What Would Romney's Foreign Policy Look Like?

The former Mass. governor's vague and contradictory statements have created a muddled impression.

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In the wake of the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney inexplicably and ironically declared, "President Obama has demonstrated a lack of clarity as to a foreign policy."

Romney and his team, reasonably enough, quickly jumped yesterday on a tepid statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that seemed to apologize for the American tradition of free speech in the wake of  the storming of the embassy. We later learned that the statement actually preceded the attack by hours and was, apparently, not approved by the Obama administration.

That Romney didn't alter course by morning and actually doubled-down on his line of attack once the murder of our ambassador and three other American public servants was known is puzzling, however. Alas, the same can be said for Romney's entire foreign policy.

Last October, upon the release of his foreign policy white paper, "An American Century," I read the tea leaves and pronounced in this space that "Romney's Realist Foreign Policy Is a Lot Like Obama's." Eleven months and a national convention later, I'm not so sure that Romney has a foreign policy.  To the extent that he's talking about international affairs at all, his pronouncements are so scattershot that they defy assigning to a school of thought.

The Romney campaign has taken James Carville's 1992 mantra, "It's the economy, stupid," to absurd lengths, deciding that talking about anything else is a distraction. And perhaps its right: polls show that most Americans like President Obama personally but are extremely worried about the economy.

Further, for the first time in decades, Democrats seem to have the advantage on national security policy. The Iraq debacle tarnished the Republican brand and Obama ordered the missions that killed Osama bin Laden and, indirectly, Muammar Qaddafi. So, Team Romney is alternately ignoring the topic altogether -- for example, he didn't even mention the ongoing war in Afghanistan in his nomination acceptance speech -- or taking pot shots at anything that can be portrayed as an Obama weakness.

Ironically, in my view, Afghanistan is the one foreign policy area where Obama is quite vulnerable. Three years ago, he decided to double down on a war that most experts thought unwinnable by that point, predictably resulting in more Americans killed in action than during the eight years of fighting that preceded the so-called Afghan Surge. Further, the decision was clearly a political one, aimed at not giving Republicans an opening to attack him as weak or "surrendering" in a fight that he himself had described as "necessary." The war was already unpopular with the American people when the surge began and more than two-thirds now think we should not be there.

Inexplicably, however, Romney is attacking Obama from the other direction. Or, rather, both directions.

On the one hand, he argues the president didn't go far enough in Afghanistan: "This past June, President Obama disregarded the counsel of his top military commanders, including General David Petraeus, and announced a full withdrawal of those 30,000 surge troops by September 2012. That date falls short of the commanders' reported recommendation that the troops remain through the end of 2012 and the Afghan 'fighting season' to solidify our gains."

On the other, it's not at all clear what a President Romney would do there. One would think that, by the 11th year of the war, he and his advisers could have come up with a plan. Instead, he promises that "Upon taking office ... he will review our transition to the Afghan military" by "holding discussions with our commanders in the field" and "will order a full interagency assessment."

Presented by

James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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