Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Mitt Romney a Neocon, A Realist, Or Both?

Jonathan Rauch, a contributor to the National Journal and author of several books, weighed in on foreign policy debates in the Sunday New York Times to defend realism. Realism, he noted, is a lonely credo. He thinks it is finding more of a home among Democrats than Republicans. Rauch lamented the fact that the GOP has, by and large abjured realism in favor of neoconservative triumphalism about the greatness of America. As Rauch sees it,

Despite getting terrible press and having more or less no explicit defenders on the American political scene today (prediction: not one Republican presidential candidate will embrace the term “realist”), realism remains the indispensable foreign-policy doctrine — or, really, attitude, since it is not doctrinaire. Without it, nothing else works.

Yet in the GOP, it is the younger generation of neocons who hold sway. Rauch contrasts them with the older generation of realists such as Irving Kristol (founder, by the way, of the National Interest, among other things). He refers to them as "baby boomers who proved susceptible to their generation’s narcissistic radicalism, [and who] have driven the approach that succeeded so well for Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush from its traditional home on the American right. Like some unrestful soul, it wanders in search of a new corpus."

Is it really this bad? Rauch's piece dovetails nicely with Mitt Romney's speech at the Citadel on Friday (and the white paper denouncing isolationism and released by the Romney campaign, whose introduction is written by Eliot Cohen). Romney was sweeping in his denunication of President Obama as a ninety-nine pound foreign policy weakling. He, Romney, promised to restore the greatness of America. Actually, he went even further. He said it was imperative to make this century "the American century." (To my ear, these passages sound like pure Kaganism--Robert Kagan is a senior adviser to the campaign). That phrase was coined by Henry R. Luce to describe America after World War II, when it became the preeminent world power. By no stretch of the imagination, however, could anyone think that America today resembles the burgeoning power that emerged in 1945. For one thing, America wasn't in hock to China back then. It had sole possession of the atomic bomb. And its factories were humming, ready to export to the rest of the world, not to mention the pent up consumer demand at home.

Romney also argued,

This is America’s moment.  We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert America’s time has passed. That is utter nonsense. An eloquently justified surrender of world leadership is still surrender.

This is a straw man. Who is arguing for waving white flags or surrendering?

Romney went on to castigate Obama for allegedly slashing the defense budget (in fact, it has steadily risen) and proclaimed that he would build even more ships (15 per year) for the Navy. But why stop there? Why not twenty, thirty? What will constructing these ships accomplish? Where will the money come from?

Romney ended his speech with pathos. America is not only an "exceptional country with a unique role and destiny in the world," but Romney also hopes

that our grandchildren will remember us in the same way that we remember the past generations of Americans who overcame adversity, the generations that fought in world wars, that came through the Great Depression, and that gained victory in the Cold War. Let future generations look back on us and say, they rose to the occasion, they embraced their duty, and they led our nation to safety and to greatness. The Greatest Generation is passing. But as their light fades, we must seize the torch they carried so gallantly at such sacrifice. It is an eternal torch of decency, freedom and hope.

But what foreign policy challenge looms that could conceivably match World War II? This is living in the past, not facing up to the future. But for all the patriotic bombast delivered by Romney, he is notably chary about offering any practical counsel about altering American foreign policy. He doesn't actually call for confronting China or Russia. The inference that might be drawn is that, at bottom, Romney remains an equivocator. Which is good news. He is clearly prepared to say or do almost anything that it takes to become president. Richard M. Nixon, as Doyle McManus observes, once advised Bob Dole to "run like hell to the right in the primaries." After that, "run like hell to the center." The extent of Mitt Romney's personal realism may soon become clear.