Mitt Romney's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Foreign-Policy Speech

The GOP nominee traffics in sweeping ideological statements, skimps on specifics, and promises to increase American belligerence.

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The speech that Mitt Romney gave Monday ought to make every American nervous about what he and his ideological team would do if permitted to direct U.S. foreign policy. What a debacle.

"It is the responsibility of our president to use America's great power to shape history -- not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events," he said,* giving voice to the mistaken premise that made Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman allies. Anyone running for president ought to know that the president's actual responsibilities were set forth in the Constitution. That document was written long before America became a hegemon. Its signatories wisely and explicitly rejected the notion that a single man ought to be charged with shaping history. You'd think that the Iraq War would've served as a reminder that hubristic men who think they can shape history almost always fail miserably. But Romney mentioned Iraq only briefly, insisting we should've stayed longer. He doesn't realize or won't admit that occupying foreign countries makes America more rather than less vulnerable to uncontrollable events.

Despite the years of improvised explosive devices and the thousands of dead American troops, Romney insists that "there is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East -- and it is not unique to that region." America's closest ally, Israel, does not itself want to be led by America, nor does any other sovereign country. There are those who want America to lead others in some way or other, but it is as true to observe that there is a longing for America's withdrawal from the region. Neither longing tells us what America's role in the Middle East ought to be.

Romney noted recent events in Libya, and went on to say that the struggle there is the same one we're seeing "in the streets of Iran, in the public squares of Tunisia and Egypt and Yemen, and in the fights for liberty in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Libya, and now Syria.  In short, it is a struggle between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope and despair." He went on to assert that "we have seen this struggle before" when "in the ashes of world war, another critical part of the world was torn between democracy and despotism. Fortunately, we had leaders of courage and vision, both 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."

This is hopelessly muddled.

In "the ashes of world war," the United States, Britain and France watched the Soviet Union to expand its sphere of influence over Eastern Europe because that horrific specter was deemed preferable to more war. That global situation was different in many ways from events now taking place in the Middle East. And it actually isn't as easy as choosing between democracy and despotism. Should Romney be elected he'll almost certainly work closely with despots in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example, and he'll fear certain possible democratic outcomes in Egypt and anywhere else where democratic elections might empower Islamist parties hostile to U.S. interests. If Romney wants to keep quiet about those realities that's fine, but his speech failed to signal that he even understands the most basic contours of the real-world challenges America faces. Whether he is a simple-minded ideologue on these issues or just talks like one is uncertain.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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