Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up?

The Republican candidate gave us a tantalizing hint this week of what his foreign policy might actually look like -- but does he have the guts to actually do what we think he thinks?

The other day, Mitt Romney gave a speech about foreign policy that he seemed to actually believe. In a quite revealing address to the Clinton Global Initiative on the subject of foreign aid, Romney offered a distinctive explanation of the Arab Spring as a mass movement for economic, rather than political, rights. He spoke of how Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation in December 2010 sparked the demonstrations which led to the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, had been provoked by the seizure of "his only real capital equipment," his weighing scales. "I'm a simple person," Romney quoted Bouazizi as crying out to the Tunisian police officer. "I just want to work. I just want to work."

Work, Romney went on, almost poetically, "does not long tolerate corruption," nor "the brazen theft by government" of economic products. Substitute the word "liberty," and one could have been listening to George Bush on the motive force of human endeavor. People want meaningful work.

You may disagree with Romney's interpretation of events, but you can scarcely doubt his sincerity. Indeed, we already knew about the depth of Romney's commitment to the liberating power of work thanks to Mother Jones, which recently published a recording of a speech he gave to donors. Romney explained to a crowd that America is afflicted by a culture of dependence in which almost half the country considers itself "entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it." Romney sees himself as the spokesman for the free-market virtues of self-reliance and self-discipline. That  plutocratic contempt for life's non-winners may not be altogether compatible with democracy, much less electoral success -- but it is what Romney believes.

Until now, Romney has had trouble finding anything to say about foreign policy which seems to spring from his basic intuitions about life. His major foreign policy speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, for example, consisted chiefly of flattery to the vets and his usual vaporous and disingenuous claim that, unlike President Barack Obama, he was not "ashamed of American power." He accused Obama of political posturing on Afghanistan, but called for withdrawing American troops by the end of 2014 -- just like Obama.

In fact, the hallmark of Romney's foreign policy critique has been self-contradiction. He has insisted that Obama has "abandoned the Freedom Agenda" of George W. Bush, but also described the democratic election of an Islamist as president of Egypt as a calamity for which Obama is responsible. Romney himself doesn't seem to accept Bush's magical faith in liberty, but can't bring himself to say so. The only unifying theme of his foreign policy critique has been opportunism. Oh, and "strength." And not apologizing. Of course, Romney seems to have very few fixed convictions about anything: he was for health care reform before he was against it, for abortion rights before he was against them, and so on.

But now we have the 47 percent, and the heroic tale of Mohamed Bouazizi. Romney's own life experience has led him to view economic freedom as the summum bonum -- one which liberal interventionist polices have denied to all too many people. We know what this dictates on domestic policy: tax cuts, deregulation, and a drastically shrunken state. And now we finally know something about how would it shape a Romney foreign policy. In his speech at the Clinton event, Romney observed that the overwhelming fraction of resources now flowing to developing nations come not from foreign aid but from private sector investment. Traditional aid has thus become marginal, and Romney vowed to reorient American assistance to "access the transformative nature of free enterprise." He proposed signing "Prosperity Pacts" with nations prepared to remove barriers to free markets.

The speech was greeted with deathly silence by an audience that probably contained very few Romney voters. But Romney was certainly right that traditional aid has not been very effective, that outside assistance won't help much in countries with bad economic policies, and that aid will work best by leveraging private investment. A blogger for the Center for Global Development, a liberal group which supports increased aid, praised Romney for the proposal. The New York Times editorial board even found something nice to say.

The proposition that aid should be the handmaiden to private sector-led growth is scarcely the unfamiliar idea it once was. The same insight led President Bush to establish the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which directs American assistance to relatively well-governed countries. The Obama administration has consistently sought to increase funding for the MCC. Liberals have long since accepted that old-fashioned aid doesn't work, just as they have accepted that welfare can lead to dependence. So Romney is shadow-boxing once again, rhetorically separating himself from an administration approach which, in fact, he largely accepts. But the CGI speech leaves the impression that he would  prefer a more modest policy, since the "assistance packages" he had in mind would be limited to "developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law, and property rights."

One could easily imagine a much more ambitious Romney approach -- and one more in line with his governing philosophy. If trade can do much more than aid to promote growth in poor countries, then of course rich countries must lower trade barriers just as poor countries must. You could cut foreign aid -- as a President Romney would almost surely do -- and more than compensate for the effect by increasing exports to the United States from the affected countries. And for a free-market ideologue like Romney, free trade is as much an intuitive principle as low taxes. Alex MacGillis of The New Republic recently unearthed the video of a 2009 speech in which Romney made a profoundly cogent and passionate case that lowering trade barriers with China, and with the rest of the world, would be good for American and good for others. Watching it, I thought for the first time: This is a really smart guy.

But of course MacGillis's point is that this would never happen: the Mitt Romney of 2012 accuses Obama of failing to protect American workers from Chinese trade violations, and promises to be much tougher. There's no political mileage right now in free trade. It's striking that Romney never sounds as intelligent making the protectionist argument as he did in the 2009 speech -- no one sounds very bright when they are arguing against their own beliefs. And that, of course, is why Romney rarely sounds convincing when he talks about the Arab Spring or Syria or Afghanistan or democracy promotion. He's speaking for effect, rather than from conviction.

At next month's foreign policy debate, Romney is sure to be firing at Obama from all possible directions, as he has throughout the campaign. It's unlikely to do him much good, since voters stubbornly refuse to view Obama as weak and irresolute on foreign affairs. Romney might do himself a service -- he'd certainly do voters a service -- if he stood in one place and made a limited but coherent case. He could argue that America will have better luck promoting capitalism than democracy, not because the one is more important than the other but because it is easier to teach. He could argue that the United States should be prepared to work with autocratic countries which nevertheless offer protection to property rights and the private sector. He could stand up for free trade. Of course, if Romney thought that America wanted to hear astringent truths, he would have been telling them. Still, pandering hasn't worked very well for him either. If he's going to lose, he might as well lose with conviction.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Keep Calm and Carry On

The Arab world needs our help; it just doesn't know how to ask nicely.

The other day I was on a talk show where the host asked me, "Are we better off now than we were before the Arab Spring?" And I said, "Who is we?" The furious attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in the Middle East have left many Americans feeling that the neighborhood was a lot safer when it was patrolled by pro-American generalissimos. But for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen -- the countries where citizens overthrew those hated rulers -- the demonstrations were a sideshow, if a mortifying one. The tumult offered a forceful reminder that "good for us" is not the same as "good for them."

I have always assumed that a more democratic Middle East would be good for the United States in the long run, but bad in the short run. George W. Bush was right when he said, in his second Inaugural Address, that "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands" -- or at least he would have been right if he had said something less resonant, like "our security depends on legitimate government in the Islamic world." In the long term, good for them is good for us. In the mean time, however, freedom releases poisons as well as noble aspirations. One of those poisons, of course, is anti-Americanism.

Of course, there's nothing new about explosions of hostility to the United States in the Arab world; what's new is how far they're allowed to go. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was always prepared to stoke popular anger at Israel or even the United States, but his thugs would have broken up a demonstration long before it threatened the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The new government of President Mohammed Morsy, however, not only lacks the fine mechanisms of control available to Mubarak, but cannot afford to side with Washington against an outraged populace, as a dictator could. One quarter of the seats in Egypt's genuinely free parliamentary elections this past January went to Salafists with an explicitly Islamist agenda, and Morsy cannot ignore them as Mubarak ignored the more moderate Islamists in his own parliament. Ergo, the U.S. embassy gets trashed.

It would be nice, and of course it would be just, if leading figures stood up to the raging crowds, as Tom Friedman has demanded they do. But such honesty is likeliest to flourish where the political or personal costs are tolerable. Few public figures criticize the blasphemy laws in Pakistan because extremists have shown that they will kill people who do so. Libyan National Congress President Mohammed al-Megareif may have felt able to forthrightly criticize anti-American violence, as Morsy did not, because Islamists were roundly defeated in Libya's elections, and Salafists are a far less organized force there. And, despite the organized assault which led to the deaths of four Americans there,  Libya is the only country in the Middle East where the United States has earned enough goodwill by its actions to override the inveterate anti-Americanism produced by long U.S. support for dictators or the widespread belief that the West is somehow responsible for everything bad. That's not going to change for a long time; what happened last week will happen again, with different provocations producing much the same ugly effect.

