When it comes to Mitt Romney and foreign policy, the puzzle has long been this: Is he himself only lightly informed about international affairs, or is he simply trying to score points with voters who fall into that category?
Both, if his performance in Monday’s foreign-policy debate is any guide.
I’ve been wondering about this question since the late summer of 2006, when former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami came to Massachusetts to speak at the Kennedy School. One didn’t have to be a Middle East expert to know that, within the context of Iranian politics, Khatami had been a reformer. One of the first leaders of a Muslim country to decry the Sept. 11 attacks, he had struggled, albeit ineffectually, with his nation’s hard-liners to grant more free speech and improve relations with the West.
President Bush’s State Department had granted him a visa and arranged security for his multi-city visit. But Romney, then plotting his first presidential campaign, denounced Khatami as a supporter of terror and issued an executive order forbidding the State Police to assist in the visit.
Many of his pronouncements in this campaign have been in the same spirit. And yet, Team Romney has insisted he has foreign-policy gravitas. Last year, one adviser proudly pointed to “No Apology,” Romney’s campaign manifesto. Just compare it to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s book, he urged.
Now, let’s be honest: That standard doesn’t exactly set the bar at Olympic heights. In fact, Romney’s book displays both of the tendencies identified above. Its discussion of Russia seems as paranoid as his declaration to CNN that the country was “without question our number one geopolitical foe.” His world view seems to date to the days before the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union dissolved, and not to allow for the possibility that the United States and Russia could be rivals with very different interests without being implacable foes.
Meanwhile, Romney’s rote repetition of the specious Republican charge that President Obama had gone around the world on an apology tour seemed designed simply to score points with the jingoistic seats. (That said, the idea that an American president can never offer an apology is in and of itself a simple-minded notion.)
So where does Romney really differ?
On the campaign trail, a sword-rattling Romney has tried to create the impression that he’d be tougher and more determined on Iran than the incumbent. Yet Monday’s foreign policy debate pulled the curtain back on that posture; the Republican nominee didn’t cite any fundamental disagreement with the Obama administration’s approach.
Romney has also tried to sound tougher on Afghanistan, but it was clear that he supports the same timeline for withdrawal. Again echoing the president, he doesn’t support any US military involvement in Syria, though he is apparently more willing to have a third party supply some rebels with some heavier weaponry if the United States can be sure that weaponry doesn’t fall into the hands of extremists who could someday turn it against us. The difficulty in assuring that, of course, is precisely why the Obama administration has been opposed to supplying rebels with arms such as shoulder-launched missiles.
In sum, after months of blasting Obama as weak and inept, Romney largely agreed with the incumbent’s approach going forward.
So where does Romney really differ? Judging from Monday, mostly on issues already past. Where the Obama administration has stumbled, Romney wants you to know that he would have succeeded. Why, he certainly would have obtained an agreement to keep some US forces in Iraq, or so he thinks. And where Obama has made progress? Well, he would have made more. His sanctions on Iran, he avers, would have come earlier and been tougher.
Now, if simple assertions solved complex problems, Romney would no doubt be the man for the moment. If hindsight were a horse, he’d ride tall in the saddle.
But too often, the conduct of foreign-policy is a real-time exercise that uses imperfect tools to respond to unexpected events in an uncertain world. Judged by realistic standards, Obama’s foreign-policy record is pretty solid.
Romney says he would do better. Anything’s possible, but this week’s debate only confirmed what his various stances and postures have long suggested: There’s no good reason to think so.Scot Lehigh can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.