Jacob Heilbrunn

Mitt Romney's Cunning Foreign-Policy Speech

Mitt Romney is being attacked for not being more specific about his foreign-policy disagreements with President Obama in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday. Obama's campaign press spokesman Ben LaBolt complained, or pretended to complain, that

With all of the complex global challenges facing our nation today, Gov. Romney's much-hyped foreign policy speech once again is all bluster, offering no specific plans for our relations with any region of the world.

Well, yes. Isn't that the point? Why would Romney offer a specific plan, one that his detractors and opponents would pick apart?

Romney is not a visionary in the Reagan mold. He stands for nothing except his own personal advancement. His aim is to unseat Obama. All along, Romney's plan has been of a piece with his stance on his tax returns, which is to say that he intends to divulge as little as possible about his approach to domestic and foreign affairs. His campaign credo: "In an American century, we lead the free world and the free world leads the entire world." As simple as that.

So Romney will seek to remain a cipher. His aim has to be to allow discontent to swell about Obama. He then becomes the candidate that independent, swing voters turn to in disgust with Obama. To put it another way, Romney is not so much running for office as against Obama.

Accordingly, Romney's critique of Obama has been largely rhetorical, attempting to portray him as ashamed of America, a dubious figure who lacks the fortitude to create a new American Century, someone who is about to let the country slip into a fiscal and moral abyss with incalculable consequences for its standing abroad. Romney is attacking Obama for pusillanimity toward Iran, China and Iraq. He also is suggesting that, as he put it earlier this year, Obama threw Israel "under the bus" by proposing that negotiations with the Palestinians should center on the 1967 lines. As the New York Times reports today, Romney—or, to put it more precisely, the ubiquitous Mr. Adelson—hopes to peel off Jewish voters who may feel disaffected with Obama's touchy relationship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who enjoys a chorus of support among congressional Republicans, a grouping that has made no secret of its contempt for what its sees as Obama's vehemently anti-Israeli stance.

Where would all this end if Romney were to become president? One possibility is that he would indeed embrace the neoconservative advisers around him who are championing a military assault on Iran. In this instance, Romney's rhetoric would be more than just guff—he really is serious about returning to the George W. Bush years. Having experienced the ignominy of the final Bush years, when they were cast aside, the neocons would presumably act quickly and forcefully to reassert themselves.

Would Romney let them? The other interpretation is that much of what Romney is saying is flapdoodle, and he knows it. Romney has shown an elastic sense of the possible throughout his run for the presidency, making it clear that he will say and do anything to enter the White House. On Israel, it's fully apparent that he would give it carte blanche to avoid any peace negotiations and he would be hard-pressed indeed to prevent it from launching a strike on Tehran whenever it wishes. Nevertheless, while it stretches the imagination to think that Romney would govern in the realist mold—who would his advisers be?—it's unclear whether he would really give the neocons full rein. He could end up imperiling his presidency before it had even truly started.

Still, it is rather amazing that in 2012 the neocons would even be a serious, let alone the dominant, force in the GOP. They deserve an ample amount of credit for their own tactical flexibility and tenacity. But as the election season progresses, Romney is unlikely to talk much about foreign affairs, where Obama polls strongly. Absent a disaster abroad—and one is always possible in North Korea, Iran or elsewhere—Romney will take occasional swipes at Obama in foreign policy. But this time, it's the economy, stupid. And Willard Mitt Romney may be many things, but dumb is not one of them.

Image: Gage Skidmore