In the homestretch of the campaign, Mitt Romney has offered enticing clues to anyone trying to decipher his essential worldview and foreign-policy lodestar. In two recent instances, Romney doubled down on positions that place him well to the right of the Obama administration, and firmly in the mold crafted by hawks and neoconservatives in the first term of President George W. Bush.
In reacting to the crisis in the Middle East prompted by assaults on the U.S. Embassy in Egypt and a consulate in Libya on Wednesday, Romney accused the Obama administration even before the fires were extinguished of “sympathizing with the attackers.” Given time to contemplate his comments in light of the tragic death in Libya of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Romney didn’t flinch in repeating his political attack.
Reportedly acting on the advice of all his top foreign-policy advisers, many alumni of the George W. Bush administration, Romney seized on a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo deploring an anti-Muslim film made in California that apparently ignited the initial protests.
“I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values, that instead when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation," Romney told reporters on Wednesday. “An apology for America’s values is never the right course.”
In his recent nomination acceptance speech in Tampa, Romney also repeated his oft-stated criticism that President Obama has thrown Israel “under the bus,” and taken a far too soft approach by offering to talk with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program. “We're still talking,” he said, “and Iran's centrifuges are still spinning.”
The criticism that Obama instinctively apologizes for American greatness, shows insufficient backing for Israel, and is misguided in his willingness to negotiate with evil regimes like Iran, Syria, and Russia are all core to the Romney foreign-policy narrative. Romney and his foreign-policy surrogates also criticize Obama’s attempts to build international consensus for action at the United Nations as multilateralism that too often ties America’s hands, and they accuse him of “leading from behind” in Libya.
When the U.S. Embassy in Cairo criticized an inflammatory anti-Muslim film in an attempt to defuse the crisis, Romney apparently couldn’t resist invoking a familiar critique, even though standard protocol would have dictated restraint. “Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds,” Romney wrote of Obama in his 2010 book No Apology: 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 is, at least in part, understandable.”
If the Romney foreign-policy narrative and critique of the Obama administration sound familiar, they should. The key precepts were lifted from the never-have-to-say-you’re-sorry foreign policy fashioned by Bush hawks and neoconservatives in the aftermath of 9/11. In his first term, the younger Bush himself found common cause with hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the “war on terror,” turning decisively away from the role of peacemaker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that had so animated the administrations of Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld perfected the masking of unilateral U.S. action with ad hoc “coalitions of the willing,” famously stating that “the mission will define the coalition.” Vice President Dick Cheney described such a values-based foreign policy succinctly: “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it.” George W. Bush’s controversial Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who is now a top Romney foreign-policy adviser, had the final word on multilateralism: “There's no such thing as the United Nations,” he said. “If the U.N. secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference.”
Of course, Romney’s task of articulating a distinctive Republican foreign policy has been complicated by Obama’s occupying the middle ground of liberal internationalism, most obviously indicated by his early decision to keep Robert Gates. To distinguish himself, Romney has thus attacked Obama consistently from the right on foreign policy, as with so many other issues. There is also no guarantee that a commander in chief Romney would be held to the hawkish proclamations of candidate Romney.
“Just as Obama morphed into a smarter, less ideological version of Bush 43 in his second term, I think if Romney were to gain the White House, he would end up taking positions on major issues that are more similar to Obama’s policies than the campaign might lead you to believe,” said Aaron David Miller, a public-policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Regardless of what your ideological instincts are, there are just certain realities that the United States faces today that will constrain any president on foreign policy.”
Of course, as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks proved, there are also events in world affairs that can lift the restraints on a U.S. president’s actions, which suggests that voters should listen closely to what a candidate says, and when and how they choose to say it.
“Despite the fact that the primary is over and you would expect Romney to move towards the ideological center, he continues to adhere to a very stark, black-and-white view of the world,” said Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations. “That suggests to me that he really believes what he says, and that Romney is most comfortable philosophically with a neoconservative worldview.”