The temptation for the United States to disengage from the Arab world could become overwhelming. Look at Pakistan, where, despite $18 billion in military and civilian aid over the last decade, the United States is widely hated (and where the government declared a "Day of Love for The Prophet Muhammad Holiday" so citizens could wreak their fury without missing work). Only Pakistan's necessary role in the war in Afghanistan has prevented those funds from being drastically reduced; as U.S. troops draw down, so, inevitably, will the aid. A group of conservative Republicans has drawn up legislation requiring the Obama administration to submit a report on the embassy attacks in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen prior to a vote on aid to those countries; one of them, Rand Paul, has been holding up an omnibus spending bill over demands that the U.S. cut aid to Pakistan. So far, President Obama has not shown any sign of having second thoughts; and the administration, to its credit, has agreed to provide $1 billion in debt relief to Egypt, and has supported a $4.8 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

That money matters not because it will buy the U.S. goodwill -- it won't -- but because it can help stabilize the nascent democracies of the Arab world. The greatest threat to the infant regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen is not religious extremism but economic failure. The Arab Spring has made Salafists more visible, more ambitious, and arguably more dangerous. But it has made many of them more pragmatic. Like the more moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists have formed political parties and begun, if grudgingly, to practice the arts of political engagement and compromise. Al Nour, Egypt's chief Salafist party, accepts the concept of a civil state, albeit with an "Islamic reference."

Religious extremism could still derail democracy, but we may give it too much weight because it is so obviously "bad for us." The frustration and embitterment of tens of millions of unemployed and currently unemployable young people is a more insidious danger. It is these young men who serve as eager recruits for a mob, and often for jihadist armies. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar, has suggested that the crowd trying to set fire to the U.S. embassy in Sanaa was drawn from Musayk, the dead-end neighborhood which lies below the embassy and some of the city's finest hotels. Sanaa, wrote Johnsen, overflows with young men looking for an outlet for their rage; last week's attack was "frustration and anger masquerading as protest."

Mitigating that frustration and anger has to be the long-term goal both of the nascent governments in the region and of U.S. policy. I don't know how much hope there is for Yemen, a desperately poor country rapidly exhausting its natural resources and plagued by both domestic rebellion and an American-backed war against an al Qaeda mini-state.  Yemen looks like Afghanistan writ small. Still, President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi is trying to serve as a bridge among the country's warring factions; and it's worth noting that two days before 5,000 people stormed the U.S. embassy, a crowd estimated (by one of its organizers) at 200,000 marched through the streets demanding the repeal of legal immunity for the despised former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. That would argue that Yemenis care more passionately about political justice than about illusory affronts to their religious faith.

Yemen is going to be very frail for a very long time; but economic assistance can make a more immediate difference in Egypt and Tunisia. (Libya will soon have enough oil revenue to stand on its own feet.) Of course, outside help will not matter nearly as much as domestic economic policy: the Morsy government will have to dismantle the bureaucratic and regulatory regime which has stifled economic life in Egypt, and ultimately challenge the insidious role of the military, which dominates much of the country's economy. Washington has a role to play here as well: Last month, a team headed by Robert Hormats, a senior State Department official, visited Cairo to discuss reforms in advance of final negotiations over the terms of the IMF loan.

President Obama probably deserves more credit than he has received for reacting calmly to last week's events. It's characteristic of him that he would be overly cautious about embracing the Arab Spring, but also steady in the face of heavy weather. (A Romney advisor has said that a President Romney would attach conditions to debt relief for Egypt.) Right now, Obama has all the political space he needs from an American public whose mind is completely elsewhere. It would become a lot harder for him, or Mitt Romney, to stay the course if the Middle East has another bout of temporary insanity. Is it too much to ask for American crackpots to hold off on the Islamophobia until, oh, 2013?