Mitt Romney looked presidential during his foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute Monday night, but looks aren’t everything. He spoke eloquently about America’s history of boldly leading the world, but there was little substance — or even internal consistency — under the surface. In many cases, his statements flew in the face of reality on the ground. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the speech was how well it showcased Romney’s ability to pass off policy solutions that are already in place as his own new ideas that have never been tried.
For instance, Romney criticized President Obama for not being tough enough on Iran, promising that he “will not hesitate to impose new sanctions.” But people who have been following the news know that the Obama administration helped institute the harshest sanctions in Iran’s history — an oil embargo followed by most of the world. Just last week, Iran’s currency lost 40 percent of its value in two days, crippling its economy. That was an historic American foreign policy success on an issue Romney says is paramount. Yet his speech ignored it completely, framing the idea of tough sanctions as a much-needed change Romney would bring.
Romney lamented that the president “has failed to lead in Syria,” where rebels are fighting against an army that is massacring its own people. He pledged to “work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat” Syrian President Bashar Assad. That sounds like a reasonable plan. But, according to press reports, the CIA is already doing it.
In perhaps his most disingenuous moment, Romney pledged to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state,” echoing a key Obama foreign policy promise. But Romney told a private fundraiser in Florida this past spring that he has believed for some time that “Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace.” And in the speech on Monday, Romney harshly criticized Obama for allowing any “daylight” between the United States and Israel. Does Romney really believe he can broker a peace deal on a Palestinian state without ever voicing any policy differences with Israel?
Romney did float one new idea in his speech: He pledged to organize all aid to the Middle East under a single official who will “prioritize efforts and produce results.” Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser for George W. Bush, called for such a move one year ago in a Washington Post op-ed.
That underscores a bigger problem with Romney’s worldview: Its major themes — its emphasis on military strength, good guys versus bad guys, and its almost messianic belief in America’s ability to shoulder the world’s burdens alone — are identical to those of George W. Bush. In a telling moment of Monday’s speech, Romney even criticized Obama for withdrawing troops from Iraq too soon.
It is imperative to remember what that worldview brought us: two wars that cost more than $800 billion, paid for by increasing our national debt. Bush’s hawkish stance didn’t make the country stronger. The war in Iraq alienated our allies, bogged down our soldiers, and removed Iran’s biggest foe. Even Bush understood that those policies couldn’t continue. During his second term, he traded tough talk for multilateralism, chose sanctions on Iran over saber-rattling, and used drones rather than ground troops to deal with terrorists. Obama has continued or accelerated the policies of Bush’s second term, leading to notable successes: killing Osama bin Laden, deposing a dictator in Libya, and decimating Al Qaeda’s leadership, all with minimal cost in blood or treasure. The GOP line about Obama’s “weakness” is absurd.
But it is also alarming. It is a signal that Romney’s foreign policy team — which includes some of Bush’s most hawkish advisers — wants to bring back the failed policies of the past. The difference is that today, in an era of budget cuts, we are even less able afford them.