Jacob Heilbrunn

Mitt Romney's Neocon Foreign Policy

Since when is Russia America's "No. 1" geopolitical foe? The Soviet Empire collapsed almost overnight in 1989, when the realist George H. W. Bush administration helped engineer a soft landing not by engaging in triumphalism but, rather, by engaging in diplomacy with the Kremlin. Soon after, Russia itself went under—or, to put it more precisely, the Bolshevik regime that had launched a coup d'etat in 1917 also disintegrated. The communist threat was over. Cold warriors couldn't believe it. 

Ever since, a small and rather truculent neocon cohort has somewhat contradictorily been claiming credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and predicting dire threats from Russia on the other. They want both credit and saber rattling. They want the appearance of the threat without the substance. Sen. John McCain, for example, has been a stalwart member of this camp. He is what might be called a nostalgist. Nostalgists just can't let go.

Which is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on to something when she termed Mitt Romney's comments about Russia "somewhat dated." Vice president Joe Biden also accurately called them redolent of Cold War thinking. For that is what they are. Romney's comments were themselves in response to President Obama's mic gaffe in Seoul when he indicated to Dmitri Medvedev that he needed a breathing spell on the issue of missile defense in Europe, one that should last until after the conclusion of the American election.

The Romney camp pounced, serving up generous dollops of neocon rhetoric about Obama's penchant for appeasing, apologizing and doing other bad things. Yet the Obama camp has now converted Romney's overblown rhetoric to bludgeon him as an inexperienced, callow stripling who would blunder about the world stage. What lesson might Romney learn from this episode?

It is this: for decades, the GOP has systematically played the patriotism card, attacking Democratic presidents as weaklings, unfit for the big time. But now the GOP has, more or less, exhausted that formula. It's returning to a prescription that led to trillion-dollar wars in the Middle East that the public loathes. Now it's champing at the bit, or pretending to champ, to attack Syria, Iran, China and who knows who else. Anyway, Obama is already ramping up America's military presence in Asia. 

In essence, Obama is calling the GOP's bluff. He can pose as tough and measured—the man who took out Osama bin Laden, wound down two unpopular wars and, perhaps most important, did not launch a new one in Iran or anywhere else. Romney, by contrast, appears to be intent on depicting Obama as a wimp and seeking out a "No. 1" foe, which can evidently be Iran or China or Russia, depending on Romney's mood that week. But it won't work. If he clings to neoconservatism, Romney won't doom America's adversaries but his own campaign.

Image: Gage Skidmore