Pretty Vacant

After three empty days in Tampa, the Republican Party seems out of ideas on how to run America's foreign policy.


TAMPA, Florida — Two-hundred-and-two words. That was the total length of the foreign-policy section of Mitt Romney’s speech Thursday night in Tampa as he accepted the Republican nomination for U.S. president. If you blinked you would have missed it. Everyone knows (because it has been stated repeatedly) that this isn’t going to be a foreign-policy election. But Aug. 30’s speech by Romney was still remarkable — a content-free discussion of the global challenges facing the United States and Romney’s foreign-policy vision. While Republican vacuousness on foreign policy this cycle is not a new development, Romney’s acceptance speech was the apogee of the party’s apparent pursuit of national security nothingness.

The few scant morsels of content that Romney did offer on national security and foreign policy were either highly misleading or simply untrue. He once again accused President Barack Obama of conducting an "apology tour" after taking office — a charge that has repeatedly been debunked. And he claimed that the United States is less secure today because of the failure "to slow Iran’s nuclear threat" — an assertion that is belied by revelations that the United States was involved in developing the Stuxnet computer virus, which set back the Iranian nuclear effort, by some estimates, 18 months to two years. Moreover, while criticizing the president for holding talks with Iran, Romney declined to mention that Obama has dramatically increased sanctions against Iran, contributing to Tehran’s economic and diplomatic isolation. Romney once again accused the United States of throwing Israel "under the bus," which I suppose is all in the eye of the beholder, but to most regional observers — including Israeli deputy prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak — is simply inaccurate. He claimed once again that the United States has walked away from "our friends in Poland" and "our missile defense commitments" — another charge that simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Earlier in his speech, Romney trotted out his claim that Obama’s "trillion-dollar cuts to our military will eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs and also put our security at greater risk." But since these cuts were initiated by House Republicans during last year’s debt-limit debacle (and voted for by a congressman named Paul Ryan), Romney’s criticism rang particularly hollow.

And that was basically it. Nothing on Afghanistan, where approximately 80,000 U.S. soldiers continue to fight a war against the Taliban — a war that Romney supports. No mention of the troops in general. Nothing on Pakistan. Nothing on Iraq. Nothing on terrorism — except to offer a rare bit of praise to Obama for ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Virtually nothing on China, which Romney has labeled a currency manipulator. Nothing on the rest of Asia. I suppose Europe can revel in the fact that Romney didn’t take his familiar tack of using America’s strongest set of allies as a punch line — though, once again, the country that Romney has called America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe, Russia, once again came in for attack.

As for a foreign-policy vision, this appeared to be the extent of it: "We will honor America’s democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world. This is the bipartisan foreign-policy legacy of Truman and Reagan. And under my presidency we will return to it once again."

For a candidate who complains regularly that Obama has weakened American leadership and created uncertainty about America’s role in the world, and for a ticket with the least amount of foreign-policy experience since the Dewey-Warren ticket in 1948, it’s very difficult to see how this speech provided much in the way of reassurance. If the United States has been so weakened internationally under Obama’s presidency, one would think that Romney would have a bit more to say on the subject.

But all this is very much at pace with how Republicans treated national security throughout their entire truncated three-day convention. On Aug. 29, which was billed perhaps ironically as national security night, delegates were treated to the stylings of Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

McCain’s remarks were indicative of pretty much all that we’ve heard from Republican politicos this campaign cycle: hoary paeans to American exceptionalism and purpose, calls to stand with those fighting for freedom, disingenuousness attacks on Obama for failing to lead, and protests against defense cuts that according to McCain would deal a "crippling blow to our military." Above all, however, what linked McCain’s remarks to those of the party nominee was the lack of a plan for the future. McCain verbally assaulted the president for failing in 2009 to support the Green Movement in Iran and for declining to take a more aggressive position on Syria, but particularly on the latter issue offered zero sense of what a Republican president should do differently. Of course, on this, Romney said nothing.

Indeed, what is so particularly striking about McCain and Romney’s rhetoric is not its differentiation from Obama, but rather its eerie reminiscence to that of the last Republican president. To listen to McCain and his assertions of American greatness, of incipient threats, and of the need for American resolve and leadership was to hear loud echoes of the rhetoric used by President George W. Bush. And if the connection wasn’t clear enough for viewers, the Romney team also trotted out Condoleezza Rice.

Rice’s presence — and the slathering of praise for her anodyne remarks by the national press corps — was indicative of the bizarre degree of amnesia about the Bush years that settled over the Republican National Convention. Rice was, aside from the eminently forgettable Rob Portman, the only figure from the Bush administration to make a prominent appearance at the convention. And Bush, unsurprisingly, only showed up in a video tribute — his name virtually unmentioned in the week’s proceedings. Rice’s assertions that friends and foes alike do not know where America stands and that the United States must lead in the future (and not from behind) are all well and good and follow the Republican foreign-policy playbook, but from her speech you might never know that she was secretary of state and national security advisor for the most disastrous foreign-policy administration in American history.

At one point I tweeted that if Condi mentioned the word "Iraq," I would eat my computer. I’m pleased to note that my laptop remains blissfully unconsumed.

Rice’s speech was, like McCain’s, remarkably similar to the one Romney delivered Thursday night: a collection of foreign-policy platitudes about how America is the indispensable nation and the guarantor of a safe and secure world. Again, however, she offered no road map for how a Romney administration will ensure that the United States continues to adhere to this vision of global leadership. All three speeches, taken together, provide troubling evidence of how Republicans have run out of ideas on international affairs that aren’t merely reiterations of how great a country America is — especially when it "leads."

Once upon a time, Republicans owned the issue of national security. They radiated confidence, experience, and self-assuredness on how they would manage the responsibilities of America’s unique global role. It’s too soon to say those days are over, but the lack of focus on and attention to foreign-policy issues at this convention was stunning. The topic was treated as nothing more than an afterthought. Even in vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech on Wednesday night, he devoted no more than a few sentences to it.

Perhaps Republicans have concluded that they can’t beat Obama on foreign policy, so why bother trying? And from a political perspective it makes sense — stick with the issues on which you have an advantage. But when presidents are elected, they have no more awesome responsibility — and direct influence — than on foreign policy. It is on the global stage where they are able to operate with relatively broad discretion and minimal oversight from Congress. As a result, having a clearly defined foreign-policy vision is not just something you check off in a box in your acceptance speech, but something presidential candidates should take the time to think about, develop, and articulate. As the Bush presidency reminds us, there is a heavy price to be paid when candidates take office with such a lack of foreign-policy vision. Thursday night’s speech showed that Mitt Romney isn’t much interested in the issue — and if the last three nights are any indication, he now leads a party that appears to feel the same way.

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