THE ROMNEY CRITIQUE
One year after the bin Laden killing, Obama embarked on Air Force One for a showy trip to Afghanistan to mark the occasion. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney delivered pizzas to firefighters in Lower Manhattan, near 9/11’s Ground Zero.
Even as Romney advisers accused Obama of politicizing the bin Laden raid, the contrast pointed to a major challenge for the Republican nominee. Any critique of the president’s foreign policy has to overcome the fact that the target controls all the tools of statecraft and national security, not to mention the bully pulpit. The occupant of the Oval Office personifies power.
Having vanquished primary opponents whose worldviews reflected the isolationist (most notably Rep. Ron Paul of Texas) and liberal internationalist (former Ambassador Jon Huntsman) wings of the Republican Party, Romney has embraced a Reaganesque foreign-policy philosophy of “peace through strength.” He has called for significant increases in defense spending and the size of the military,
and he has consistently attacked Obama from the right as weak and overly conciliatory toward adversaries.
In Romney’s view, Obama’s outreach to the Islamic world and his admission of past U.S. mistakes—such as supporting autocrats in Muslim countries and adopting counterterrorism policies that the president said ran “contrary to our ideals”—smacks of apologizing for the nation’s inherent greatness. “Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined,” Romney wrote in his 2011 book, No Apologies: The Case for American Greatness. “It is his way of signaling to foreign countries and foreign leaders that their dislike for America is something he understands and that is, at least in part, understandable.”
Romney has been especially critical of the White House’s pressure on Israel to end settlement expansions in the occupied West Bank as a bid to entice Palestinians back to the negotiating table, and for Obama’s declaration that the basis for a two-state solution should be the 1967 prewar borders with agreed-upon land swaps. In Romney’s view, these policies betray a venerable ally. Obama “threw Israel under the bus” by laying out guidelines for peace negotiations, Romney said, suggesting that as president he would abandon the role of impartial mediator. “President Obama is fond of lecturing Israel’s leaders.… Even at the United Nations, to the enthusiastic applause of Israel’s enemies, he spoke as if our closest ally in the Middle East was the problem,” Romney told a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in July, days before traveling to Israel on his first trip overseas as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. “The people of Israel deserve better.”
In terms of major-power relations, Romney has slammed the Obama administration’s reset in relations with Russia and its forbearance of China’s unfair trade practices. The administration has already weakened a planned missile-defense shield in Europe at Moscow’s insistence, in Romney’s view, even though Russia continues to back thugs such as Syria’s Assad. “Russia—this is, without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors,” Romney told CNN.
As for China, Romney has threatened to label Beijing a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office if the regime continues to refuse to float its currency. “If you are not willing to stand up to China, you will get run over by China, and that’s what’s happened for 20 years,” Romney said.
His camp also views Obama’s attempts to build international consensus for action at the United Nations as making concessions to multi-lateralism that too often tie America’s hands. The Romney campaign accuses the president of “leading from behind” in the NATO operation to oust Libya’s Qaddafi. It characterizes the administration’s willingness to negotiate with adversaries such as Syria and Iran as weakness and its attempts to close the Guantánamo Bay prison as misguided. Romney has instead advocated doubling the population of terrorism suspects held there.
“Like Ronald Reagan, Governor Romney believes that America and the world are better off when the United States leads from a position of unchallenged strength, and that our values should animate our foreign policy,” said former Ambassador Richard Williamson, a foreign-policy adviser to the Romney campaign who worked in the Reagan White House. “Contrast that to President Obama’s preference for ‘leading from behind,’ for engagement for engagement’s sake, and his undue deference to multilateralism that has compromised U.S. policies towards Syria, Iran, and North Korea.”
The common thread that runs through Romney’s critique is that Obama’s outreach to global constituencies and devotion to a multilateralist worldview represent a turning away from “American exceptionalism,” the notion that the United States embodies a unique set of values, principles, and attributes that make it an unequaled beacon of democracy and the natural leader of the free world. “I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world,” Romney said at the Citadel last October. “Not exceptional, as the president derisively said, in the way that the British think Great Britain is exceptional or the Greeks think Greece is exceptional. In Barack Obama’s profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States.”
America’s destiny is to lead the world, Romney said, not be one of several equally balanced global powers, and fulfilling that destiny rests on restoring the United States’ military preeminence and resolutely confronting rivals. “This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today,” Romney told the VFW audience.
Of course, the danger of such an assertive foreign policy is that it will remind American voters not of Ronald Reagan but of George W. Bush. Many of the neoconservatives and hawks who held sway in Bush’s first term and championed the Iraq war, and who continue to argue for a more assertive American leadership that confronts adversaries militarily and actively supports democratic revolutions, have signed as Romney advisers. The election campaign will help determine whether that vision of a more unilateral, values-based foreign policy and a muscular brand of U.S. leadership still sells in a country wearied by a decade of war and years of economic upheaval.