Neocon versus Realist: Romney Punts At VMI

Jacob Heilbrunn

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

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Democracy Promotion and the Pottery Barn Rule

The Buzz

A recent New York Times piece by Jim Marshall argued that “courageous” Afghan president Hamid Karzai is “in a perfect position now to secure his place in Afghan history by insuring that future elections will be more fair and credible than past ones have been.” Karzai’s commitment to transparent democracy may be up for debate, but that isn’t the most interesting aspect of the piece.

More notable is Marshall’s too-brief exploration of America’s dilemma in the upcoming Afghan elections. He notes that many Afghans “[feel] strongly that the United States should already be pressing the government and the international community for a final plan for fair elections; it should also provide the necessary support to guarantee its execution.” Indeed,  “for the vast majority of Afghans, . . . anything less than forceful, visible American leadership would be viewed as tacit United States support for an electoral process that gives unfair advantages to some ethnic groups or individuals.”

Two interlocking ideas are at play here. The first is the so-called “Pottery Barn rule,” the “you break it, you own it” school of foreign policy in which a country that “engages in military operations against another country incurs some obligation to clean up after the fact”—essentially, postintervention nation building as a moral imperative. By this logic, Washington is responsible for the shoddy democracy in Iraq, and NATO should answer for troubled democratic transitions in Libya and Kosovo. And what of Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti? Or, for that matter, any number of former colonies throughout Africa and the Middle East?

The second notion is that the United States should act as a sort of global democracy police. If declining to interfere in Afghan politics indicates U.S. support for unfair elections, does it follow that if America lets any country, anywhere, run its own democracy and that democracy turns out to be substandard—tainted by rigged elections, say, or dominated by corrupt officials—then Washington is tacitly in bed with the bad guys?

In its singular focus on Karzai, Marshall's piece does not sufficiently grapple with these questions.

TopicsDemographyPeacekeepingPost-Conflict RegionsAfghanistan

The Achievable Deal with Iran

Paul Pillar

An Iranian proposal reported by David Sanger in the New York Times confirms the outlines of an eminently achievable agreement that would end the impasse between Tehran and the West over the Iranian nuclear program. Both sides are looking at a deal (although the P5+1 side has so far failed actually to put such a proposal on the table) in which the basic trade would be curtailment of Iran's enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level in return for relief from economic sanctions. An agreement along these lines makes sense because it would meet the major concerns of each side. The West's major concern is about an Iranian enrichment program that would give Iran enough fissile material to make nuclear weapons if it ever decided to do so. The 20 percent level is of specific concern because it represents a possible step toward enrichment to weapons-grade uranium. Iran's major concern—indeed, its preeminent reason to negotiate at all—is to end the economic damage from the sanctions.

It would be hard to overstate the significance of this concurrence of views on the fundamental outlines of an agreement. Many international negotiations, even between parties that do a lot more talking with each other than the West does with Iran, never make it this far. They take a long time to get to the details of an agreement or never get to them at all because they remain at odds regarding the fundamentals.

The remaining disagreement between Iran and the West about the nuclear program involves details in two areas. One concerns exactly what restrictions Iran would have to observe regarding 20 percent enrichment. To be acceptable to the West, an agreement probably would have to prohibit not only further enrichment to this level but also any continuing possession by Iran of uranium previously enriched to this level, in a form that would leave open the possibility of enriching to higher levels. Fortunately the Iranians already have gone a long way to resolving this issue by converting most of their 20 percent stock into reactor-fuel plates (which they have contended all along is their purpose in enriching to this level), a form that precludes any further enrichment.

The other set of details involves sequencing: exactly when one side is to fulfill its obligations, relative to when the other side fulfills its obligations. This is one of the most common matters that arises in complicated international negotiations. Naturally each side would like to get everything it is looking for before giving up anything itself. This is also one of the issues most readily subject to compromise. The stakes are not indivisible. Neither side will get everything it wants at once. The obvious shape of a compromise—for which there is plenty of precedent in other negotiations—is to implement the agreement in stages, each side both giving something and getting something at each stage.

Do not be misled by what may seem like a big distance between the two sides' current positions, as highlighted by hard-line statements on either side that emphasize the unacceptability of the other side's current position. That too is standard in international negotiations. Each side stakes out a “bargaining position” that is not to be confused with a final requirement. The Iranians, expert bazaar bargainers that they are, would expect nothing less from us, and we should expect nothing less from them. Bargaining positions are chipped away and converge during negotiations. That's what negotiating is all about.

To the extent that any of the hard-line statements do not just represent bargaining positions, they may be ill conceived and ill informed. Sanger quotes an anonymous U.S. official, taking a hard line on the sequencing issue, as saying that Iran could restart a suspended enrichment program in a “nanosecond” but that reimposing sanctions would take “years.” It would take a whole lot of nanoseconds for Iran to do anything in violation of an agreement that would have significance for the development of nuclear weapons. And as for sanctions, the reality is the opposite of what the official said. One visit to Capitol Hill to listen to anything said there about Iran is enough to realize that politically it is far easier to impose sanctions on Iran than to lift them. If Tehran were to renege on a nuclear agreement, it would be easier still (not just in Washington but also in other Western capitals).

