In a foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute today, Mitt Romney will provide a comprehensive critique of President Obama's national security policy. In excerpts released by the campaign, Romney argues: “The attacks on America last month should not be seen as random acts. They are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East — a region that is now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century. And the fault lines of this struggle can be seen clearly in Benghazi itself.”
Romney continues, “The attack on our Consulate in Benghazi on September 11th, 2012 was likely the work of the same forces that attacked our homeland on September 11th, 2001. This latest assault cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the Administration’s attempts to convince us of that for so long. No, as the Administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West.”
In a conference call held by foreign policy advisers Richard Williamson, Alex Wong and Eliot Cohen, the campaign suggested the tactic will be to paint Romney’s policy as part of the bipartisan tradition in foreign policy running from Presidents Harry Truman to John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Williamson, who took the lead in running the call (another indication that he is now the key foreign policy voice for the campaign) rejected a reporter’s notion that Romney was moving to the center. He said this is not a Republican or Democratic foreign policy, but a tradition in which Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama are the exceptions. All those other presidents, save Carter and Obama, he argued, knew that “strength is not provocative.” Cohen echoed that view in castigating the idea of “leadership from behind.” He said that he can’t imagine Clinton subscribing to that view.
As he did in the debate, Romney intends to lay out an alternative view, although the advisers shied away from the notion that there is a “Romney doctrine.” In the speech Romney will tell voters, “It is time to change course in the Middle East.” He will lay out his position on Iran (“I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region — and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination. For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions — not just words — that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated.”) And he will suggest a different approach on Syria: “I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran — rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East.”
As for Egypt, Romney says he will try to use American influence “including clear conditions on our aid — to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel. And we must persuade our friends and allies to place similar stipulations on their aid.” And on Afghanistan he will restate his view that Obama is once again making a straw-man argument. (“President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war – and to potential attacks here at home – is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11. I will evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation.”)
The excerpts and conference call were notable in a few respects.
First, the central theme tying all of this together appears to be an indictment of Obama’s notion that we can remain safe and secure without leading in the world. In his speech Romney will argue, “I believe that if America does not lead, others will — others who do not share our interests and our values — and the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us. America’s security and the cause of freedom cannot afford four more years like the last four years. I am running for President because I believe the leader of the free world has a duty, to our citizens, and to our friends everywhere, to use America’s great influence — wisely, with solemnity and without false pride, but also firmly and actively — to shape events in ways that secure our interests, further our values, prevent conflict, and make the world better — not perfect, but better.”
That more modest goal (an imperfect but better world) seems to be an implicit distancing from the unbridled ambitions that were sometimes expressed by President George W. Bush. In his second inaugural address, Bush memorably stated, “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” This is not the tone Romney is seeking to emulate. When invited to compare his agenda to that of Bush, his advisers declined, preferring to put Romney in the company of Reagan and Clinton while pairing Obama with Carter. This, I suspect, is born of the conviction, perhaps well founded, that the “freedom agenda” and the Bush era proved somewhat exhausting for voters, who would like reassurance that a strong U.S. foreign policy does not mean a cycle of endless war. Romney’s goals are decidedly more modest: Use American influence to further our interests, restrain foes and help allies and freedom-seeking people help themselves.
In that vein, Romney’s advisers made clear that Romney will hit Obama for failure to maintain our military readiness and for his excessively solicitous stance toward adversaries. Cohen explained: “Governor Romney believes you start with your friends. President Obama believes you start with your enemies.” He then ticked off the ill-conceived reset with Russia, our silence on the Green Revolution and Obama’s decision to send our ambassador back to Syria. He suggested that “conditionality” will be a critical part of Romney’s worldview, making clear we must deal with friends, enemies and “people in between.”
Romney certainly intends to put Libya in proper perspective. More than once the advisers noted that Ambassador Chris Stevens was the first ambassador killed since the Carter administration. They emphasized that this was not simply one incident but a series of “tremendously dramatic” events in which four embassies were breached, 20 witnessed anti-American protests, and the black flag of al-Qaeda was raised over the embassies in Cairo and Tunis. I asked whether Romney would, as others have done, directly accuse the president of misleading the American people. Williamson stopped just short of that, saying that part of the president’s job is “to have transparency.” He argued that Obama’s administration has failed at that and that facts are “still trickled out.” Expect also for Romney to hit Obama for his repeated apologies for a crackpot anti-Muslim video, which now even the White House concedes was not the cause of the embassy attacks. (Don’t we look abjectly weak to a country like Pakistan, where we bought airtime to express regrets for an American’s First Amendment expression?)
In sum, Romney’s aim, as it was in the first debate, will be to paint the election as a consequential one with a big choice for voters. Recently, senior adviser Ed Gillespie told me, “We can’t afford four more years of leading from behind. While foreign policy is not the most determinative issue [for voters], it is important.” Coming after the president’s rotten debate showing, now is certainly an opportune moment to make the case that responsible, forceful leadership is the only formula for promoting a freer and safer world.