Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Blog

Earlier this week, presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered the first major foreign policy speech of his campaign. In his remarks to Virginia Military Institute, Romney attempted to criticize President Obama for his failed Middle East policies and present a vision for a more robust American global presence that would reaffirm America’s global power and security.

Drawing a parallel to George Marshall’s ambitious rebuilding of Europe after World War II, he called for “leaders of courage and vision, but Republicans and Democrats, who knew that America had to support friends who shared our values, and prevent today’s crises from becoming tomorrow’s conflicts.”

In his remarks, Romney highlighted a number of policy failures, including the continued spread of violent Islamist extremism, the rapidly deteriorating security of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the unresolved bloodshed in Syria. But above these all, Romney says, “the greater tragedy of it all is that we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends…who are fighting for their own futures against the very same violent extremists, and evil tyrants, and angry mobs who seek to harm us.”

Given the accuracy of these concerns, and his fair description of the limitations of Obama’s foreign policy agenda, it’s disappointing to see Romney draw precisely the wrong lessons from it.

In his speech, Romney promised to significantly increase military spending, reaffirm an unquestioning commitment to Israel, ramp up support for “our allies,” arm Syrian opposition elements who “share our values” and “would deliver…defeat to Iran.” In other words, he has chosen to double-down on precisely the policies that shattered Arab perceptions of American policy in the first place.

 

Military Spending

President Obama, following recommendations from within the Defense Department itself, has wisely chosen to trim the ballooning military budget, which now tops a trillion dollars annually, comprising 40% of global military spending and nearly 50% of tax revenues. The ever-increasing budget for a military apparatus that has no role to play in most modern combat has likely been the primary source of strain on our economy, and the need to distribute our massive military apparatus in bases all around the globe is a constant thorn in the side of many in the Arab world.

Romney not only advocates a further increase in American military spending (despite his constant criticism of budget deficits), he has also promised to cajole NATO allies into increasing their military budgets as well. There has been no evidence whatsoever that the security problems faced by Western powers is the result of inadequate military superiority, and a great deal of evidence that the same overwhelming military presence has caused more security threats than it has allayed.

Israel/Palestine

Romney criticized Obama for putting “daylight” between the United States and Israel, which has created “a dangerous situation that has set back the hope of peace in the Middle East and emboldened our mutual adversaries.” In 2009, Obama was reported as saying that “When there is no daylight [between us and Israel], Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states." The statement is demonstrably true, as least as far as it concerns Arab opinions on U.S. handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In promising that “the world must never see any daylight between our two nations,” Romney directly undercuts his later promise to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel,” since Washington’s unwillingness to act as a neutral broker is one of the core reasons for the collapse in talks, including those under the Obama administration.

Iraq/Afghanistan

While acknowledging that U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan has failed spectacularly, Romney advocates longer and more direct involvement in both countries to “pursue a real and successful transition,” under the assumption that the previous 10 years of occupation were insufficient.

In Iraq, Romney accuses Obama of failing “to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains,” without acknowledging that the Iraqi government and the overwhelming majority of Iraqi citizens supported an immediate withdrawal.

Friends & Enemies

One of Romney’s cornerstones was the principle that “no friend of America will question our commitment to them…no enemy that attacks America will resolve our resolve to defeat them,” but aside from the easy characterizations of Israel as a friend and Al Qaeda as an enemy, Romney does little to address the massive gray area in between. He insisted that “in return for our material support, [friends and allies] must meet the responsibilities of every decent modern government – to respect the rights of all their citizens,” though it is clear that the standard will be more stringent for some allies than others.

 

In almost all of these issues, including Israel/Palestine, Iraq & Afghanistan, and the approach to Libya and Syria, Romney’s stated goals are near-indistinguishable from Obama’s, many of which are continuations of Bush-era foreign policy priorities. The one central difference from Obama, however, is that Romney’s criticisms and policy recommendations appear to be based on a strict binary between friends and enemies, supporters and detractors, that also typified the “with us or against us” mentality of the Bush Administration’s worst excesses. Considering the figures at the center of Romney’s foreign policy team, this should come as no surprise.

In this respect, it is ironic that Romney chose as his standard the policies of the Marshall Plan, which acknowledged that a process of economic empowerment, shared principles, and mutual respect would serve the collective good. Reconstruction money in the Marshall plan was devoted to allies and enemies alike, including post-war Germany and Italy, and was even offered to the Soviets. This collective prosperity created an unparalleled sense of common purpose and shared interests, and produced the most stable peace in modern European history. Our policy in the Middle East is taking the opposite approach, a divide-and-rule methodology that relies on brute force to suppress opponents, while buttressing “allies” regardless of their many excesses.

Romney was right to point out Washington’s rock-bottom reputation in the Arab world. And he is right that we face an historic opportunity to change course. But changing course requires bold new thinking, a newfound respect for the Arab people’s democratic aspirations, an even-handed approach to Israel/Palestine, and a more nuanced understanding of the messy process of democratic transition. It’s a lesson that Romney and Obama have both failed to learn.

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