Keep all of this in mind when anyone talks about alternatives to negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran, with the most momentous alternative being a resort to war. It would not be a war to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon—even if military force could do that, which it can't. It would be a war over the difference between one possible agreement that trades restrictions on uranium enrichment for relief from sanctions and another possible agreement that trades restrictions on uranium enrichment for relief from sanctions. It would be a war over negotiating details. Not only that, but details that are very resolvable.


TopicsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

The European Merry-Go-Round

The Buzz

The euro crisis seems stuck in an endless cycle of bailouts flowing from north to south. The numerous diets Germany has used to keep the monetary union alive have failed to address the fundamental sickness of many of the southern economies. And yet, German chancellor Angela Merkel insists on keeping the euro on life support. Why does this seemingly unsustainable status quo continue to hold?

From its inception, the dramatic disparities in economic strength across the euro zone were bound to create an unhealthy boom-and-bust climate, with creditors and debtors on what Jeremy Warner of The Telegraph recently described as a "merry-go-round."

As Warner argues, the long-term "imbalance in trade was largely financed by German banks, which were, in effect, lending the periphery the money to buy German goods. German credit also financed major construction and credit booms in some periphery countries." But when the financial crisis hit, German creditors pulled back from lending and put their surpluses back in the German Bundesbank. Troubled southern economies then turned to the European Central Bank, which—you guessed it—depends on the Bundesbank to keep the credit flowing.

Germany does not bear complete responsibility, of course. As Warner notes, "Periphery governments were equally profligate, if not worse, in spending on the German credit card."

No matter who is to be blame, the disparities built in to the euro zone contributed to making Germany rich. But its willingness to stick with the project may be about more than economic self-interest. Reunited Germany is a relatively young country, shepherded back together by Merkel's mentor, Helmut Kohl. Merkel came of age politically under Kohl's tutelage and is committed to enacting his grand vision: a united Germany in a united Europe. She does this at the same time as she condones the German public blaming their southern neighbors for the present mess.

Merkel cannot pull the emergency switch on the debt "merry-go-round" because the forces that started it and keep it spinning also keep her in power. Thus, it seems unlikely that the present crisis will be resolved until new leadership—unbound by ideological commitments to continental unity—emerges on the scene.

TopicsEconomicsBankingCurrencyMonetary PolicyTrade RegionsGermanyEurope

The Debate: Let Romney Be Romney

Jacob Heilbrunn

All of Barack Obama's worst traits manifested themselves during last night's debate. He was pedantic, professorial and detached. He conveyed the sense that he's too bored by Mitt Romney even to deign to battle him. Romney was auditioning for the job, Obama merely went through the motions. For conservatives who have been bashing Romney for not being right-wing enough, the message seems clear: let Romney be Romney. Which is to say allow him to pound away at Obama, while blurring his own conservative stands.

It was astounding to see how listless Obama appeared even as Romney hammered away with facts and figures, however dubious, that gave the impression that he was in full command. Obama could barely rouse himself to defend Obamacare, failing to counter Romney's claim that he had devoted the first years in office to health care rather than jobs. Once again Obama reverted to form: he only starts battling when his back is up against the wall.

So Romney's performance may have a perverse effect. It may jolt Obama out of his somnolence and prompt him to take Romney more seriously. But the bottom line for Romney is pellucidly clear: the best defense is a good offense. He needs to pound away relentlessly at Obama's record, while blurring his own, which is what he did last night. The fact is that Romney waffled on many of his core stances such as lowering taxes, which was the prudent tack to take. He should adopt it next in foreign affairs, jettisoning the neocon bluster about attacking Iran. He's got plenty of fodder to attack the president about when it comes to the Middle East and elsewhere.

Romney will have another advantage. For all the bellyaching among conservatives about the mainstream media being on the side of Obama, it ain't true. The media wants a real race to maintain interest in news coverage. Romney provided it. A flurry of stories will appear this week reassessing Romney, explaining why he's more likable than he's seemed and why he may have the grit and determination and gumption to turn around America. If Romney does win the presidency, he will be in a powerful position since he will have won it despite the grumbling of much of the Republican party. He will be in a position to say that he won it on his own terms.

To think that it's clear sailing for Romney, however, would be delusional. As James Rainey reminds us in the Los Angeles Times, John Kerry blew George W. Bush out of the water in the first 2004 debate:

President George W. Bush became an object of scorn and near-pity eight years ago for some voters watching his first debate with Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.

Sitting amid a group of 100 swing voters who assembled to watch the debate at a college auditorium in Pennsylvania, I heard some laugh. Others shook their heads in dismay, as the president smirked or stammered and groped for words—particularly as he tried to defend the troublesome war in Iraq.

The crowd had been given portable dial-rating devices to instantly register their feelings about the two presidential contenders. On almost every question, the crowd dialed the more articulate and decisive Kerry as “very good” or close to it. They rated Bush around average, sometimes lower.

So don't be fooled. The presidential race isn't over. It may just have gotten started. But for Romney, who has been lagging in the polls and remains a distinct underdog, that's the good news.

Image: Gage Skidmore

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States