When Mitt Romney gives what’s being billed as a major foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute Monday, it’ll be a chance for the Republican challenger to demonstrate his bona fides as would-be leader of the free world and US commander-in-chief. And, it might be added, to get beyond a series of stumbles critics say have demonstrated his lack of experience and insensitivity to the subtleties of diplomacy and national security.
The VMI speech in Lexington, Va., promises to lay out the “stark contrast” between Mr. Romney's “vision for a strong foreign policy and the failed record of President Obama,” according to the Romney campaign. “Where President Obama has shown weakness, a Romney Administration will demonstrate strength and resolve. Where President Obama has shown equivocation, a Romney Administration will demonstrate clarity and never hesitate to speak out for American values.”
Aside from those generalities, Romney so far has offered few specifics – some of which in retrospect he may wish he hadn’t uttered.
Among Romney’s “record of diplomatic stumbles” as chronicled by the AP: Calling Russia – not China or Iran – American’s main global adversary; criticizing Britain over its preparations for the London Olympic Games; declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel, which US administrations (Republican as well as Democrat) have refused to accept given Palestinian claims to the ancient city.
More recently, Romney made what many analysts – including many Republicans – found to be snap and intemperate comments in the middle of a diplomatic crisis across North Africa and the Middle East tied to a crude YouTube video disparaging of the Prophet Muhammad.
Two things Romney promises: A stronger US military and closer ties with Israel, including what sounds like a more threatening attitude toward Iran’s nuclear program. Romney’s personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes back many years to when they had business dealings in Boston. The largest donor to Super PACs supporting Romney is casino magnate and billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a strong supporter of Zionism.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed column last week, Romney stressed the importance of “placing no daylight between the United States and Israel.”
There’s no doubt that he deeply believes this, as do many conservatives (including evangelical Christians).
But there’s a strong political element here as well. Among Jewish voters in 2008, Obama won an overwhelming 78 percent, according to exit polls. This year, the GOP is trying hard to win a larger percentage of such voters.
“The Republican Jewish Coalition … has begun spending $6.5 million on an air-and-ground strategy to reach Jewish voters who may view Mr. Obama as unreliable on the question of Israel’s security,” the New York Times reported recently.
When the dynamic Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was named Romney’s running mate, it was widely noted that neither man had any foreign affairs experience. Neither did Obama when he took office as President, although Vice President Joe Biden had spent more than a decade as Chairman or Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Democrats and some pundits have expressed concern about the number of neoconservatives now advising Romney, warning that a Romney administration might look a lot like that of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
But James Lindsay, senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that “Romney’s foreign policy would likely end up looking a lot like Obama’s no matter how much hand waving and table thumping you witness over the next month.”
“First, foreign policy is hard to change,” he blogged the other day. “Presidents don’t make it solely as they please. They instead confront complex realities abroad and difficult politics at home that greatly narrow their choices.”
“Second, despite the harsh campaign rhetoric and partisan jabs, Obama’s and Romney’s foreign policy views are broadly similar,” Mr. Lindsay writes. “Romney is not Ron Paul. He is an internationalist with a strong pragmatic streak – much like Obama.
“Third, while Romney hasn’t offered many specific foreign policy prescriptions, the ones he has offered look a lot like Obama’s,” he writes. “The governor sees the need to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan, favors tougher sanctions to halt Iran’s nuclear program, and offers Syrian rebels kind words but no direct U.S. military support. In other words, current White House policy.”
“The candidates are less stark alternatives than variations on a theme, and a basket of tough foreign policy problems awaits whoever wins on November 6,” Lindsay concludes. “If that turns out to be Mitt Romney, he will quickly discover what Obama already knows: what is easy to promise on the campaign trail turns out to be exceedingly difficult to deliver once in office.”