Argument

Romney’s Mad-Libs Foreign Policy

Romney’s Mad-Libs Foreign Policy

Mitt Romney’s approach to foreign policy has remained so gauzy that commentators are increasingly sounding like foreign diplomats trying to parse Chinese wall posters to better understand who was up or down in Chairman Mao’s inner circle. Mitt will be pragmatic like Nixon. No, he can be like Ronald Reagan. Romney has been captured by the Bush neocons. Romney is a lightweight. No, he is a visionary.

The confusion is understandable. Romney’s approach to foreign policy has not advanced far beyond the Mad-Libs stage: i.e. President Obama is too weak to deal with our biggest enemy _______________.  Fill in the blank: Currency-manipulating China. No. 1 geopolitical foe Russia. Nuclear-armed Iran. Hugo Chávez.

None of it feels very serious or credible. Most now agree that absent some large international incident, foreign affairs will be a relatively small part of the campaign. That’s too bad, because taken together Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are proposing one of the most disturbing, profound, and head-scratching shifts in America’s foreign-policy posture in our lifetime. And President Obama has had surprisingly little to say about it.

To understand what is really going on, we shouldn’t be looking at the campaign’s vacuous policy statements about the respective international bogeymen of the day — we should be following the money. Let’s start with Paul Ryan. For whatever reason, the Wisconsin Republican seems to have a particular animus for the civilian side of international affairs, diplomacy and development. Ryan’s 2012 budget resolution, released in April 2011, cut 30 percent from actual international affairs 2010 spending levels. That is not a haircut; it is a beheading. If his spending proposal had been enacted, both the State Department and USAID would have had to fire droves of staff and close embassies and missions around the globe. It would have crippled much of America’s foreign-policy apparatus. The proposed cuts were so draconian that a broad collection of business leaders and former military commanders felt compelled to speak out against them. In real terms, under the Ryan budget, the international affairs account would have taken about a decade to get back to its 2010 levels.

Ryan must therefore have thought himself the soul of generosity when he only proposed to cut the international affairs account 11 percent in his 2013 budget resolution — a cut to foreign affairs accounts that is deeper than the roughly 7 percent cut that would be imposed by sequestration (which Ryan voted for but now claims would be disastrous, at least for the U.S. military).

Romney has been far less detailed than Ryan, but he has announced that he would cut non-security discretionary spending by 5 percent on his first day in office. Although he has not clarified his position on this, it seems reasonably clear that Romney views internal affairs spending as "non-security."

Romney and Ryan’s hostility to spending money on diplomacy and development becomes all the more striking when considered in light of the campaign’s burning desire to spend more on defense, deficits be damned. Romney has embraced the gimmick of pegging defense spending to 4 percent of GDP, which Romney’s fellow Republican Ron Paul complained would increase defense spending by more than $2.1 trillion over the next decade — dwarfing the costs of Obamacare. Such an approach to defense spending is oddly mechanical, and no one has offered a sensible rationale as to why defense spending should be dictated by the natural ups and downs of America’s economic production rather than its actual strategic needs. Romney has also called for adding 100,000 more active duty military personnel and rapidly expanding the pace of new ship building by the Navy, building fifteen new ships a year, not nine.

Stepping back and putting all this in a broader perspective suggests that Romney and Ryan have gone well off the deep end. The United States is concluding two major land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Mitt Romney is calling for a 39 percent increase in military spending next year just as his running mate has advocated cutting civilian international affairs spending by an average of 20 percent over the last two years.  If brought to fruition, these plans would represent the almost complete militarization of America’s approach to engaging the world, and decimate the country’s ability to effectively advance its interests overseas.

This is the concept of a peace dividend turned absolutely upon its head. The war is over-now let’s spend more money on weapons and personnel while slashing our ability to negotiate, mediate, and invest in nurturing healthier, more productive societies around the globe. This is federal budgeting driven by end-of-days paranoia, and pandering to the worst elements of the Tea Party.

Most sane people recognize that after 10 years of relatively strong growth in international-affairs spending following the Sept. 11 attacks, considerable belt-tightening is ahead. Mitt Romney doesn’t seem like a crazy person. What is the problem, then? Is this just one more area of policy where Romney has checked his convictions at the door? As for Obama, it is time to step it up: This may not be a foreign-policy election, but it should be.