Argument

Pretty Vacant

After three empty days in Tampa, the Republican Party seems out of ideas on how to run America's foreign policy.

TAMPA, Florida — Two-hundred-and-two words. That was the total length of the foreign-policy section of Mitt Romney's speech Thursday night in Tampa as he accepted the Republican nomination for U.S. president. If you blinked you would have missed it. Everyone knows (because it has been stated repeatedly) that this isn't going to be a foreign-policy election. But Aug. 30's speech by Romney was still remarkable -- a content-free discussion of the global challenges facing the United States and Romney's foreign-policy vision. While Republican vacuousness on foreign policy this cycle is not a new development, Romney's acceptance speech was the apogee of the party's apparent pursuit of national security nothingness.

The few scant morsels of content that Romney did offer on national security and foreign policy were either highly misleading or simply untrue. He once again accused President Barack Obama of conducting an "apology tour" after taking office -- a charge that has repeatedly been debunked. And he claimed that the United States is less secure today because of the failure "to slow Iran's nuclear threat" -- an assertion that is belied by revelations that the United States was involved in developing the Stuxnet computer virus, which set back the Iranian nuclear effort, by some estimates, 18 months to two years. Moreover, while criticizing the president for holding talks with Iran, Romney declined to mention that Obama has dramatically increased sanctions against Iran, contributing to Tehran's economic and diplomatic isolation. Romney once again accused the United States of throwing Israel "under the bus," which I suppose is all in the eye of the beholder, but to most regional observers -- including Israeli deputy prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak -- is simply inaccurate. He claimed once again that the United States has walked away from "our friends in Poland" and "our missile defense commitments" -- another charge that simply doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Earlier in his speech, Romney trotted out his claim that Obama's "trillion-dollar cuts to our military will eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs and also put our security at greater risk." But since these cuts were initiated by House Republicans during last year's debt-limit debacle (and voted for by a congressman named Paul Ryan), Romney's criticism rang particularly hollow.

And that was basically it. Nothing on Afghanistan, where approximately 80,000 U.S. soldiers continue to fight a war against the Taliban -- a war that Romney supports. No mention of the troops in general. Nothing on Pakistan. Nothing on Iraq. Nothing on terrorism -- except to offer a rare bit of praise to Obama for ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Virtually nothing on China, which Romney has labeled a currency manipulator. Nothing on the rest of Asia. I suppose Europe can revel in the fact that Romney didn't take his familiar tack of using America's strongest set of allies as a punch line -- though, once again, the country that Romney has called America's No. 1 geopolitical foe, Russia, once again came in for attack.

As for a foreign-policy vision, this appeared to be the extent of it: "We will honor America's democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world. This is the bipartisan foreign-policy legacy of Truman and Reagan. And under my presidency we will return to it once again."

For a candidate who complains regularly that Obama has weakened American leadership and created uncertainty about America's role in the world, and for a ticket with the least amount of foreign-policy experience since the Dewey-Warren ticket in 1948, it's very difficult to see how this speech provided much in the way of reassurance. If the United States has been so weakened internationally under Obama's presidency, one would think that Romney would have a bit more to say on the subject.

But all this is very much at pace with how Republicans treated national security throughout their entire truncated three-day convention. On Aug. 29, which was billed perhaps ironically as national security night, delegates were treated to the stylings of Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

McCain's remarks were indicative of pretty much all that we've heard from Republican politicos this campaign cycle: hoary paeans to American exceptionalism and purpose, calls to stand with those fighting for freedom, disingenuousness attacks on Obama for failing to lead, and protests against defense cuts that according to McCain would deal a "crippling blow to our military." Above all, however, what linked McCain's remarks to those of the party nominee was the lack of a plan for the future. McCain verbally assaulted the president for failing in 2009 to support the Green Movement in Iran and for declining to take a more aggressive position on Syria, but particularly on the latter issue offered zero sense of what a Republican president should do differently. Of course, on this, Romney said nothing.

Indeed, what is so particularly striking about McCain and Romney's rhetoric is not its differentiation from Obama, but rather its eerie reminiscence to that of the last Republican president. To listen to McCain and his assertions of American greatness, of incipient threats, and of the need for American resolve and leadership was to hear loud echoes of the rhetoric used by President George W. Bush. And if the connection wasn't clear enough for viewers, the Romney team also trotted out Condoleezza Rice.

