From David Sanger in yesterday’s New York Times:
But beyond his critique of Mr. Obama as failing to project American strength abroad, Mr. Romney has yet to fill in many of the details of how he would conduct policy toward the rest of the world, or to resolve deep ideological rifts within the Republican Party and his own foreign policy team. It is a disparate and politely fractious team of advisers that includes warring tribes of neoconservatives, traditional strong-defense conservatives and a band of self-described “realists” who believe there are limits to the degree the United States can impose its will.
Each group is vying to shape Mr. Romney’s views, usually through policy papers that many of the advisers wonder if he is reading. Indeed, in a campaign that has been so intensely focused on economic issues, some of these advisers, in interviews over the past two weeks in which most insisted on anonymity, say they have engaged with him so little on issues of national security that they are uncertain what camp he would fall into, and are uncertain themselves about how he would govern.
In this article and an accompanying analysis co-authored by Trip Gabriel, the report of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute is ever the same on every issue, and has it every way, as Romney mendaciously does in all things: he criticizes President Obama’s policies, but offers no detail of any substantively different approach, even as Romney endlessly contradicts past pronouncements. Did Romney clearly state at his 47% fundraiser that he would ignore Israel-Palestine and hope the future would bring its own developments? No matter. Now, “hope is not a strategy” and he “will recommit America” to pursuing a two-state solution. Said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “Full of platitude and free of substance.” She was speaking of the speech, though, of course, she might have been describing the man.
Romney is actually a kind of stalking horse for the foreign policy visions of those contending advisors of whom Sanger writes, and whichever among them might win the mind of a President Romney. In many practical respects, these policies would not be much different from Obama’s. It has been the bitter swallowed pill of America’s farther left that Barack Obama delivered the rebirth of pre-Vietnam War military toughness from a long-laboring Democratic party. From Romney, the only room for criticism has been at the edges of policy, like claiming the Syrian rebels should be greater armed, while declining to state, in true Romney fashion, that a Romney presidency would do the arming. There are the McCains and neocons, for whom any American military engagement is one too few for the glory of advancing “freedom” and American “interests.” And then there are the dime-a-dozen GOP opportunists who pounce on any inevitable – which is not to say defensible – screw up, such as the absent security at the consulate in Benghazi.
It is easy, too – nothing easier – to criticize the response to great and unmanageable historical developments like the Arab uprisings (high time to drop the Arab “Spring” projection) and the prosecution of a war in Afghanistan that had already been mismanaged for six years too long by the time Obama had to adopt it. No one on the right has offered at any time any alternative other than the usual military maximalism that for the past fifty years has produced the same record of strategic failure to the American nation as conservative economics. Not maximal enough is the only insightful response from the right to failure.
None of these partisan, automatic, and opportunistic criticisms, however, demonstrate any strategic analysis of world developments since the end of the Cold War and the rise of violent Islamic extremism. Emblematic of this failure is the absence of Asia – to which the Obama administration has notably begun a strategic “pivot” – from Romney’s speech. But the currents of partisan political contention will always run counter to the wisdom of strategic thinking. Here are some of those strategic issues.
The Arab uprisings are a perfect representation of developments that may be called historic not just as an honorific nod to their magnitude, but because of the complex confluence of historic forces and consequential events obscured by time that have led to them. It is the ultimate pretense to claim that the U.S. can pursue policies that will manage these events to foreseeable ends in behalf of American interests. There is no such world history. Even the period of greatest American international success, in the post Second World War era, is littered with the failures of policies that pursued short-sighted, immediate advantage – from the currents of resentment that will run at least underground in Latin American long after we are all gone to the 1953 U.S. supported Iranian coup that is a root cause of the conflicts the U.S. faces in Iran now nearly sixty years later and far counting.
The right has offered only two alternatives to the wisely cautious and literally non-committal approach of the Obama administration. One has been actively to support – not simply, realistically do business with – existing tyrannies, as in Egypt, against popular uprisings. Aside from this being an effectively misguided course of action, it is impossible to conceive a more truly un-American policy. To pursue it would mean to shred every last thread of the cloth of American democratic virtue. The other alternative has been actively to “lead” in every trouble spot and every instance of insurgency. But to have refrained from the active role the U.S. did play in Libya under the circumstances that developed, and permitted a Qaddafi victory, would have been a black mark on just that American cloth. There is, conversely, no evidence at all that a more leading American role would have produced any better outcome than we have.
On the contrary, in Syria, with circumstances having developed differently, even more complexly than in Libya, it is even more impossible to know the outcome of any kind of insurgent victory. Just the consequences of Kurdish autonomy alone, across Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, may be as far reaching as the present conditions are from the European decision after the demise of the Ottoman Empire not to give the Kurds their own state. Those on the right who facilely even just vocalize about more significantly arming the insurgents, as Romney does, and as President Obama has declined to do, forget in just twenty years the consequences of arming the opposition in Afghanistan. In a careful dissent, the conservative Washington Times does not fail to see how such choices develop.
The imperial monovision of the right cannot perceive, into a horizonless future, a leading role for the United States that is not insistent and pointed. In true imperial fashion, it takes any negative response to this insistent leadership as an uprising against virtuous prerogative rather than crap out. President Obama, in contrast, has a more complex vision of the American future in a changed world, of power without empire. This contrast offers the most profound international consideration of the election, holding out for the U.S. incalculably, which is not to say unimaginably, different futures.
There is another, related consideration. Standard conservative expressions of U.S. policy in the face of opposition and conflict are assertive and often bellicose. The speech, it is always believed, must match the assertive action. There are not many other areas of life in which people will not sometimes recognize the greater wisdom of speaking more softly. That is what Obama has done in his post 9/11 presidency, while swinging a deadly stick. But again, the war against violent Islamic extremism is a long one, and its success will not be definitively marked in an administration or two any more than was success in the Cold War. That leaves open opportunities for a candidate like Romney to take quick shots that glide along the surface. That surface is iced by Obama’s long view and soft speech. The long view can never be a mistake. The soft speech can be, and it is a focus of much conservative criticism.
The wisdom of speaking softly is found in the unique circumstances and particular parties to any situation. As the right will tell us, through the only analogy it knows, bullies do not respond to soft speech. (Though, of course, they can be lulled into inattention while you come up behind them and crack them in the head.) The evidence is mounting that the President’s softer articulations, intended as an antidote to Iraq-War belligerence, have achieved nothing in altering the U.S.’s relationship to the Arab and Islamic Worlds. Clearly, neither did a converse voice under the Bush administration, though it is not to be forgotten that George W. Bush was always reassuring, too, about its respect for Islam. Nonetheless, the longer the President lowers his voice, the more the right will grasp the opportunity to cast this as meekness before the enemy we face. If a tactic does not achieve its end and offers rivals the chance to harass from the flanks, there is not much wisdom in maintaining it. There is always, too, the virtue, without long term drawback, of stating clearly, without concession, what a nation stands for and what it opposes, which the President did not adequately do at the U.N. recently. And there is reason to believe that the Arab and extremist Islamic cultures with which we contend respect nothing other.
Still, for a broad view of the empty suit that is Romney foreign policy, from nonsensical defense budget growth to obvious vacuity in conversation with a photo op of retired generals, watch this: