a lot of the same ends as Barack Obama — a stable, peaceful and free Middle East, for example. But that's not shocking — any major party president will want the same ends. The differenes are in the means through which a president will achieve those ends. And — in op-ed after op-ed, in speech after speech — Romney either elides the means altogether, mentions means that the Obama administration is already using, or just says the word "resolve" a lot. That's insufficient.
Early reviews of Romney’s speech today basically say: more of the same.
This is too bad for voters; it would be nice to know whether a Romney foreign policy would be more like a second Obama term or a reprise of George W. Bush’s greatest hits. Or perhaps something new and different, something that borrows from Obama’s successes but attempts new initiatives where Obama had weaknesses.
But there’s very little incentive for Romney to go beyond tough rhetoric and vague policy suggestions. He hasn’t done it yet, he didn’t do it today, and there’s very little chance he’ll do it in the next month.