Rice's presence -- and the slathering of praise for her anodyne remarks by the national press corps -- was indicative of the bizarre degree of amnesia about the Bush years that settled over the Republican National Convention. Rice was, aside from the eminently forgettable Rob Portman, the only figure from the Bush administration to make a prominent appearance at the convention. And Bush, unsurprisingly, only showed up in a video tribute -- his name virtually unmentioned in the week's proceedings. Rice's assertions that friends and foes alike do not know where America stands and that the United States must lead in the future (and not from behind) are all well and good and follow the Republican foreign-policy playbook, but from her speech you might never know that she was secretary of state and national security advisor for the most disastrous foreign-policy administration in American history.

At one point I tweeted that if Condi mentioned the word "Iraq," I would eat my computer. I'm pleased to note that my laptop remains blissfully unconsumed.

Rice's speech was, like McCain's, remarkably similar to the one Romney delivered Thursday night: a collection of foreign-policy platitudes about how America is the indispensable nation and the guarantor of a safe and secure world. Again, however, she offered no road map for how a Romney administration will ensure that the United States continues to adhere to this vision of global leadership. All three speeches, taken together, provide troubling evidence of how Republicans have run out of ideas on international affairs that aren't merely reiterations of how great a country America is -- especially when it "leads."

Once upon a time, Republicans owned the issue of national security. They radiated confidence, experience, and self-assuredness on how they would manage the responsibilities of America's unique global role. It's too soon to say those days are over, but the lack of focus on and attention to foreign-policy issues at this convention was stunning. The topic was treated as nothing more than an afterthought. Even in vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan's acceptance speech on Wednesday night, he devoted no more than a few sentences to it.

Perhaps Republicans have concluded that they can't beat Obama on foreign policy, so why bother trying? And from a political perspective it makes sense -- stick with the issues on which you have an advantage. But when presidents are elected, they have no more awesome responsibility -- and direct influence -- than on foreign policy. It is on the global stage where they are able to operate with relatively broad discretion and minimal oversight from Congress. As a result, having a clearly defined foreign-policy vision is not just something you check off in a box in your acceptance speech, but something presidential candidates should take the time to think about, develop, and articulate. As the Bush presidency reminds us, there is a heavy price to be paid when candidates take office with such a lack of foreign-policy vision. Thursday night's speech showed that Mitt Romney isn't much interested in the issue -- and if the last three nights are any indication, he now leads a party that appears to feel the same way.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

A Dangerous Mind

Mitt Romney’s foreign policy isn’t an afterthought, it’s a frightening return to a bullying neoconservative ideology -- and Americans should be worried.

The speeches at this week's Republican National Convention, on top of those that Mitt Romney has been giving during the campaign, make clear that Americans face as stark a choice on foreign policy as on domestic policy. Whereas President Barack Obama has claimed the middle ground and crafted a strategy based on principled pragmatism, Romney is following in the footsteps of George W. Bush, relying more on bluster than strategy and veering to ideological extremes.

Contrary to the rebuttal to this article written by our colleague Peter Feaver, there is much good to be said about Obama's foreign policy. In this piece, timed to coincide with the Republican Convention, our focus is on what's wrong with Romney's approach. We'll respond to Feaver's critique of Obama next week as attention turns to the Democratic Convention.

It's not just Romney's positions on particular issues, however vague they may be, that are cause for concern.  It's his core world view. Guided by a Republican Party virtually devoid of moderate centrists, Romney has embraced a global assessment distorted by ideological excess, pledged to wield power in a way that will leave the nation weakened and isolated, and demonstrated a failure to appreciate the key linkages between strength at home and influence abroad.

Romney's view of the changing global landscape rests not on a sober assessment of the world that is emerging, but on the same neoconservative myths that led George W. Bush astray. Like Bush, Romney seems to fixate on the wrong threats -- and dangerously inflate them   He has, for example, identified Russia as America's chief geopolitical foe. But with the Cold War long over, terrorists still planning attacks against Americans, Iran seeking nuclear weapons, and China flexing its muscles, it is a flight of fancy to see Moscow as the nation's top threat.

On Afghanistan, Romney regularly bashes Obama for his scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops -- but without providing a clear rationale for extending the U.S. mission. Absent more capable partners in Afghanistan and cooperation from Pakistan, U.S. forces have limited ability to bring stability. To pretend otherwise is to fritter away American lives and resources. American forces have accomplished their main objective -- dismantling al Qaeda and eliminating Osama bin Laden; it is now up to local parties to find their way to peace. Good statecraft aims at the achievable, not impossible maximums.

