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Post Partisan
Posted at 05:04 PM ET, 10/23/2012

Romney's flawed ‘apology tour’ rhetoric

If Mitt Romney believes what he said during the debate last night, in his latest iteration of his “apology tour” nonsense, forget about whether or not he’s a liar: He should be nowhere near the White House.

Here’s what Romney said to back up his usual claim that Barack Obama went on an apology tour:

And then in those nations, and on Arabic TV, you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.

When I heard that claim that the United States “has not dictated to other nations,” it sounded like a gaffe to me; so far, however, I’ve seen little criticism of it, and to my surprise Team Romney is treating it as a brilliant comeback – they’ve released an “apology tour” ad quoting from the debate, and Paul Ryan tweeted out the bit about “dictated” this morning.

Now, putting aside the actual basis for what Romney now says is what he calls an apology tour (here’s a nice fact check of last night’s comments; here’s Glenn Kessler’s excellent original explainer), what are we to make of this? I’m not sure how often Romney has included the “dictated” version of this one; I’ve always read “apology” as more about the need for presidents to be tough no matter what than a claim that the United States never, ever, ever, did anything wrong and therefore never needed to make amends.

But really, it’s worth thinking about what Romney is saying.

Directly, he’s making a historical claim: “America has not dictated to other nations.” That’s far beyond the giggle test, as a historical assertion. I mean, just to begin with, there’s, you know, the end of World War II. But of course the United States has demanded things of other nations, and used its military might and economic power to enforce those demands. And no, not all of those occasions were about disposing of dictators. One might argue that a president shouldn’t mention it, or that the nation shouldn’t dwell on it, but to flat-out deny it? That’s just junk history.

The real gaffe here, in my view, is that certainly the United States should, at times, dictate to other nations. That’s perhaps not something that presidents should say, but nevertheless it’s pretty much true.

And yes, Mitt Romney believes that, too. What else is the United States doing with Iran but attempting to dictate terms? Consider his answer on Syria:

And so the right course for us, is working through our partners and with our own resources, to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a — in a form of — if not government, a form of — of — of council that can take the lead in Syria. And then make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves. We do need to make sure that they don't have arms that get into the — the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road. . . . We need to have a very effective leadership effort in Syria, making sure that the — the insurgent there are armed and that the insurgents that become armed, are people who will be the responsible parties. Recognize — I believe that Assad must go. I believe he will go. But I believe — we want to make sure that we have the relationships of friendship with the people that take his place, steps that in the years to come we see Syria as a — as a friend, and Syria as a responsible party in the Middle East.

That sounds an awful lot like “dictating” to me. He knows what he wants and thinks the United States should reach out and take it. Nothing about negotiating toward goals here, or in most of Romney's foreign policy.

I’m not sure how wise it would be for the United States to follow Romney’s particular path here (would a U.S.-certified faction really be well-positioned to govern a post-revolutionary Syria?), but the general idea that the United States often has influence and should use it to further its interests seems extremely reasonable. Indeed, anyone who didn’t believe that — and anyone not willing to make and enforce demands when national security was really at stake — would, it seems to me, be entirely unsuited for the presidency.

In the event, what Barack Obama was actually talking about when he used the “dictating” line was past policy towards Latin American nations (no, it wasn't in Arab nations, as Romney claimed in the debate); again, it would be foolish to argue that the United States has never bulldozed those countries, although one might argue about whether it’s wise to acknowledge it. Generally, there are lots of times that the United States should bargain in good faith. But sometimes dictating terms is exactly the correct thing to do.

By  |  05:04 PM ET, 10/23/2012

 
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