Romney’s foreign policy offers more rhetoric than content

Walter Pincus
Reporter September 26, 2012

Mitt Romney’s recent focus on foreign policy turned out to be more slogan than substance.

Let’s face it. The former Massachusetts governor’s national security credentials are minimal. He has never claimed international expertise based on his 30-month, Mormon mission in France in the late 1960s, running the 2002 Winter Olympics or a 35-year friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Romney, however, did offer two hints about his thinking, which may be his own and not those of the conservative national security team assembled around him.

Take, for example, his answer Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes” when interviewer Scott Pelley asked him how he would decide to send U.S. forces into combat.

“It would be a very high hurdle,” Romney noted. Then, almost like a graduate student rattling off rules he had just memorized, he said, “No. 1, a very substantial American interest at stake. No. 2, a clear definition of our mission. No. 3, a clear definition of how we’ll know when our mission is complete. No. 4, providing the resources to make sure that we can carry out that mission effectively, overwhelming resources. And finally, a clear understanding of what will be left after we leave. All of those would have to be in place before I were to decide to deploy American military might in any foreign place.”

Think about past U.S. military interventions — the big ones such as Korea and Vietnam and the relatively smaller ones, the 1991 Gulf War and then Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and perhaps Libya last year. Now apply Romney’s five-point formula. Korea was a quick response to an attack; Vietnam a slow, steady buildup after first steps failed.

The more recent ones work out in part, though once military action begins no one can say for sure “how we’ll know when our mission is complete” and “what will be left after we leave.”

Perhaps only the Gulf War hits them all because it was limited by then-President George H.W. Bush to driving Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

Now apply those five points to Syria, where Romney has been critical of President Obama’s hesitancy to supply arms to the Assad opposition. That’s a form of military action because you don’t drop U.S. arms in a country and not train troops on their use or manage how they are distributed. Then there is Iran, where Romney claims Obama has failed to prepare more vigorously for military action. Here Romney ignores what is clearly apparent to the Iranians: that the U.S. has moved more ships, aircraft, troops and equipment into the area and has been holding war games. Romney wants tougher rhetoric.

His other new proposal came Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative. He introduced his “Prosperity Pacts” as a novel approach to foreign aid.

It would be.

Though the U.S. Agency for International Development has programs providing private-sector grants and loans, Romney wants that aid, as well as aid for democracy, rule of law and other institutional projects, to be tied to a recipient country removing “barriers to investment and trade and entrepreneurship and entrepreneurism.”

He frankly said his aim is “to couple [U.S. foreign] aid with trade and private investment and partnerships to empower individuals, encourage innovators and reward entrepreneurs.” No more use of soft power for political influence or to aid democracy unless it’s also promoting capitalism.

The basic Romney foreign affairs message remains hidden in headline-like attacks on Obama policies — or the lack of them — with no indication of what his administration would do instead. A good example is what he said about the world scene at the Global Initiative:

“A lot of Americans, including myself . . . are troubled by developments in the Middle East. Syria has witnessed the killing of tens of thousands of people. The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack. Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons capability. We somehow feel that we’re at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events.”

That’s it. He doesn’t spell out what he’d do in Syria to shape events or why Egypt’s election of Mohamed Morsi could or should have been changed by U.S. actions. What would Romney have done to protect Ambassador Chris Stevens or what would he do differently from Obama today vis-a-vis Iran? Would he draw a red line as his friend Netanyahu wants? But where? And what does he promise to do if it is crossed?

Perhaps to support his foreign policy credibility, Romney has regularly been referring in speeches to Lech Walesa, ever since the 69-year-old former Polish president and Cold War hero in effect endorsed him when they met in July in Gdansk. Walesa told him “America is the only superpower on the planet,” Romney told a campaign rally Tuesday in Vandalia, Ohio. “We need American leadership. And then he described a place in the world, the Middle East, for instance. And then he’d say, where is American leadership? We need American leadership.”

Romney then used his own words. “This doesn’t mean that we send our guns there. This means that we stand up with our economic power, our soft power, our diplomatic power, our principles.”

That is rhetoric, not a policy.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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