Romney's US drum-banging causes concern
WORLDVIEW:The front-runner extols muscle-flexing and not negotiating overseas. It is a dangerous narrative
‘GOD DID not create this country to be a nation of followers,” Mitt Romney sermonised in what was supposed to be a defining foreign policy speech last autumn. “America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will.”
A campaign White Paper around the same time, written for him in a similar if more cerebral vein by Eliot Cohen, a historian and security expert who worked for Condoleezza Rice in the state department, berated what it saw as the “high council of the Obama administration” view of the “US as a power in decline”, a “condition that can and should be managed for the global good rather than reversed”.
But it takes more than proclaiming American exceptionalism, the “American century” or declaring this moment “America’s moment” to define a foreign policy. There was, and has been since then, little more than broadbrush hints on offer.
At a time when US global influence is being challenged, notably by an emergent China and by an ever- tightening squeeze on its military budgets, such declarations might suggest an almost delusional, harking-back to the better times of unchallenged US global pre-eminence to the Republican front-runner’s worldview.
US presidential elections are rarely won, or even fought, on the battleground of foreign policy and so its precise articulation is inevitably of more concern to those of us abroad who may be affected by it than to voters at home.
Nevertheless, there is a credibility gap that must concern Romney’s team.
Voters, by a far clearer margin than on the economy, prefer to trust Barack Obama’s handling of international affairs (by 53 to 36 per cent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month).
Even among Republicans, Romney struggled to win trust over his competitors – Newt Gingrich was favoured two to one on the issue before he quit the race.
On one topic, the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, Romney might have found some traction, an area where the president’s sanctions diplomacy leaves him clearly vulnerable.
Hawkish pro-Israeli Republicans have banged the drum for a pre-emptive strike and the primary debates reflected what conservative columnist Peggy Noonan parodied as “We should bomb Iran Thursday. No, stupid, we should bomb Iran on Wednesday.”
Romney declared late in 2011: “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. But pressed on how, exactly, his strategy would differ from Obama’s, Romney was a little unspecific. In February, 49 per cent of voters in a Fox News poll were at least “somewhat confident” that Obama could stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons; 44 per cent said the same of Romney.
On Afghanistan, the latter has blown hot and cold over the Obama schedule for withdrawal of US troops.
The man who last year was saying that it was “time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can”, recently declared that “We should not negotiate with the Taliban, we should defeat the Taliban”, just as diplomats sent by the president were in Qatar trying to get those negotiations going.
The statement appears to have been largely spontaneous and unthought-out and split his advisers down the middle.
One told the New York Times anonymously that “It begged the obvious question. Do we stay another decade? How many forces and how long does that take? Do we really want to go into the general election telling Americans that we should stay a few more years to eradicate the whole Taliban movement?”
And yet one of Romney’s key advisers has even written what is regarded as the text on how talks should be managed.
“Dozens of subtle position papers flow through the candidate’s policy shop,” David Sanger of the New York Times writes, “and yet seem to have little influence on Mr Romney’s hawkish-sounding pronouncements, on everything from war to nuclear proliferation to the trade-offs in dealing with China.”
Sanger also points to differences among his foreign policy team over what attitude the US should take to Russia.
Romney, siding with neo-cons in Congress, published a hawkish op-ed article declaring Russia “our No 1 geopolitical foe” and opposing the ratification of the new Start treaty (it cut in half the two countries’ nuclear launchers but left largely intact huge stockpiles of non-deployed nuclear weapons).
The inchoate picture that emerges is of a candidate instinctively in sync not with the centre ground of diplomatic realism but with the Republican hardliners in Congress banging the drum for the US again to project and demonstrate its power.
It is an interesting contrast to his attempts to woo the middle ground on domestic issues.
Negotiation, it appears, is for sissies, a sign of weakness, a view associated with one of his key advisers, neo-con John Bolton, and indeed with his close friend Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
But is this really the way to deal with Iran, the Taliban, North Korea, Russia . . . ? Is Bolton a secretary of state in waiting?
Be very afraid.