Op-Ed

Dissecting Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy Speech

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Mitt Romney gave a good foreign policy speech at the Citadel in South Carolina today. It was a serious and well-delivered set of remarks and amounts to one more reason to expect that an upcoming showdown between him and Barack Obama could be quite competitive and close! The speech was not too specific on most matters as to be easy to dissect, but a few reactions did occur to me:

  •  Governor Romney’s adamant opposition to defense spending cuts was somewhat surprising. It raises the stakes for him as he proposes how to reduce the deficit through other approaches, as it will be hard enough to get out of our fiscal mess even if every major part of the budget makes some level of proportionate contribution. This position is especially hard to reconcile with the classic GOP stance against any and all tax increases, unless Romney envisions a fundamental overall of the tax code that could increase revenues without raising rates.
  • Within the subject of defense, his focus on shipbuilding and missile defense were interesting. The latter is a Reaganesque position that plays well to GOP crowds, though it is worth noting that Obama, even after curbing the missile defense program somewhat, is still spending more on it each year than Reagan did in his day (after adjusting for inflation). The shipbuilding emphasis is somewhat surprising given its specificity (“we should build 15 ships a year instead of 9”) but probably pretty smart. Not only will it play well in key naval states with electoral importance like Virginia, but more importantly it addresses the challenges posed by Iran and China and conveys a sense of strength without raising fears that Romney is looking for more nasty ground campaigns like those in Iraq or Afghanistan. Still, it adds to the budget problem.
  • Romney’s view that Obama is an apologist for the United States strikes me as unfair. I do not see this in the president’s speeches or actions, personally, even after studying most of these speeches fairly intently. 
  •  However, Mr. Romney is probably on somewhat stronger ground in suggesting that Obama has struggled to define a confident image of American global leadership. Obama does not favor American decline or multilateralism per se, but he has failed to articulate a clear view of this country’s future role in a changing world of numerous new rising powers and that leaves him open to critique.
  • More broadly, America’s economic travails in the Obama era enormously complicate the current president’s task of leading strongly and assertively. This is part of the reason that Romney’s narrative about Obama’s supposed lack of conviction about the exceptionalism of the United States may resonate. The economy is hardly all Mr. Obama’s fault, clearly. But it is an iron and immutable law of American politics that incumbents are saddled with the economic record that occurred on their watch, so again, this part of the Romney message may have some legs.
  • Romney’s position on Afghanistan – that he would do a major review upon taking office, and not let politics intrude on his decisionmaking – sounds perfectly reasonable at one level. Indeed, it is. But more than anything, it is a smart political move. Romney knows the war is unpopular but also knows it would be imprudent to accelerate the scheduled U.S. troop drawdown there. So he is looking for an approach that allows him not to take any real stand on the matter for now. That reflects sound instincts in one sense, but of course it is a punt in another sense. 
  • Finally, the idea that it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon is a sure-fire applause line and like his predecessors, Romney has gone back to this conventional wisdom. Surely, no one except some Iranians favor Iran getting the bomb. The question, however, is what to do about it if our diplomatic and sanctions-based efforts fail. Was Romney suggesting that in such an event, he would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities? This is a question about which he may have to be more specific in the 13 months to come. And it may be a statement that he regrets making, someday, if elected president. Time will tell.

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