Romney's worldview also reveals a basic misunderstanding of the role of power in international affairs.  The Republican Convention has been one long paean to American Exceptionalism. In speech after speech, Romney and his entourage invoke "leadership" and "resolve" as if all the United States has to do is take a stand and flex its muscles -- others will get in line, get out of the way, or pay the price.

The United States unquestionably occupies a unique role in history of which it should be plenty proud, and American security and leadership ultimately rest on the nation's economic strength and military superiority. It's also true that most threats can best be met and problems best be solved if the U.S. plays a leadership role.

Leadership, however, is much less about chest-thumping and self-congratulation than building partnerships and taking effective action with like-minded nations. Brute force and national self-confidence certainly have their place, but they can do more to invite resistance than acquiescence unless wielded with care. How the United States deploys its power and influence is key to its success as the world's dominant country. Judicious diplomacy, the fashioning of coalitions, engagement with international institutions -- these are the critical elements of good statecraft.

These guidelines will preserve strong relations with traditional allies like Europe, Japan, and Israel. They also need to be applied when dealing with emerging powers like India, Turkey, and Brazil that are seeking partnerships with Washington based on mutuality and respect, not hierarchy and deference. And the Middle East is in the midst of political transformation, defying the neoconservative penchant for putting nations into neat democratic/nondemocratic, secular/Islamist, for us/against us camps.  American diplomacy must adjust nimbly to a world in flux.

It is worrying that Romney pledges to reinstate a foreign policy of reflexive toughness just four years after Bush's assertive unilateralism left the United States mired in Iraq and estranged from much of the world. In Tampa this week, Senator John McCain put his bellicosity on full display and Secretary Condoleezza Rice glossed over her role in the errant war in Iraq.  The Republicans would do better to heed the wisdom of their own Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, who has warned that a president who wants to take the nation into another major war that is not absolutely necessary should "have his head examined."

To be sure, Americans don't want a president who is too gun shy. Against bin Laden, in drone attacks on terrorists, in Libya, and in developing a NATO-backed missile defense system, President Obama has shown that he is not. Polls show that only 38 percent of Americans believe Romney would be a good commander-in-chief, indicative of anxiety that he and his team might be too trigger happy.

As to Romney's pledge to return the United States to the vocation of democracy promotion, Obama has hardly dropped the ball on that front -- as made clear by the intervention in Libya, diplomacy with Egypt, and other efforts to shepherd unrest in the Middle East in the right direction. And in contrast to neoconservative preferences for spreading democracy through preaching, hammering, or occupying, Obama has shown the payoffs of persistent diplomacy that has finally brought political change to Burma, and of the careful, quiet negotiations that freed the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Finally, Romney seems oblivious to the intimate connection between America's strength at home and its mission abroad. His pledge to increase defense spending belies his commitment to restore the nation's fiscal solvency. Indiscriminant defense cuts must be avoided, but it is not credible to exempt the military budget from the hard fiscal choices before the nation.

And oddly, especially for someone who touts himself as a savvy businessman, Romney refuses to realistically address how to right the U.S. economy. The outsourcing of jobs, the stagnating income of America's middle class, growing inequality -- correcting these ills requires more than cutting taxes and federal spending while maximizing corporate profits. The private sector will of course be the engine of economic recovery.  But orchestrating that recovery will require a balanced mix of revenue increases and spending cuts, coupled with strategic investment in infrastructure, education, and job creation.  In a globalized world economy, enhancing competitiveness, reclaiming a prosperity broadly shared among all Americans, and restoring the economic foundations of U.S. power will require more than business as usual.

Pulling off an economic rebound that reduces inequality and redresses the economic plight of the middle class is essential to restoring not just economic strength, but also the steady conduct of U.S. diplomacy. The United States is today deeply polarized, bereft of the bipartisan consensus that long anchored its statecraft. That consensus, which emerged after World War II, rested in part on the rising economy's dampening effect on partisan cleavages. Today, economic pain and growing inequality are rekindling ideological confrontation. Romney's abandonment of centrism in favor of the far right, coupled with his disregard for the needs of average Americans, promises only to exacerbate the political divisions that compromise American power and purpose.

Romney is poised to take the United States down a dangerous path on foreign policy. But at least he is doing Americans a service by clarifying their choices in November.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages