Scary Thought: Biden May Be Right about Romney's Foreign Policy

When I first saw excerpts from the critique of Mitt Romney's foreign policy that Joe Biden is delivering today, they seemed easy to dismiss as hyperbolic campaign rhetoric. Biden warns that Romney would take us "back to a foreign policy that would have America go it alone, shout to the world you're either with us or against us." Surely Mitt Romney isn't surrounding himself with foreign policy advisers who are that primitive!

Then, in the same AP story that previewed those excerpts, I saw that "Richard Williamson, a top Romney foreign policy adviser," recently said, "We should not be playing 'Mother, may I?' about sanctions on Iran and relations with China and Russia." And I thought, "Hmmm... primitive!"

It's true, as alleged by Williamson, that Obama has consulted with other nations on sanctions against Iran. It's also true that he has tried to maintain good relations with China and Russia. Indeed, these two facts are related: Obama has sought--and gotten--support for a potent United Nations sanctions regime against Iran. Naturally, this involved consulting with other members of the UN Security Council. It certainly involved consulting with--and maintaining at least minimally good relations with--China and Russia, since they, like the US, France, and Britain, have veto power in the Security Council.

I assume Obama's logic went like this: Sanctions that have the participation of the international community will be much more powerful than unilateral sanctions--especially when the country imposing the unilateral sanctions is known in Iran as "the great Satan." Plus: With multilateral sanctions, the US won't have to bear the whole cost of the sanctions regime (in foregone commerce) but instead can spread that cost around.

So Obama wasn't playing "Mother may I?" but something closer to "Mothers may we?"--which, for better or worse, is the way you have to approach things if you want collective international action and haven't been appointed emperor of the world.

Is Williamson saying that he'd rather the sanctions imposed by the UN were being imposed only by the US? Is there something he finds attractive about sanctions that cost us more and accomplish less? Or is Williamson saying that he's figured out a way to get things passed by the Security Council even if they're vetoed by members who have veto power? If the latter, he should share this technique with us.

It would be one thing if, in exchange for Russian and Chinese participation in the UN sanctions, America was surrendering its right to impose additional sanctions unilaterally. But, as evidenced by the raft of Iran sanctions that have been imposed by the US unilaterally, that is not the case.

By the way, these unilateral sanctions have a distinctive downside: Once Congress has passed them, it's very hard to get them repealed. So American negotiators can't confidently offer their repeal in exchange for Iranian concessions. This may become a real impediment to progress in the current negotiations with Iran. Could that be why Williamson (who has downplayed hopes generated by the first round of the negotiations) apparently prefers these kinds of sanctions? Because they impede peaceful resolution of the Iran standoff and so increase the chances of war? That would be really primitive!

During the Republican primary debates, as candidates engaged in spirited competition for the "most likely to start a war with Iran" trophy, I consoled myself with the thought that this was just the candidates talking, not the people who would be advising them should they wind up in the White House. I'm starting to look for new sources of consolation.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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