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

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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.

On Israel, Romney said that "the relationship between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel, our closest ally in the region, has suffered great strains. The president explicitly stated that his goal was to put 'daylight' between the United States and Israel. And he has succeeded. This is a dangerous situation that has set back the hope of peace in the Middle East and emboldened our mutual adversaries, especially Iran." It is telling that Romney just asserts all this, never explaining how "daylight" has endangered us, or how it has set back the prospects for peace in the Middle East, which has eluded the world for decades. What's certain is that even the closest international alliances do not suddenly eliminate all differences in the interests between countries. "Daylight" is in fact an inescapable reality.

Romney's words included repeated forays into fantasy. 

Says Daniel McCarthy, "Nothing in this speech appeals to a war-weary and economically troubled people. It's politically damaging. But he gave this speech anyway, and the only reasonable explanation is either that Mitt really believes -- zealously -- what he says, or else he's entirely compliant to the ideological demands of right-wing Wilsonians. I suspect the latter is the case, and that portends a Romney presidency that would repeat all the errors of his Republican predecessor. The issue here is not even a reckless foreign policy versus a domestic policy that may give Republicans grounds for hope: a foreign policy like this will not permit much of a domestic policy at all. It will consume a presidency, just as it consumed George W. Bush's."

Romney's foreign policy sure does seem as if it's the terrible consequence of the Republican Party's attempt to treat spending as if it was the only failure of the Bush Administration, rather than acknowledging the various ways in which the Bush foreign policy made the United States worse off.


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* The phrase "leaving our destiny at the mercy of events" is a certain indication that Romney's international outlook is hopelessly confused. How can one's destiny, "a predetermined course of events often held to be an irresistible power or agency," be at the mercy of events? It makes no sense at all.
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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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