Mitt Romney is inexperienced in foreign policy. Much attention has been paid to his recent verbal blunders, from criticizing English Olympic preparations while visiting London in July, to calling American diplomats’ efforts to deal with hostile crowds in Cairo “disgraceful”. Many presidential candidates are inexperienced in foreign policy, as Barack Obama was in 2008. If Romney is elected president, he would improve at enunciating his policies. More important is to know what those policies would be.
Republican foreign policy under George W. Bush was a disaster. The war in Iraq was unnecessary and unwinnable, and the war in Afghanistan was going nowhere. Osama bin Laden remained alive and Al Qaeda was spreading. No progress had been made on peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. World opinion about America, even among our allies, reached a low point.
Republican leaders do not mention Bush, and have not discussed what went wrong and why. Many of the neoconservative experts who orchestrated the Bush foreign policy are now advising Romney. They have been very critical of President Obama’s foreign policy, without clearly outlining one of their own. What would they do differently?
Republican foreign policy can most easily be described in the negative. In March, Romney called Russia “without question our number one geopolitical foe.” Republicans spend more time talking about China: Romney repeatedly says that punishing the Chinese for unequal trade policies will happen on Day One. Mexico and the rest of Latin America are the sources of all those illegal immigrants who should deport themselves back home.
The vast Muslim world is dangerous, populated by a religion which many conservatives label as morally deficient. They attack those, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who might apply Islamic ideas to government, while arguing that our government should be ruled by their version of Christian fundamentalism. In the section of their party platform about foreign policy “Islam” appears twice, both times as the threat of “radical Islam”.
Western Europe used to be our closest allies, but today’s Republicans only criticize Europe. In campaign speeches, Romney calls Europe countries “social welfare state[s]” and “entitlement nation[s].” He describes the coming election as a battle for “the soul of America”, because voters must choose between “a European-style welfare state” or “a free land.”
Whom do Republicans like? Israel. But only the most extreme politicians there, who refuse to limit settlement activities on the West Bank. Any effort to move Israel toward compromise is equated with “throwing Israel under the bus.” Republicans appear ready to let Israel draw us into a war with Iran on Benjamin Netanyahu’s timetable.
A frequently used Republican word about Obama’s foreign policy is “feckless”, meaning weak and ineffective. That reflects the overall Republican strategy of projecting more strength, more power. The Democratic administration has been reluctant to use power, especially military power, compared with the ostentatious use of military power by their Republican predecessors. There is not much difference between the parties on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both are widely unpopular among American voters. Partisan interpretations of the withdrawal of troops from both war zones notwithstanding, the pace of withdrawal has been cautious under Obama.
Obama has pursued the broader war on terror as vigorously as did George Bush. He has not closed Guantanamo and uses drones to kill enemies, even if they are American citizens. He ordered the pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden, although Republicans appear peeved at his success.
In the turbulent Middle East, Obama has been reluctant to intervene in unpredictable situations. Each country touched by the Arab Spring has followed a different path away from dictatorship. Egypt was a major ally, whose government was dictatorial and unpopular, so there was little American interference in the rebellion there. Libya was ruled by a sponsor of terrorism, for whose overthrow international approval, especially from NATO, was immediately forthcoming, so limited American military assistance was offered to the rebels. Syria sits in the center of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and Obama has refrained from anything beyond verbal support of the revolutionaries.
Republican foreign policy is really driven by their domestic effort to unseat Obama and the Democrats. The New York Times reported in July that European leaders who felt slighted by Romney’s words had been told by his advisers not to read too much into statements made for a domestic political audience.
The Democrats offer a known quantity, the continuation of this cautious foreign policy of the previous four years. What Romney would do in office is much less certain. The aggressive and risky proposals that Republicans advance in the campaign, like openly arming the Syrian rebels and threatening Iran with air attack if their nuclear program is not stopped immediately, may just be for show.
But the nationalist arrogance of Romney’s “American century” rhetoric, the wholesale distrust of the world’s Muslims, the disinterest in seeking allies, and the support of the most belligerent section of the Israeli electorate are likely to continue to determine the foreign policy choices of Republicans, in or out of the White House.
Taking Back Our Country
Published: Wednesday, 26 September 2012