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Romney on foreign policy: It's all about attitude

October 09, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Mitt Romney delivers a foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Va., Monday,
Mitt Romney delivers a foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute… (Charles Dharapak / AP )

Mitt Romney’s "major foreign policy address" at VMI cited a few specific policy differences with the Obama administration. Romney would "ensure" that Syrian rebels were armed, but only after identifying and organizing opposition forces who "share our values." He might keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan past 2014 (but then again so might President Obama). He would  increase the size of the Navy. Finally, Romney forswore any "flexibility with Vladimir Putin" in deploying an anti-missile defense system in Europe. That was a dig at Obama, who was caught by an open mic telling then-Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev that he would be freer to address Russia's concerns about the system after being reelected.

Substantively, that's pretty much it.  Much of the other specifics in Romney's speech tracked Obama foreign policy, including his warnings about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and the importance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. (In his  "47%" speech to fund-raisers, Romney had  disdained the two-state approach, suggesting that the proper response  to the Israeli-Palestinian question was to "kick the ball down the field.") Romney did say  that there would be no "daylight" between the United States and Israel, but that was more of an exercise in schmoozing than a specific statement of policy.

So how would a Romney foreign policy -- especially in the Middle East -- be different? It all comes down to attitude. 

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Obama vs. Romney

“It is time to change course in the Middle East,” Romney said. “That course should be organized around these bedrock principles: America must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in our might. No friend of America will question our commitment to support them.… [N]o enemy that attacks America will question our resolve to defeat them.… [A]nd no one anywhere, friend or foe, will doubt America's capability to back up our words.” By contrast, he implied, Obama was a wimp (remember the "apology tour"?).

But except for the specifics listed above, what does this tougher posture entail? An invasion of Syria? Apparently not; Romney isn’t even  willing to arm the rebels until they are vetted for “sharing our values.” A prolongation of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan?  Not likely, despite Romney’s promise that he wouldn’t engage in a “politically timed retreat.”  A greater willingness than Obama has to attack Iran over its nuclear program? Perhaps, depending on how one interprets the “no daylight” line, but the speech was otherwise scrupulous about not making that threat.

An editorial in the Washington Post, a stronghold of neoconservative interventionists, praised Romney for offering a “coherent and forceful critique of President Obama’s handling of the upheavals in the Middle East.” But the Post then complained that  Romney didn’t outline “tangible new steps” to pressure Iran, overthrow Bashar Assad and support Arab secularists.  The Post’s doleful conclusion: “In all, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Romney, like Mr. Obama, is avoiding the embrace of a more robust Mideast policy out of fear of offending voters weary of international conflict or of dividing his own advisors.”

Romney’s speech was the best of both worlds for him. It enabled him to assert that he was tougher than Obama without committing himself to any destabilizing departures from Obama policy. Speak roughly, in other words, and carry a same-sized stick.

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