Daniel W. Drezner

Thoughts on Romney’s VFW speech: it’s about domestic politics, stupid.

Thoughts on Romney’s VFW speech:  it’s about domestic politics, stupid.

Mitt Romney kicked off his "see, I do too know something about foreign policy" world tour today.  Before his homage to Barack Obama’s 2008 tour, however, he gave what was labeled as a "major foreign policy address" at the VFW convention. Mark Halperin has the text. I’ll just comment on a few pieces of it:

[W]hen it comes to national security and foreign policy, as with our economy, the last few years have been a time of declining influence and missed opportunity.

Just consider some of the challenges I discussed at your last national convention:

Since then, has the American economy recovered?

Has our ability to shape world events been enhanced, or diminished?

Have we gained greater confidence among our allies, and greater respect from our adversaries?

And, perhaps most importantly, has the most severe security threat facing America and our friends, a nuclear-armed Iran, become more or less likely? (emphasis added)

OK, stop, hold it right there. Now Iran is "the most severe security threat"? Is that better or worse than Russia being the number one geopolitical foe?

[Note to self: if Romney loses in November, propose co-hosting awards show with him on Fox News — call it "The Greatest American Enemies." Categories would include "Greatest Geopolitical Threat," "Greatest Security Threat," "Greatest Existential Threat," and "Best Supporting Threat in Comedy or Musical." Ratings gold.]

Onward!

I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country. I am not ashamed of American power. I take pride that throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair. I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced. I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever. And I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.

Somewhere, the realist wing of Romney’s foreign policy advisors are drowning in whiskey.

[S]adly, this president has diminished American leadership, and we are reaping the consequences. The world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic.

You know what? The world really isn’t more dangerous, destructive or chaotic than it used to be, and anyone who tells you differently is either uninformed or selling you something.

In an American Century, we have the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, we secure peace through our strength. And if by absolute necessity we must employ it, we must wield our strength with resolve. In an American Century, we lead the free world and the free world leads the entire world.

If we do not have the strength or vision to lead, then other powers will take our place, pulling history in a very different direction. A just and peaceful world depends on a strong and confident America. I pledge to you that if I become commander-in-chief, the United States of America will fulfill its duty, and its destiny.

That sound you hear is Bob Kagan smiling somewhere.

After secret operational details of the bin Laden raid were given to reporters, Secretary Gates walked into the West Wing and told the Obama team to “shut up.” He added a colorful word for emphasis.

Lives of American servicemen and women are at stake. But astonishingly, the administration failed to change its ways. More top-secret operations were leaked, even some involving covert action in Iran.

This isn’t a partisan issue; it’s a national security crisis. And yesterday, Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, quote, “I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks.”

Bully for Romney. This is totally fair issue, and the response I’m hearing from Obama loyalists that "Bush did it too" is pretty weak beer.

I’m going to skip the "Obama is abandoning out allies" and "I would act differently in Afghanistan" sections, because they’re pretty much unchanged from what Romney has said in the past. Which means, by the way, that he’s exaggerating both the discontent of our allies and the differences he has with Obama’s Afghanistan policy.

On to China:

We face another continuing challenge in a rising China. China is attentive to the interests of its government – but it too often disregards the rights of its people. It is selective in the freedoms it allows; and, as with its one-child policy, it can be ruthless in crushing the freedoms it denies. In conducting trade with America, it permits flagrant patent and copyright violations … forestalls American businesses from competing in its market … and manipulates its currency to obtain unfair advantage. It is in our mutual interest for China to be a partner for a stable and secure world, and we welcome its participation in trade. But the cheating must finally be brought to a stop. President Obama hasn’t done it and won’t do it. I will (emphasis added)

The bolded section represents the nicest thing Romney has said about China during the campaign. I’d also note with some surprise that he didn’t mention his pledge to label China as a currency manipulator on day one.

Now to the Middle East.

Egypt is at the center of this historical drama. In many ways, it has the power to tip the balance in the Arab world toward freedom and modernity. As president, I will not only direct the billions in assistance we give to Egypt toward that goal, but I will also work with partner nations to place conditions on their assistance as well. Unifying our collective influence behind a common purpose will foster the development of a government that represents all Egyptians, maintains peace with Israel, and promotes peace throughout the region. The United States is willing to help Egypt support peace and prosperity, but we will not be complicit in oppression and instability.

I put this in here because I haven’t the faintest clue what it means in terms of actual policy beyond "aid to Egypt will be conditional on something." Conditional on what, exactly? How is this different from current policy?

And finally, we get to a kernel of Romney’s strategic thinking:

It is a mistake – and sometimes a tragic one – to think that firmness in American foreign policy can bring only tension or conflict. The surest path to danger is always weakness and indecision. In the end, it is resolve that moves events in our direction, and strength that keeps the peace.

I will not surrender America’s leadership in the world. We must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose, and resolve in our might.

This is very simple: if you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I am not your President. You have that President today.

If this really is Romney’s foreign policy philosophy, then he’s right, it’s a pretty sharp contrast with the incumbent. Not the "strongest nation on earth" business, but rather the importance of resolve. I’m not sure, however, that this is the contrast he wants. The last time someone ran foreign policy based on this philosophy was during the first term of the Bush administration. It didn’t end well.

After the speech, Chuck Todd tweeted that "The Romney VFW speech felt like it was aimed at GOP voters, not swing voters." I’d agree. Foreign policy doesn’t matter that much to swing voters, but rhetoric like this is a great way to appeal to and energize the base. If Romney were to actually follow through on this speech, then the consequences would range from insignificant to quite serious. But it could be that Romney simply doesn’t care about foreign policy all that much, and is using these kind of speeches strictly as a tool to cater to key political constitutencies.

What do you think?