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Right Turn
Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 09/02/2012

Is the glass half full or empty on Romney foreign policy?

In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, didn’t mention illegal immigration. He devoted three short lines to social issues: “As president, I will protect the sanctity of life. I will honor the institution of marriage. And I will guarantee America’s first liberty: the freedom of religion.”

On foreign policy he had this to say:

Every American was relieved the day President Obama gave the order and Seal Team Six took out Osama bin Laden. But on another front, every American is less secure today because he has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat.
In his first TV interview as president, he said we should talk to Iran. We’re still talking, and Iran’s centrifuges are still spinning.
President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus, even as he has relaxed sanctions on Castro’s Cuba. He abandoned our friends in Poland by walking away from our missile defense commitments but is eager to give Russia’s President Putin the flexibility he desires, after the election. Under my administration, our friends will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone.
We will honor America’s democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world. This is the bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan. And under my presidency we will return to it once again. . . .
The America we all know has been a story of the many becoming one, uniting to preserve liberty, uniting to build the greatest economy in the world, uniting to save the world from unspeakable darkness.

Romney also left Tampa on Wednesday to make a national security speech in Indianapolis to the American Legion of Honor. His remarks included this:

The world continues to be a dangerous place. Major powers are rapidly adding to their military capabilities, sometimes with intentions very different from our own.
The regime in Tehran leads chants of “death to America” and is drawing closer to nuclear weapons capability.
The threat of radical Islamic terrorism persists, despite the welcome removal of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders.
With instability in Pakistan and horrific violence Syria, and with North Korea having shared nuclear technology, the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction continues to be very real.
And we are still at war in Afghanistan. We still have uniformed men and women in conflict, risking their lives just as you once did.
All of this and more is happening around the world right now. And yet, for the past four years, President Obama has allowed our leadership to diminish. In dealings with other nations, he has given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved, and apology where it is not due.
A fundamental principle of American foreign policy has long been to work closely with our allies so that we can deter aggression before it breaks out into open conflict. We used to nurture our alliances and stand up for our common values. But when it comes to friends and allies like Poland, the Czech Republic, and Israel . . . and with nations that oppose us like Iran and Cuba . . . President Obama has moved in the opposite direction. Our foreign policy should take a page from the U.S. Marine Corps: No better friend, no worse enemy.
A just and peaceful world depends upon our strength and our confidence.

So naturally, among Republicans, it is a segment of foreign policy hawks who are most aggrieved and feel overlooked by the campaign. What explains this tension? This is the problem of the glass half full or half empty writ large.

From the perspective of some hawks, Mitt Romney needs to state controversial, bold foreign policy positions as sort of a test of his seriousness. If he doesn’t say now he’ll finish the job in Afghanistan and he’ll, if need be, set up a no-fly zone in Syria, he’ll shrink from tough positions when in office. They don’t think it is enough to have surrogates like former senator Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, and senior adviser Richard Williamson give assurances, speak about Romney’s devotion to American exceptionalism and remind conservatives of Romney’s early support for the Syrian rebels.

Inside the Romney camp, senior advisers are genuinely perplexed that the campaign is criticized for not talking more about issues that have very little if any electoral benefit. On issues on which the campaign sees political benefit (e.g. sequestration cuts, Israel) the nominees have spoken out more frequently, but like immigration or gay marriage or many other issues, they see no benefit in letting President Obama shift the debate away from his own economic record. Moreover, the Romney camp points to a series of speeches (e.g., the Citadel, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Poland, Israel) in which Romney spoke eloquently on stark differences between him and the president. Senior aides also point to the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is among the most forceful in Congress in defending defense cuts, as the Republican vice-presidential candidate. It is noteworthy that in Ohio on Saturday Romney made an impassioned statement about our troops defending freedom around the world.

From my own vantage point I would certainly like to hear more on Afghanistan and Syria. It wouldn’t be difficult to add a sentence to stump speeches (Unlike Obama I won’t set a troop withdrawal schedule for electoral gain), especially when Romney has made similar statements in the past. Even a more forceful critique of Obama’s actions (Obama led from behind, and 20,000 Syrians are dead and Iran’s closest partner is still in place) would be of benefit. And with regard to Syria he certainly should push the president to match his actions with his rhetoric. It is absurd that the president should be ruling out options like a no-fly zone.

That said, after a deep dive into polling and a number of days at the convention, I have a better appreciation for how little there is to be gained electorally speaking for the campaign to do more than it already is.

A good deal of the tension between the policy hawks outside the campaign (or on the periphery of the campaign) and senior Romney advisers is a reflection of a more noticeable schism within the GOP. That split within the GOP was evident in the proposal of the so-called Gang of Six, which proposed enormous defense cuts. Even beyond the extreme Ron Paul set (who from what I can gather are of no concern to the Romney camp on foreign policy) there are more voices calling for defense cuts and for withholding action in places like Syria. The fight for the hearts and minds of a future Romney foreign policy administration is on, in a big way.

Nearly all of this jostling goes on beyond the purview of the average voter. Should Israel feel compelled to act militarily before the election, foreign policy will jump to the front of the debate. But barring that, I don’t expect, beyond some fine-tuning, much to change in the campaign’s approach to foreign policy. In response to defenders of the freedom agenda who remain uneasy with a “trust me” stance on controversial issues, the Romney camp would say to look to the prominence of Williamson, a Ronald Reagan foreign policy hawk, in the campaign ( he has the inside track on national security adviser, I would think) and Romney’s foreign policy statements over the long haul of the campaign. That’s not altogether satisfying, but it is the reality in a tight race in which the path to the White House runs through Obama’s economic record.

By  |  10:00 AM ET, 09/02/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign, National Security

 
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