Mitt Romney’s far-reaching foreign policy address at the Citadel Friday mixed red meat for conservatives, like a promise to build a missile-defense system and a heated attack on the United Nations, with ideas designed to moderate general election voters, like expanded trade with Latin America and a renewed focus on diplomacy and other elements of soft power as opposed to pure military force.
Much of the address drew from accurate, if partisan, interpretations of the Obama administration’s national security and foreign policy moves, such as setting a fixed date for beginning the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, a decision which Romney – rightly – notes ran contrary to the advice of then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Pentagon’s top military leadership.
But other elements of the speech were misleading, vague to the point of near-irrelevance, or simply false. Below are the five key points of the speech, along with a description of their accuracy and feasibility.
• Reversing Obama’s “massive defense cuts.” This line, one of Romney’s standard attacks of the president, is simply false. Defense spending has increased during every year of Obama’s tenure, just as did under President Bush in the years after Sept. 11.
In fiscal year 2011, for instance, the administration proposed a record $708 billion for the Pentagon, drawing fierce criticism from members of his own party who wanted to see that money spent on domestic social welfare programs. It is true that Obama has proposed cutting $400 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next 12 years, but that call was endorsed – reluctantly – by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen.
Many leading congressional Republicans have also signaled a willingness to cut the defense budget to close the nation’s yawning budget gap. Pressed to substantiate the line during a pre-speech conference call, Romney advisers offered no evidence to back it up and instead suggested that it referred to possible future cuts. But that is not at all what Romney actually said, and the line was inaccurate.
• Taking a harder line with Iran. In previous remarks, Romney has hit Obama, hard, for failing to stop Iran’s nuclear program. More specifically, Romney argues that Obama erred by seeming to take the military option off of the table, relying instead on sanctions and diplomatic pressure.
The former Massachusetts governor is correct to say that Iran’s nuclear program continues, but he usually fails to acknowledge that the Bush administration had no success in stopping it either. It’s also unclear whether the steps Romney wants to take – like regularly deploying Naval carrier task forces in Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf waters to remind Iran of his willingness, and capability, to use force against them will scare Tehran into abandoning its nuclear ambitions. It is just as likely that the ships could inflame public opinion in Iran against the United States or, more dangerously, become targets for Iranian paramilitary groups or proxies.
• Expanding the U.S. Navy. In his speech, Romney spoke ambitiously of having the Navy purchase 15 vessels per year, instead of the current nine, and maintaining the current number of Naval carrier groups, an enormously powerful – and enormously expensive – element of American sea power. Missing from the speech, however, was any sense of how to pay for all of that.
Even many senior Navy officers admit that the cost of many of ships has soared out of control. The Zumwalt class of destroyers, for instance, now costs a whopping $3.3 billion per ship. Gates, citing those high costs, slashed the size of the planned purchase of Zumwalt destroyers from 32 to three. Brookings Institution national security expert Michael O’Hanlon, meanwhile, believes that the United States should cut one of its 11 aircraft carrier groups because of the high cost of maintaining them and the existing disparity between the size of the U.S. Navy and that of any other power, including China.
Romney calls for a massive increase in the Navy’s budget but offers no detail whatsoever about how to pay for it. Pressed, his advisers say he will look for waste in the Pentagon budget. The problem is that Gates has already cut more than $78 billion in unneeded programs. It is implausible to think there is enough waste left over to fund such a significant expansion of the U.S. Navy.
• Improving Washington’s relationship with Israel and England. This line is a defensible, if partisan, critique of the administration. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill that had been displayed in then-President George W. Bush’s Oval Office, surprising and angering many in Britain. He compounded those feelings by referring to U.S. ties with Britain as “a special relationship,” as opposed to “the special relationship.” It seems like a semantic point, but many in Britain’s political class saw it as a sign of Obama wanting to subtly distance himself from Britain.
The two countries certainly continue to work together closely on an array of issues, from Libya to Afghanistan, but there is little question that Obama’s relationship with the British government is noticeably cooler than Bush’s had been.
The situation is more pronounced when it comes to Israel. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu don’t trust each other and, by all accounts, deeply dislike each other personally. Netanyahu was infuriated by Obama’s recent call for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians based on the borders which existed in 1967, even though that stance was basically the same as those of Bush and then-President Bill Clinton. Israelis have also noted, angrily, that Obama has yet to visit Israel, a mandatory stop for his predecessors.
Obama, in turn, has been angered by Netanyahu’s continued settlement building and refusal to engage in meaningful peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, easily the most moderate leader the Palestinians have ever had. Defense cooperation between the two countries remains extraordinarily strong, and many Israeli military officials argue that Obama has been more open to strengthening Israel’s armed forces – by providing long-sought “bunker-buster bombs,” for instance – than any recent U.S. president. That gets lost, however, because of the ongoing tensions between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration.
• Rethinking the Afghan War. This is the area where Romney has had the most difficulty in articulating – and sticking with – a coherent policy. In June, Romney said he wanted to “bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can,” subject to the advice of on-the-ground military commanders. That line sounded so much like one that could have been uttered by Obama that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham likened Romney to former Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
In his speech Friday, Romney said he would “order a full review of our transition to the Afghan military” and speak to U.S. military commanders to make sure the withdrawal timeline wasn’t devised based on politics.That is a pointed – and accurate – jab at Obama, who angered many in the Pentagon by ignoring the advice of his generals and setting a fixed 18-month deadline for beginning to remove the surge troops from Afghanistan.