Romney Foreign Policy Vision Is a Big Dud

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Mitt Romney - Mike Segar _ Reuters - banner.jpg Reuters/Mike SegarAs David Frum has said, if the Republican Party is an oligarchy, Mitt Romney will head the GOP ticket.  If it is a democracy, anyone but Romney will. 

Running through his remarks -- Romney checks off the Iran box, punctuating his citation by calling Iran's leaders "suicidal fanatics."  This is a bit like John Bolton calling Kim Jong Il "scum" just before Colin Powell was working to get the North Koreans to suspend a nascent nuclear warhead production capability.  Romney, or Bolton for that matter, 'might' be right -- but the comment practically assures Romney's impotence in finding an alternative path with Iran if he were to win the White House.

But we also know that Iran is not led by suicidal fanatics.  They would have behaved very differently if 'suicidal'.   We know Iran is led by a combination of tired ideologues who are corrupt and intoxicated on their positions and power and privileges not unlike what happened after many decades of power-holding by Soviet elites.  There is not much revolution left inside Iran's top tier -- but there is a lot of jostling for power and there is a thirst for regional preeminence.  Romney's comment gives absolutely no indication that he would be any better than Bill Kristol's or John Bolton's war-mongering calls for a collision now with Iran.

Romney's second checked off box is Israel.  I believe in standing by Israel's security too -- but want Israel to stop confusing its long term and short term interests.  Israel is the super power in the region and sets the temperature in its neighborhood.  Romney talks of Israel as if it is a complete innocent and without capabilities of its own.  Tired.  And distracting from America's real issues.

Some years ago, I asked Chinese strategists what their grand strategy was -- and they said it was simple -- they just hoped the US would remain distracted in small Middle Eastern countries.  So far, Romney is giving China's geostrategic weiqi players exactly what they want.

And yes, China has not yet come up in Romney's talk as I reread it.

Afghanistan mentioned.  No clarity at all. 

Romney asks "will the country sink back into the medieval terrors of fundamentalist rule and the mullahs again open a sanctuary for terrorists?" 

Mitt -- make the case why this matters one way or another.  Are there not havens for terrorists in many countries we don't invade and occupy?  And more importantly, do US force deployments in Afghanistan appear to the great powers of the world as force multipliers and the leveraging of American force -- or instead appear to be a trap containing American power?  China, Iran, Pakistan, the entire neighborhood perceive an American military that is overstretched -- and Afghanistan as a crippling rather than enhancing effort of US power projection.

He casually drifts by Pakistan -- not posing the key question which is whether we now be in some form of informal war with the Pakistanis given the public comments of US officials that Pakistan directed Taliban attacks against America's Kabul Embassy compound.

He then tosses in China between Pakistan and Russia -- asserting that China is bent on emerging as a globally consequential economic and military force.  But it's not enough to state the obvious.  What is the strategy to deal with this rise?  Are China's intentions the same as were the Soviet's? or different?  What are America's and China's strategic equities that need sorting and managing?  Is a collision inevitable? or will Romney suggest a path that will align the strategic interests of China and the US?

Then Russia. Romney asks will the Soviets be back?  A nation that is demographically collapsing will not go on a new warpath Governor Romney.  Your advisers know that.  Spend some time with Dov Zakheim or Mitchell Reiss.  They would not have made such ridiculous leading, vapid assertions.

Then Chavez, then Castro.  The realists on Romney's team know that the US-Cuba Embargo harms American interests more than helps -- and increasingly irritates a younger generation of Cuban-Americans who want to do business and make their fortunes in trade an investment in Cuba, while watching some of the Cuban diaspora in Central and South America as well as in Spain run ahead of them.  Do some poll work, Governor Romney -- the results are not tilting toward Ileana Ros-Lehtinen but rather towards a next generation of entrepreneurs.

Then Romney goes to Mexico -- drug violence and narco-crimes.  Illegal immigration and drug smuggling Nothing at all on Mexico being America's largest trading partner or the many positive avenues of engagement between the countries.   I'm imagining Romney doing something along the lines to the Hispanic vote of what John McLaughlin might say, "Bye-bye!"

Then Mitt Romney offers the Roger & Me, America as General Motors line:

Despite the agitations and clatter of the Tea Party, my hunch is that the Republicans are an oligarchy and Romney will be the last one standing when all the others have fallen. 

