Juliette Kayyem

Romney’s foreign policy speech misses the mark

Mitt Romney
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Former Massachusetts Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke to cadets at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.

Governor Rick Perry seemed to have a monopoly on terribly strange and incoherent foreign policy statements — until now. But Mitt Romney’s speech at The Citadel yesterday was remarkable both for what he said, and for what he left out. The former Massachusetts governor misstated basic facts about the military budget, even while skipping almost completely past the issue that has dominated American foreign policy for the last decade.

Perry’s mistakes, by comparison, seem merely the product of inexperience. There was his incongruous and rambling answer to a question about what he’d do if the Taliban got hold of the nuclear arsenal. (Note to Perry: this is when you do use military power.) Then there was the vague “I’d send US troops to Mexico” response when asked about drug violence in Mexico, as if sending troops was a detailed plan and as if the Mexicans would allow it. (Note to Perry: it isn't, and they won’t.)

But Romney’s much-heralded speech should have been better. He’s a much more polished speaker. And, while his just-released list of foreign policy advisers are conservative, many of them are also experienced government officials who know the difference between statements such as, Obama has made “massive defense cuts" (Romney), and “the defense budget, during a fiscal crisis when Congress and the Administration agreed to across-the-board spending slowdowns to deal with the deficit, is not rising at a rate as high as in the past but it is still bigger than last year” (reality).


But, what I really missed was, I guess, what was missing — any reference to Al Qaeda. I should be the last to complain; I’ve written about how the war on terror shouldn’t be the defining mantra of our government. But, not to mention Al Qaeda, the killing of Osama bin Laden — or, in fact, anything having to do with why we are in these wars — makes Perry’s commissions seem sounder than Romney’s omissions. These days, the only time Republicans even seem to mention terrorism is when, like former vice president Dick Cheney, they’re demanding apologies from Democrats for criticizing their record. I guess the philosophy is: move on if you can’t take credit.

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Romney appears unable to feign graciousness, even to a military audience. The killing of bin Laden meant something — at the very least, something symbolic. Romney could at least have given a nod to his death, perhaps with the remark ,“but that is just one of the challenges we are facing.” It is hard to imagine, for a party that surrounded itself with flags for eight years, that I miss them not surrounding themselves with flags anymore.

Romney’s only reference to anything related to the war efforts — he gave the speech at The Citadel, after all — came when he warned his audience that we face a threat of “Islamic fundamentalism with which we have been at war since Sept. 11, 2001.” I do not believe that there are mistakes in such heavily promoted speeches. So, note to Romney: we are not at war with Islamic fundamentalism. Romney, whose own religion is often unjustly maligned, ought to know that fundamentalism is not the same as terrorism. A strange statement — indeed, even more strange than suggesting sending troops to Mexico.