IN HIS presidential campaign, Mitt Romney walks a high wire — tethered at one end to doubts about his ideological authenticity, and at the other to prejudice within his own party against his Mormon religion. When Romney delivered an intensely hawkish defense policy speech at a South Carolina military college, one could speculate that he was responding to both sentiments. Not only did he ally himself with the idea — popular among evangelical Protestants — of America as a Christian nation with a divine mandate for global supremacy, but he also presented himself as a true believer in 20th-century Cold War orthodoxy.
Before the audience of cadets at The Citadel earlier this month, the Republican front-runner plotted a path of huge military spending increases. Even in the era of Tea Party slashing, Romney vowed to reverse both “the hollowing out of the Navy’’ and “Obama-era cuts to national missile defense.’’ He declared himself ready to prolong America’s deployment in Afghanistan. Romney’s broader warnings had a hysterical edge, as if the United States faces Soviet-scale threats; as if Obama’s own defense secretary weren’t Washington’s most vocal defender of Pentagon spending. The “massive’’ cuts Romney referred to — a bipartisan consensus forged in the summer debt crisis — are, in fact, marginal reductions planned over the next decade to a military budget that nearly doubled over the last one. But you wouldn’t know that from Romney’s Cassandra screeches.
All of this could be taken as continued Republican idolatry of an ever-immune military, yet Romney’s Cold War anachronism sets him apart. It would be simplistic — and perhaps unfair — to trace Romney’s exceptionalist views on defense to his religion. Yet one could hear echoes not just of Brigham Young, who saw the Mormons as agents of America’s “manifest destiny,’’ but also of the original revelation of Joseph Smith, which located the Garden of Eden in America, and expects America to be the site of Christ’s militant return. What could be more triumphalist than that?
Then again, the belief that, as Romney put it, “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers’’ also resonates with many American Protestants. Whatever the source of this belief, Romney thinks we’ve become too modest. “As president of the United States, I will devote myself to an American century,’’ he declared, placing himself firmly among a second group: national-security conservatives.
Never mind that America has already claimed one century; the phrase was coined by Henry Luce in 1941. But that chest thumping soon seemed false. What competition with Moscow actually set in motion in the national psyche was the farthest thing from the positive expansiveness of a self-confident and hopeful country. During the Cold War, despite the rhetoric, there was nothing manifest about America’s destiny. Instead, the nation was seized by spasms of self-doubt and worst-case thinking, a dread of the future embodied in the insane manufacture of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. The apocalyptic stridency of Romney’s speech now, so unlike the upbeat spirit of Mormonism, brings that self-defeating fear back from the grave.
Worst-case planning as military doctrine creates its own hazards, and the first American century showed that. The Pentagon’s overheated expansions were driven by a succession of “gaps’’ — bomber gap, missile gap — that defined the nightmare of Soviet military supremacy, but always turned out to be fantasies. At The Citadel, Romney warned of China’s coming naval superiority (neglecting to mention that China has one aircraft carrier, while the US Navy has 11). Yet nothing will more forcefully push China into full-bore military competition with the United States than the anti-China weapons development Romney wants. Manifesting all the symptoms of Cold War obsessive-compulsive repetition, Romney sounded alarms about an all-purpose gap, in which America is universally outgunned. What he wants to fill it with is himself.
To skeptics, Romney sounds like a half-baked Elvis impersonator, lip-synching away but without making any actual music. Still more absurdly, he performs this routine on his high wire, between questions about his authenticity and his religion. But Romney has a new problem: the wire he aims to string for the nation stretches across an abyss.James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.