The Obama White House fears Romney and would have loved to run against Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Chris Christie of Sarah Palin (or Herman Cain!!).  Obama has spent so much political capital irritating the left and holding the pragmatic, wanna-do-a-deal center that for the Republicans to now throw a generally sensible, northeastern, Nelson Rockefeller style Republican at him seems like a game foul.

But Romney has been campaign tested once, and at least for the time being -- he's the candidate who deserves a deep dive into what he believes, thinks and who he surrounds himself with.

Romney's speech on foreign policy was depressingly conventional.  I am acquainted with many of his now outed foreign policy advisers -- and think that some how the tug between the different perspectives on the team must have warped beyond coherence whatever strategic frame Romney hoped to deliver.

But I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.

Of course, America is important and has a big miltary and a $15 trillion GDP -- but it is slipping.  Romney doesn't get the fact that the world looks at the US as a very well-branded, globally sprawling operation with a lot of power and capacity that is rusty, underperforming, and unable to accomplish the things America itself says it wants to do in the world.

Romney apparently thinks that just asserting leadership is being a leader.  The world has moved past this point.  American leadership must be consented to and earned again -- and there is nothing in Romney's speech that indicates that he actually understands America's real state of play with other global stakeholders.

Finally, I found a line of Romney's that I fully agree with.  He says:

It is far too easy for a President to jump from crisis to crisis, dealing with one hot spot after another. But to do so is to be shaped by events rather than to shape events. To avoid this paralyzing seduction of action rather than progress, a President must have a broad vision of the world coupled with clarity of purpose.

America has tilted towards being a reactive power rather than a strategic power -- and this needs to be reversed. But I am desperately searching in Romney's comments a "clarity of purpose".  I see historical cliches, and inertia-forged thinking that reflects the past more than I see something designed to deal with the world as it is today.

Then back to Islamic fundamentalism.  Fear. Fear. Fear.  Box checked.

Global bad guys. North Korea. Venezuela. Cuba.  Check. Check. Check.  Cuba?  Oh right -- Florida -- have to make Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Debbie Wasserman Schulz happy.  

Someone please walk Mitt Romney through what the US has accomplished with that evil Communist nation we actually had a debilitating war with (Vietnam) and tell him how it is working out.  And Cuba today has decided to export doctors rather than revolution of late.  It has also developed a Meningitis B vaccine that could be rather helpful to afflicted US youth -- and Cuba has been making a series of steps that are very China-like in its domestic political economy, all while the US dithers and Mitt Romney clings to a pathetically anachronistic vestige of the Cold War.

Then 1,542 words in we get another China reference.  That is right.  Two modest mentions of China is Mitt Romney's zinger opus on American grand strategy.  China is surging -- and while America appears to be the General Motors of nations; China looks like the Google of countries, rocketing upward like an internet start up in the perception of other states.

I just accidentally deleted quite a bit of text that followed this.  Not going to re-write it.

Some of what I wrote saluted Romney's framing of the importance of international institutions -- seeing them as valuable vehicles to move America's statecraft and vision of human rights and democracy forward but not relying on them entirely.  I noted that this section was written I'd guess by Paula Dobriansky, whom I really admire -- and that this paragraph would never have slipped pass a John Bolton, Frank Gaffney, or Max Boot -- all of whom are not listed Romney advisers.  So, Romney scores some goals on this one in my book.

I won't re-create what I wrote as my frustration with most of Romney's speech is severe (there were some good points -- just too few).  There is no strategy in his remarks.  I had hoped he would realistically grapple with America's deficit in geopolitical strategy and offer something that would demonstrate a credible vision that might reinvent America's leverage and place and mystique in the world. 

Instead, Romney flounders in platitudes, checked off boxes in laundry lists of problem states, and offers contradictions on how he would approach defense spending and the economy.

China -- which matters on all tiers of policy, domestic and foreign -- gets a scant nod from Romney, and this is very disappointing.  There is no more important challenge in the world today in my view than in getting China right -- and figuring out how to stabilize and deal with China's "fragile swagger".

I'll write more on Romney's advisory group which I found surprisingly good and diverse.  There are smart, thoughtful realists and smart, thoughtful neoconservatives; there are global justice policy intellectuals who see the value of international deal-making.  All of this is good.  And the names I would have thought might appear, like John Bolton or Frank Gaffney or Elliott Abrams or Randy Scheunemann are not there -- at least not yet.  I have nothing against their inclusion, but they represent a much harder-edged and in my view potentially dangerous global military adventurism which Romney's announced crew does not represent.

I'm off to Abu Dhabi for meetings of the World Economic Forum and will add more on the Romney Foreign Policy advisers when I get there.


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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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