The political illogic of Romney mounting a foreign policy offensive

By Justin Logan

The past week or so has seen a number of articles discussing Mitt Romney's foreign-policy message, with a surprising number of aides whining to the press that the candidate isn't paying their issue enough attention. Today, Politico reports that the Romney campaign has decided that "they must do more than simply hammer the incumbent on jobs" and consequently Romney is considering an overseas tour in late July in an effort to:

move away from a campaign message devoted almost singularly to criticizing President Barack Obama's handling of the economy...


[The trip's goal will be to] project Romney above the campaign's daily nitty-gritty and cast him as a plausible commander in chief at ease with foreign leaders and the general public in distant capitals...

This is insanity. Whether or not Romney follows through on this is going to say a lot about the candidate's judgment.

According to Politico, Romney is considering expanding his trip to Great Britain and Israel to include Germany and Poland, but having apparently ruled out a visit to Afghanistan.

Let's start with that last one, Afghanistan. Here it seems the Romney people have realized that Bill Kristol's suggestion, that he "go and look serious," is absurd. Going there at all is a huge lose. It's a zero-sum tradeoff between saying things the public will like and saying things Kristol and his foreign-policy team will like. The public loathes the war, but the Kristol and the Romney foreign-policy staffers like it a lot. So if he went and said anything the public wants to hear -- like that he wants America to leave soon -- he'd get trashed in the media by his foreign-policy team again. And if he gave a sop to his foreign-policy team, the public would worry he's Bush redux. So they're smart to stay away from Kabul.

But what about the rest of the trip? On Israel, the Politico piece quotes an "informal foreign policy adviser to Romney's campaign" saying that "there are a lot of donors and potentially a few voters in places like Florida for which [sic] it sticks in people's craw that Obama hasn't been there yet." There is probably considerable fundraising upside from super-wealthy donors who affiliate strongly with the Israeli right, and perhaps some marginal vote to be won, although that last part is less persuasive. Obama could easily reply that Israel's defense minister shot back to a question this week asking whether Obama is a "friend of Israel" with the succinct answer, "Yes, clearly so."

And what about the rest of the trip: Poland, Great Britain, and Germany?

It's tough to say what political advantage Romney thinks the trip to Poland will gain him. There was a lot of conjecture about a domestic political rationale for Bill Clinton's support for NATO expansion, but if Dick Morris can be trusted on the matter, "Neither I nor the president ever believed there is such a thing as a Polish vote."

There's also a danger that defending Romney's Poland-related policy preferences will allow Obama to go on offense. For example, Romney has made a mountain out of the molehill that is the New START treaty, which the Poles supported enthusiastically. So while the missile defense issue that Romney apparently wants to bring up could put him on the side of the Poles, Obama could just as easily point out how he shepherded through a treaty that the Poles support and Romney opposes.

Apparently the logic for Britain is that the Olympics will be held there, and for Germany it is that the Euro may collapse there. These rationales hold up better on substance, but still don't make much sense. Romney presided over the successful Salt Lake City Olympics, which might reiterate the image of Romney as successful leader. On Germany, if Europe implodes, it is going to be hugely consequential for the United States, but this is too wonky a discussion to have in front of the median voter. So there is a substantive reason, but it's tough to see a political logic for it.

Sometimes foreign-policy wonks have trouble divorcing what they are interested in from what voters are interested in. For the most part we live in a bubble of public intellectuals, insulated from the collapse of the national economy. For a refresher, let's have a look at what voters were interested in as of May:

Most Important Issue in the Presidential Election

(Percentage among registered voters)

Economy and jobs: 62

Federal budget deficit: 11

Health care: 9

Same-sex marriage: 7

Foreign policy: 4

Immigration: 2

Maybe missile defense has ticked up a few points since then, but if Romney's going to win this thing, he's going to win it on jobs, the economy, and the deficit. I like discussing foreign policy as much as anybody, but going to Poland and Israel isn't going to win the election for him. As Daniel Larison sensibly concludes at the American Conservative,

"Unlike Obama, Romney is running against a sitting president during a time of very slow (and possibly stalling) economic recovery. That makes the decision to spend any time out of the country even harder to understand."

Unless I'm missing something big here, every minute Romney spends overseas is a minute he's spending away from winning the election. So tell me what I'm missing.

Justin Logan is director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Richard Ellis/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Mr. President, don't salute the troops this 4th of July

By Michael C. Desch

The Fourth of July is one of the most patriotic of holidays and nothing arouses national passions more than the opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces. The urge to do so is especially ardent given that the country has been at war continuously for the last ten years and these soldiers have made many sacrifices for the country, from spending long periods of time away from their families in less-than-hospitable climes to the ultimate sacrifice of their health and even their lives. 

Gratitude for their service is also tinged by a sub-text of guilt, given that fewer and fewer of us have joined them around the colors. This is true not only for Americans in general, but even for our elected leaders. Where once, veterans of military service were over-represented in elected office, today they are under-represented, as William T. Bianco and Jamie Markham document.

This trend is also manifest at the very highest level of the executive branch. For much of the Cold War, there was an unbroken line of presidents who served in uniform, (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush) but the post-Cold War era has seen one president whose state-side Vietnam-era military service was questioned and two presidents with no military service whatsoever. No matter what the outcome in November, our next commander-in-chief will not be a veteran.

