Mitt Romney announced that on Friday he’ll go to the Citadel in South Carolina to give a major speech on foreign policy. He had this to say about it on Sean Hannity’s program Monday: “Sean, I think there’s been a lot of discussion around the country about what the future looks like and this planet of ours and particularly what America’s role will be. There’s a book written recently called the ‘Post American Century,’ ‘Post American World,’ that is. There have been discussions about the decline of America. I think our President has pursued a series of strategies that lead to our decline economically and militarily. And so in that context, I am going to be talking about a very different vision. Obviously you know my inclination, having read the book that I wrote about the need for America to be strong not just militarily but economically. So, I’ll be talking on that topic and talk about what changes we have to put in place to keep America the leader of the world.”
For those who believe a strong U.S. presence in the world is essential to our own prosperity and security, these words are encouraging. But generalities are not sufficient, I would suggest, at a time when the defense budget is under the axe and voices on the right and left are calling for a timetable for withdrawal of troops. He can both commend the president and tweak the left by praising the president for killing Osama bin Laden, killing Anwar al-Awlaki, agreeing not to try KSM in public courts, keeping Guantanamo open and not pulling the plug prematurely on our successful effort in Iraq. Unlike the president, he would do well to salute our troops for our victory there. For how else to describe a hard-fought effort that rid the world of Saddam Hussein, decimated al-Qaeda, stabilized the country and disproved those who said democracy was impossible in Iraq?
Let me suggest eight topics that conservative foreign policy mavens will be interested to hear about from Romney. In explaining his views on each, Romney should be able to not only communicate distinct policy positions but tell us something about his values.
First, Romney should explain the relationship between American foreign policy and our own prosperity. Can we afford to fight only some wars, or are wars against Islamic jihadism, for example, essential to our long-term prosperity? If he thinks Obama has relied too heavily on multilateral institutions, he should explain how America should interact with allies and when multilateralism is counterproductive.
Second, Romney should spell out his view on funding of our armed forces. Would he restore any cuts imposed by the supercommittee? What is the right level of funding considering the threats we may encounter in the years to come? Should we be increasing rather than decreasing funds to meet our commitments?
Third, what is the objective in Afghanistan and what should the president say about troop strength? Likewise, the administration has proposed a minute force in Iraq that critics say won’t even be able to defend themselves. What should guide U.S. decision-making on the appropriate level of troop strength?
Fourth, President George W. Bush championed the freedom agenda, promoting democracy and human rights in a variety of ways (e.g., diplomatically, economically). Should the United States champion and promote democracy abroad, and if so, why?
Fifth, the president is proud of his Russian reset policy. However, Russia’s human rights record has worsened, Russian military figures have been linked to violence in Georgia (which remains partially occupied by Russia), and reports suggest that Russia has been unhelpful in the Quartet process. What does Romney think is the appropriate relationship between the United States and Russia, and what consequences should there be for Russia’s misbehavior?
Sixth, the Middle East “peace process” is in ruins. What actions would Romney take to revive peace talks (or are they fruitless?), and what changes in U.S. policy are needed in the region? Perhaps the most important topic he can address is the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran and what he would be prepared to do to prevent that from occurring.
Seventh, China is building up its military and growing its economy. What is the proper response to China’s aggression in the region and to its military buildup and deteriorating human rights record?
Finally, how should the United States conduct itself in our own hemisphere? Romney would do well to sketch out how we should treat despots like the Castros and Hugo Chavez, and what we can do to promote ties with pro-Western democracies?
Yes, this is a lot. Romney may not have the time to address every one of these in detail. But if he hits most of them and can speak with some level of specificity, showing himself to be knowledgable and possessing strong convictions, he will go a long way toward relieving concerns of some Republicans that he lacks steel in the spine.
Romney, by process of elimination, may be the last viable candidate standing in the GOP primary, but he should use this forum to display the traits that critics say he lacks — strong convictions, political courage and an awareness that “splitting the baby” is often the worst of all foreign policy options. It is an important opportunity for him. He shouldn’t fritter it away.