Mitt Romney rolled out a robust, Reagan-esque foreign policy vision in October at the Citadel and a foreign policy white paper that was unflinching in its criticism of the administration’s approach to national security. But that seems eons ago, and with Romney focusing, correctly so in the view of most political observers, on the economy, questions begin to pop up about what he believes in, how strongly he believes and what he believes about current crises.
There are signs the campaign is aware that foreign policy shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle. While the campaign’s theme of the week was the debt, the campaign readily consented to make its director of foreign policy, Alex Wong, available for a rare on-the-record interview. He didn’t shy away from laying down a marker on Iran and other issues.
It is clear that, as on domestic policy, the campaign on a myriad of issues wants to draw a sharp contrasts with the president. The liberal fantasy that because Obama assassinated Osama bin Laden he is invulnerable on national security is not one that the Romney crowd accepts.
For example, the Romney camp recently released a strong statement blasting President Obama and the Democrats for failing to head off defense sequestration that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said would be “devastating” to our national security. Wong was emphatic: “Last August he opposed the Budget Control Act. One of the reasons he cited was the threat to defense.” (Indeed in the opening sentence of Romney’s statement back in August he said, “As president, my plan would have produced a budget that was cut, capped and balanced — not one that opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table.”)
Romney has also been consistent in his criticism of Obama’s Iran policy, which went from engagement to sanctions plus negotiation. Wong recalled, “Gov. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president for waiting too long to impose crippling sanctions.” Obama and his top advisers have sent, at best, mixed messages about a military option. Recently, Obama tried to shush critics engaging in “war talk.” Panetta and other high level military officials have repeatedly emphasized how “destabilizing” military action would be. Wong said that in Romney’s view “this administration has undermined the credibility of the military option.”
This week the Senate Democrats, as Right Turn reported, are engaged, from all appearances, in what looks like a stalling maneuver to avoid those ”crippling sanctions” being enacted before the May 23 P5+1 meeting with Iran. Many lawmakers and outside policy experts think Obama will try to craft a meaningless agreement to claim “success.”
But in the Romney campaign’s first public comment on the potential for such a charade, Wong was crystal clear. In a fleeting analogy to Neville Chamberlain he told me, “The fact of an agreement with Iran that you can wave in the air is not what we need.” He stressed that in the event of an agreement, “President Obama will be judged on what’s in the agreement.”
As in the Chen Guangcheng incident, Romney’s spine-stiffening pre-emptive message on Iran should enhance U.S. bargaining power. U.S. negotiators can tell the Iranians that they can’t very well bring back a nothing-burger deal.
Romney’s campaign rests on a singular proposition: Obama is in over his head on the economy and Romney can do better. By necessity that crowds out other issues. But this doesn’t mean Romney intends to be silent or pull his punches on foreign policy.
The good news for foreign policy hawks is that when Romney’s campaign speaks not by leaks from goodness knows which outside consultant but definitively (through the candidate, official statements and position papers and authorized spokespeople who are responsible for foreign policy formulation), the foreign policy positions are drawn in bold colors. He is running to be a forward-leaning, not a leading from behind, commander in chief. The bad news is that he may not talk about foreign policy as much as foreign policy hawks would like. He does, after all, have to get elected.