Jacob Heilbrunn

Neocon versus Realist: Romney Punts At VMI

So where did Mitt Romney come down in his big speech, "The Mantle of Leadership," at the Virginia Military Academy, on the side of the neocons or realists? He didn't. Instead of choosing between neocons and realists, he chose not to choose. His speech was a blend of great-power chest-thumping that artificially inflated the differences between him and Obama, on the one hand, and cautious prescriptions that did little to suggest the course he would pursue as president, on the other.

Rhetorically, the speech was pure neocon. Romney talked about returning to the great traditions of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. He talked about spreading freedom abroad. And he painted a Manichean portrait of the Middle East, suggesting that Obama has failed to appreciate the urge for freedom and liberty in the region, while foolishly distancing Washington from Jerusalem. Romney sought, above all, to suggest that Obama is a new President Carter, that once again America is under siege abroad. According to Romney,

The attacks against us in Libya were not an isolated incident.  They were accompanied by anti-American riots in nearly two dozen other countries, mostly in the Middle East, but also in Africa and Asia.  Our embassies have been attacked.  Our flag has been burned.  Many of our citizens have been threatened and driven from their overseas homes by vicious mobs, shouting “Death to America.”

It is telling that Romney uses the passive voice, in an effort to make the protests sound as threatening and ubiquitous as possible. But as the New York Times notes, there is no monolithic Arab world. What Romney does not acknowledge here is that the riots did not come out of the blue but were prompted by a viciously destructive anti-Islam movie that was made in America—or, at a minimum, that the film provided a handy pretext for anti-American uprisings.

Romney also is intent on depicting a battle between freedom and repression in the Middle East that is directly analogous to the Cold War. He stated,

In short, it is a struggle between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope and despair. We have seen this struggle before.  It would be familiar to George Marshall.  In his time, in the ashes of world war, another critical part of the world was torn between democracy and despotism.  Fortunately, we had leaders of courage and vision, both Republicans and Democrats, who knew that America had to support friends who shared our values, and prevent today’s crises from becoming tomorrow’s conflicts.

But this is nostalgia masquerading as foreign policy. The upheaval in the Middle East would not be familiar to Marshall. Europe consisted of countries that had long feudal traditions, then experienced the Enlightenment, before becoming democracies themselves, at least in the case of Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, Greece and Italy. To liken them to Arab countries in the Middle East, which mostly consists of kleptocracies, is unpersuasive. In his quest for clarity, Romney is unwilling to acknowledge complexity.

But what Romney would actually do in the Oval Office is uncertain. Substantively, Romney, apart from calling for more shipbuilding programs, didn't really propose much that would represent a sharp break with current policies. He was rather vague in his speech about what kind of assistance he would render to the Syrian rebels. Whether Romney would actually confront China sharply is also questionable. When it came to Iran, Romney said, "I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have." This would seem to describe the Obama administration's stance perfectly. Romney makes it sound as though he has fundamental differences with Obama, but it is difficult to discern a practical one when it comes to Iran and other foreign-affairs issues.

His most likely move as president is unclear. A case could be made that the Republican nominee Romney is being supremely realistic in backing both realism and neoconservatism in his approach to foreign policy. As president, however, the real Romney would have to emerge.

Image: Talk Radio News Service