Mitt Romney gave what was billed as a major speech during which he would stake his ground on foreign policy, an issue on which he has made several statements that any intelligent person would find, to say the least, embarrassing. You can read the whole speech here, but good luck finding much substance in it.
The speech is little more than a list of vague and/or patently obvious nostrums, interspersed with meaningless tripe that might sound impressive to people who have no idea what to think on the issues. It’s straight out of the Handy Dandy Republican Talking Points Book, with lots of talk about strength and resolve and little definition of either. He calls for “strong, confident, principled global leadership” and waxing on about “the responsibility of our President to use America’s great power to shape history.” This is verbal cotton candy.
When he gets around to criticizing President Obama, he offers more vagueness:
Across the greater Middle East, as the joy born from the downfall of dictators has given way to the painstaking work of building capable security forces, and growing economies, and developing democratic institutions, the President has failed to offer the tangible support that our partners want and need.
Really? Which partners would those be? Mubarak? Qaddafi? Lots of people on the right have actually criticized the president for not stepping in to help those brutal dictators stay in power. Is that what you would suggest, Mr. Romney? Who are our partners in Egypt right now? And how should we be helping them? This is all very easy to say as a Monday morning quarterback, but faced with a situation with a dozen different groups struggling for power, none of which are entirely in line with what we might want, it becomes a little tougher.
In Iraq, the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent Al-Qaeda, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad, and the rising influence of Iran. And yet, America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence. The President tried-and failed-to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains.
No, actually, he didn’t. President Bush signed an agreement requiring that “abrupt” withdrawal — you know, the one that everyone knew was coming two years in advance — and the only way to change that agreement was if the Iraqi government voted to change it, which they had no desire to do. The only other option was to violate the agreement and go back to simply being an occupying power, which would have required another huge influx of new troops to control the country and provoked massive violence against our people there in response. Is that what you would have done, Mr. Romney? Oh, I forgot. You can’t actually say what you would have done because then people might point out that those policies have consequences. Better to just offer empty pablum like this, 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.
Which is exactly what Obama has done in every instance. ThinkProgress points out four ways in which Romney’s foreign policy is identical to Obama’s, but they only scratch the surface. My former colleague Spencer Ackerman, who knows more about foreign policy than anyone else I know, says that with this speech it’s clear that Romney is running “for Obama’s second term.”
Mitt Romney thinks Barack Obama is a terrible president. When Romney looks at Obama’s foreign policies, he sees a president who projects “passivity” in a dangerous world, as he argues in a big speech on Monday, leaving allies and enemies confused about where America stands. Which makes it curious that the policies Romney outlines in his speech differ, at most, superficially from Obama’s…
But more often than not, Romney accepts the policy framework that Obama created. On Iran, he’ll propose “new sanctions” and to “tighten the sanctions we currently have,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Iran policy (along with cyberattacks). On Afghanistan, he “will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Afghanistan policy. On Libya, Romney will “support the Libyan people’s efforts to forge a lasting government that represents all of them,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Libya policy. Perhaps most surprisingly, Romney will recommit to negotiating peace between Israel and Palestine, which was a cornerstone of Obama’s Mideast policy before it crumbled into dust.
The differences Romney outlines from Obama tend to shrink under scrutiny. To confront Iran, Romney will pledge to “restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf.” But Obama has kept two carrier strike groups off Iran’s shores for at least a year, an increase from the Bush administration, along with an additional naval surge of minesweepers, gunboats and commandos. On Syria, Romney says he’ll “entify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need.” But the CIA is on the Turkey-Syrian border trying to sort out which Syrian rebels are worth funneling foreign weapons to — a difficult proposition at best — and, as the New York Times‘ David Sanger points out, Romney stops short of promising American weapons to the rebels. Romney doesn’t like Obama’s 2014 timetable for ending U.S. combat in Afghanistan (a “politically timed retreat,” Romney calls it), but, again, he’ll say he’ll stick to it while “evaluat[ing] conditions on the ground,” something less than a pledge to stay longer. But since Obama isn’t leaving Afghanistan after 2014, either, finding distinctions on Afghanistan is like counting angels on the head of a pin.
Daniel Drezner makes many of the same points. There simply is no substance here, only the tired old line that Republicans always try to push about how Democrats aren’t acting sufficiently manly by not rattling the metaphorical — or literal — sabers enough. But Obama is pretty much the last Democrat that can work on, since he has been, by all practical measures, a Republican on foreign policy, from the worlwide drone bombing campaigns to the sudden, and hypocritical, notion that the president can authorize a war without Congressional approval any time he wants.
But this is a symptom of a larger problem. There really isn’t much difference between the two parties on foreign policy anymore. Terrified of being painted as soft on defense or on terrorism, the Democrats long ago decided to go along with most of the neo-conservative agenda. They know full well that the American public almost always gets behind a war when it starts, no matter how absurd the marketing slogans used to sell it. Even the Vietnam war was popular early on. It’s only when the body bags start coming home in large numbers and it becomes clear that we have little to gain by it that the public begins to realize they’ve been had — until the next marketing campaign for the next invasion of some nation full of brown-skinned people who’ve done nothing to harm or threaten us.