When Mitt Romney gave his defining speech on foreign policy Monday, he showed he had a magnificent sense of history’s drama and almost no clue about its realities. But maybe that’s what passes for vision these days: using a simulacrum of the past to cobble together a fantasy about the present and the future.
The most striking and heartfelt theme, threaded all the way through the address in various guises, was a passionate longing for what are remembered as the glory days of the Cold War. Romney worked hard to turn the problems of the Middle East into a struggle against “darkness,” a matter of “democracy and despotism.” In this view, no politics are local, all is subsumed in a clash of civilizations. And for good measure Romney evidently longs to bring back the Russians as the Evil (if truncated and largely toothless) Empire. He’s going to build missile defenses no matter what old Vladimir Putin says about it. And, by the way, Romney says he’s going to build 15 new warships every year to keep such non-superpowers at bay.
Ah, for the days when the world was divided into good guys and bad guys, and we were not only good, we were great! And the bad guys lost and … well, never mind what happened after that.
Never mind that the enormous power, and the power to do enormous good, that the United States achieved under the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton administrations was pissed away under the presidency of George W. Bush. And never mind that the context for that, precisely, was that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to lead the United States in a new fight against a new Evil Empire. As Bush said, “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talked of “a long twilight struggle,” when what he should have said was endless shadow boxing.
Never mind that to eliminate Osama bin Laden and a few hundred people around him, the Bush administration launched an open-ended occupation of Afghanistan, and still failed to get him. Never mind that to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration occupied Iraq. Never mind that after a generation of combat, thousands of lives lost and more than a trillion dollars spent, mostly to protect ourselves as strangers in strange lands, Americans are no longer welcome in those countries. In Afghanistan even the soldiers and the police that the Americans trained are killing them. In Iraq, as we know, the biggest winner has been Iran.
But Romney suggests those problems are not the result of fatally ill-conceived wars begun in the Bush years, they are really the result of President Barack Obama’s efforts to end those self-inflicted bloodbaths. Romney’s answer: we should have stayed longer in Iraq, and should stay longer still in Afghanistan. If we just occupy them a little longer—or a lot longer—we can teach them to be good democrats. We can help our “friends” there (whether they are majorities or not). He does not call for these countries to become colonies or protectorates, but he might as well. And now he wants to leave the door open to a similar educational exercise helping out our friends, if only we can be sure who they are, in Syria.
Romney did everything he could in his speech to exploit the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya as a sign of weakness by the Obama administration. What were clearly fatal miscalculations about the security needs of a consulate are translated into an overarching theme about Obama being soft on terrorists. Oh sure, Osama bin Laden is dead, but that was yesterday and his ghost is back, bigger and badder than ever. The long twilight struggle can begin again.
And then, of course, there is the matter of Israel. In Romney’s view, it’s clear, there is very little difference between Israel and its current prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, whom he’s known since they worked together at the Bain Consulting Group in the 1970s. If there’s no peace between Israel and Palestine, it must be because Obama let too much daylight come between him and Bibi. Never mind that Bibi, while eventually, reluctantly, bitterly accepting the rhetoric of a two-state solution, has somehow never been able to accept any Arab as a suitable negotiating partner.
But all that was predictable in Romney’s speech. He was speaking to the party faithful, many of whom still believe as a matter of faith that Saddam Hussein really did have WMD and, hey, was really behind 9/11.
Where Obama’s likely to get blindsided again, as he did the other night in the debate on the economy, is when Romney shamelessly steals his best lines. Apart from the Strangelovian nostalgia for the Cold War, the vast expansion of military spending (a black hole to be paid for by loopholes, it would seem), and the prolongation of American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, virtually all of Romney’s specific policy recommendations—the things he says he would do—are things Obama already has done.
“I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear-weapons capability.” Check. “I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have.” Check. “I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft-carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region—and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination.” Check.
“For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions—not just words—that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated,” says Romney. And that is just what the Obama administration has done in coordination with its allies.
“I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security—the world must never see any daylight between our two nations.” Again, Obama has reiterated that point countless times and security cooperation with Israel is more extensive than at any time in history.
Perhaps Romney really means what Bibi means when he talks about these issues: that Israel should lead and the United States should follow. But if that’s the case, then Romney probably was unwise to cite as his paradigm for a strong statesman that greatest of Cold Warriors, George Marshall, the chief of staff of the Army who became secretary of state and secretary of defense, and who went to Virginia Military Institute, which Romney chose as the venue for this speech. Marshall passionately opposed recognition of the state of Israel in 1948. He thought that move would draw the United States into a series of endless wars in the Arab world.