Mitt Romney has never served in the military or held a national security post. But he’s made dozens of foreign visits, dealt with top officials and has more exposure to the world than most governors or even senators. He will lay out his foreign policy views in a speech before the VFW today, as he did at a 2009 foreign policy conference, in his book, in his foreign policy white paper released last fall and in the GOP debates. His penchant for fact-based analysis and his conviction that it is essential to project American power in the world suggest he may be intellectually and temperamentally suited to refashioning what has become a chaotic and largely unsuccessful Obama foreign policy approach.
After three years of inept execution (failure to keep secrets, make timely decisions, etc.) by the Obama administration, the former business executive and governor could at least be relied upon to preside over a more nimble, cohesive and competent foreign policy apparatus. In prepared remarks for the VFW released by his campaign, he hammers the president’s failure to control leaks: “What kind of White House would reveal classified material for political gain? I’ll tell you right now: Mine won’t.”
Moreover, unlike Barack Obama, who came to the presidency with sky-high expectations (and was promptly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing), Romney may benefit from more realistic and limited expectations. He would come to the White House with fewer budget resources and less public appetite for an interventionist foreign policy than did George W. Bush. Romney also has the benefit from lessons learned from the Bush and Obama administrations.
In 2009 at an appearance at the conservative Foreign Policy Initiative conference, Romney said, “I do not subscribe to the view that American is in decline or has to be in decline.” His campaign’s 2011 white paper picked up on this theme, asserting that “a strong America is the best guarantor of peace and the best patron of liberty the world has ever known.” He has repeatedly castigated the president for weakening our ability to exert “hard power” and for deferring to international bodies (e.g., in Libya, Syria). In practice, this should mean elevating foreign policy as a priority in a new administration, heading off the defense sequestration cuts that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has deemed “devastating” and fashioning coherent policies to address the world’s hot spots.
Romney can make progress on the following, all requiring serious policy formulation: 1) Devising a coherent approach to the Arab Spring, including a feasible framework for human rights promotion; 2) Re-setting “reset” with Russia and revising our relationship with China; 3) Enacting a rational defense budget coupled with Defense Department reforms; and 4) Rebuilding of the U.S.-Israel relationship and reviving other critical regional alliances.
As to the specifics, a Romney administration must have a policy for dealing with the revolts in the Middle East that have toppled authoritarian regimes. That in and of itself would be a change from the current administration, which has lurched from crisis to crisis and failed to assert, let alone devise, a predictable course of action. Obama supported Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, only to grudgingly dump him. The administration spoke in defense of a democratic transition from the Egyptian military to civilian rule but released without preconditions U.S. aid to the military government that was cracking down on human rights. In Syria, the administration dispatched Sen. John Kerry (R-Mass.) to ingratiate the United States with President Bashar al-Assad, next maintained Assad was “reformer” despite his violent crackdown on protestors and then migrated to more robust rhetoric, only to be stymied when China and Russia blocked U.N. Security Council action.
A Romney administration would be inclined to set out expectations (e.g,. increased freedom in civil society) for countries desiring a close relationship with the United States while using both carrots (e.g., increased aid, trade) and sticks (diplomatic and economic) to encourage the progress toward secular, more democratic societies. Romney, who doesn’t think of himself in messianic terms, would likely steer clear of grand pronouncements. This is wise, given our limited ability to determine the course of the revolutions, but we should at least be seen in the region and beyond as consistent in acting on our values. As for Syria, Romney told me in a February interview that the United States should be more actively supporting the rebels. Romney would be inclined to find willing allies if military assistance is required (e.g., establishment of safe zones) but would avoid handing a veto to hostile powers and the international bodies they dominate.
Second, our relationships with Russia and China must be revamped. Obama seems to have confused Russian “reset” with “capitulation,” going so far as to attempt to block legislation to sanction perpetrators of human rights abuses. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) among others has expressed concern about Russian compliance with START, while Russia still occupies part of Georgia and at home has become more repressive. On China, the United States has backpedaled on human rights and failed to respond forcefully to incursions into the China Sea. Romney, by contrast, has already asserted that he sees both powers in starkly different terms, labeling Russia (including those it aids) as our most serious foe. As for China, Romney has vowed to take action to protect the United States from unfair trading practices. In sum, Romney is poised to end the one-way street of concessions, speak out on human rights and not shirk from defending allies (e.g., Taiwan, Georgia) from these powers.
Third, Romney has blasted Obama on the sequestration cuts, as he will do again at the VFW. Beyond that, Romney has indicated that our defense spending should be commensurate with our national security needs. He already indicated in his white paper that he will adopt a defense budget plan with a floor of 4 percent of GDP. He also recognized, “The Department’s bureaucracy is bloated to the point of dysfunction and is ripe for being pared.” He has sketched out a list of cost-savings and administrative reforms, including greater competition in procurement. Romney’s background in business, with the Olympics and as governor of Massachusetts, suggest he is well equipped to wring out excess costs at the Pentagon while modernizing our aging fleet and airplanes. The rebuilding of American ships will in and of itself communicate to the Chinese that we are serious about defending our interests in Asia.
Finally, in devising his current overseas itinerary, Romney has emphasized the importance of traditional U.S. relationships with three key allies (Poland, Israel and Britain). Not coincidentally, these are three powers Obama has snubbed in some fashion. Some snubs have been trivial (e.g., returning the Churchill bust) while others were grave (e.g., surprising Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the “1967 border” speech).
Romney suggests that “doing the opposite of what Obama has done” would characterize his own foreign policy. With regard to long-time allies, that means repairing the military alliance with the Poles and Czechs, whom Obama insulted by pulling out missile sites. It means departing from Obama’s aim of “putting daylight” between the United States and Israel. Faced with the threat of Iranian hegemony, a Romney administration is far more likely to construct an alliance of the “willing,” akin to that in the Iraq wars, than to defer to existing multilateral bodies whose interests diverge from ours. Indeed, there is no shortage of bilateral relationships to mend and bolster with countries like India and Colombia.
Obama would have us believe the choice for commander in chief is between him and George W. Bush. This is a flimsy straw man. Bush is in retirement. The world is a different place now. And Romney would come to the presidency with a different skill set, restrictions and challenges.
Romney begins from an entirely different premise than did Obama, namely that it is not the “international community” that gives U.S. power legitimacy, but U.S. power and values that make the world safer and more free. As he put in his VFW remarks: “ I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced. I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever.”
Starting from a different set of principles, a Romney foreign policy is likely to deliver different outcomes. At least we hope so.