Mitt Romney's speech to the Virginia Military Institute was puzzling, but not for substantive reasons. The real question isn't why the Republican nominee says what he does on foreign policy, but why he's focusing on it at all. Everyone urging him to talk foreign policy seems to think doing so can help get him elected, but unless the campaign has some fascinating internal polls, there's no evidence for that. The idea that a soaring foreign-policy speech is a good use of the candidate's time has two interlocking problems: a) voters don't care about foreign policy in this election, and b) when asked, they prefer Barack Obama by 10 or so points. To make inroads, Romney would need both to make voters care and to make them prefer him. Spending even as much time as he has on the subject is hard to understand.
The speech itself was long on rhetoric and short on strategy. Swimming through the rhetorical fog, one can make out a few foreign-policy judgments. Romney deployed language reminiscent of George W. Bush's second inaugural address to describe the tumult in the Middle East. Far from being something more mundane, what's going on there is a fight "between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope, and despair," he said. But which side was, say Egypt's Hosni Mubarak on, and which was the Muslim Brotherhood? What are the implications for policy? Perhaps the region is more complicated than Romney framed it.
It also looks like Romney thinks leaving Iraq was a mistake. He laments the fact that the Obama people couldn't renegotiate Bush's Status of Forces Agreement to make U.S. servicemembers above Iraqi law, but offers no suggestion as to how this change could have been produced. In the category of "distinction without a difference" is Romney's attempt to market his Afghanistan policy. Romney, like Obama, promises to have us out in 2014, but Romney's transition, we are informed, will be "real and successful." Noted.
As to the tensions between the United States and Israel, Romney takes what a more demagogic observer might term a "blame America first" approach. Romney is willing to overlook Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's mismanagement of the relationship, including his humiliation of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a trip to Israel, laying blame squarely at the feet of the Obama administration for taking the slow road rather than the express lane to war with Iran. Meanwhile, Romney wants to ensure that there is no "daylight" between the United States and Israel while simultaneously deputizing a new Middle East czar to produce "good governance, free enterprise, and greater trade" in the Islamic world. Those two ideas go together about as well as wine and ice cream.
Perhaps most importantly, Romney made clear his view that "what makes America exceptional" is not our dying form of limited, decentralized government, but our track record of involvement in war and power politics. That's one version of conservatism, I suppose, but it fits better in an intellectual tradition with Wilhelm II and Teddy Roosevelt than it does in one with (small-r) republican conservatives like Thomas Jefferson or Dwight Eisenhower.
At bottom, the Romney campaign and its emphasis on hawkish foreign policy is proof that almost 10 years after the neoconservatives drove the nation into a ditch, they're still clutching the steering wheel of the GOP. The United States is so safe that even Iraq-sized errors won't lead voters or party elites to force a change. Until some external or internal pressure emerges, U.S. grand strategy will stay more or less the same.
To create internal pressures for change, what is needed is an effort much like the one the neocons led decades ago: a vigorous attempt to create a Republican counter-establishment that can vie for control of the party's foreign policy. The neocons raised tens of millions of dollars and created a number of institutions, magazines, and pressure groups to shape and then capture the GOP's foreign policy. Looking at today's political landscape, even the spadework for a realist renaissance has yet to begin.
Justin Logan is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.