Ironically, now that we are increasingly electing individuals with little or no military service these presidents are returning the hand salute of members of the armed services more often. While one can find pictures of presidents before Ronald Reagan (who perfected it) returning the hand salute, an admittedly unscientific Google image search turns up relatively few examples of them doing so, and often it is not always clear whether they are actually "throwing the high-ball," as my late father-in-law a career air force officer used to put it, or just waving.

Conversely, after Reagan it has become de rigueur for presidents to return the hand salute. Bill Clinton, who "loathed" the military and avoided serving in it during the Vietnam War, got off to a rocky start, saluting like Hawkeye Pierce in a M*A*S*H* rerun. Conversely, Barack Obama, who also did not serve in uniform, but was obviously a quicker study, or at least coached sooner, rendered a snappy salute from the get-go. George W. Bush, whose Vietnam-era service was shaky, not surprisingly returned some pretty shaky salutes. Still, it seems that the "militarization" of the presidency is accelerating precisely at the time in which its occupants have the flimsier military credentials. The cynic in me wonders whether they aren't related? 

The real question is whether this emerging custom is appropriate? The salute, according to The Air Force Officer's Guide is "an exchange of greeting" among "men of arms." No one knows for sure how it began but many believe that it originated in the need for armor-clad knights to have a reliable means of recognizing their comrades. According to lore, upon meeting a comrade, a knight would use his right hand -- with which he might otherwise wield a sword -- and lift his visor, simultaneously making a friendly gesture and also revealing his identity. In the post-armor world, the custom continued of using the hand that might otherwise use a weapon to greet other friendly soldiers. Today this custom reinforces the hierarchy of the chain of command, with lower ranking officers and enlisted rendering the salute, which is then returned by the more senior officer. 

It is certainly befitting that all uniform members of the military to render a salute to the president by virtue of his (or her) role as commander-in-chief. But I find the trend among presidents -- either bona fide war heroes like Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush -- or those with less distinguished war records, or none at all, of returning hand salutes discomfiting. My reservations are grounded in military custom and the constitutional role of our presidents as Commander-in-Chief.

In terms of military protocol, while it is true that the practice of rendering and returning salutes while not in uniform is not completely absent among the services, it is pretty rare. The air force advises officers in civilian clothes to use a different form of salute, "placing the right hand (and hat) over ‘the left breast'" when the occasion demands a sign of respect. The army also stipulates that "salutes are not required to be rendered or returned when the senior and subordinate are both in civilian attire." The navy's (and presumably also the marine corps) usage is similar: Salutes "received when in uniform and covered shall be returned." If the senior officer is not in uniform, the expectation is that he or she "shall not salute" but rather acknowledge the salute in some other appropriate fashion.

One issue in terms of military protocol, which is admittedly not fully dispositive on this question, is whether the commander-in-chief is in uniform or not? But unless we are prepared to regard the president's dark suit, white shirt, and blue or read tie as a "uniform," it is hard to argue that the C-of-C is required to return the salute on that basis. 

Another concern is, as the navy puts it, would a president's failure to return a salute "cause embarrassment or misunderstanding"? By my, again unscientific, investigation of this question (mostly gleaned from discussions of civilian protocol while visiting military installations over the years), many (but not all) officers I spoken to find the practice of presidents returning salutes unnatural. In other words, I am not alone in my discomfort. 

Finally, opinion about presidents saluting seems to wax and wane depending upon who is in office. I heard fewer objections when Reagan and W. saluted and more grumbling about it when Clinton and Obama emulated the Gipper. One might argue that the former served and the latter did not and that explains the different reactions. This is true but hardly settles the issue as the debate ought to center on the nature of the presidency in our system, not the personal history of its current incumbent.We certainly don't want respect for the commander-in-chief to be a partisan issue.

But it is the constitutional issue that is ultimately dispositive for me. America's Founders took deliberate steps to ensure civilian control of the military. One was to split the war powers -- the power to declare war and the conduct of the war itself -- between the legislative and executive branches. Their aim was to prevent the president from becoming a king. But they were also careful to specify, as the participants in debate at the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788 framed it, that the president was a "civil," not a military, officer. As one participant observed, George Washington was not president when he was a general and not a general when he became our first president. Civilian control of the military was at the core of how the Founders thought about the institution of commander-in-chief and I worry that we are losing sight of that when we treat it as just another military rank.

I am also troubled that the related trends of presidents not only returning salutes but also adorning themselves in various forms of military accoutrement (flight suits, pilot's jackets, unit or ship baseball caps, etc.) represent more manifestations of what historian (and former army officer) Andy Bacevich characterizes as the "new American militarism." This concern that the fundamental distinction between the military institution and the rest of civilian society is eroding is not the exclusive preoccupation of Left-wing college professors. After all, President Dwight Eisenhower, another army veteran and a political conservative by all but today's extreme definition, warned in his famous "Farewell Address" of the growing influence of the military in our society through its increasing interpenetration with ostensibly civilian institutions. It seems to me that my reservations on this score naturally follow from Ike's.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that presidents should ignore the respect paid to them when members of the military salute them. I am simply saying that there is a more appropriate civilian way for them to acknowledge that salute, and thereby honor the service those individuals render to the country. President Truman, for example, was content to simply remove his hat. Since President Kennedy, few presidents have worn hats in public (another deplorable trend, in my humble opinion) so we need other means for them to acknowledge a military salute. I'd argue that a nod in the direction of the individual saluting, a quite word of thanks, and perhaps a handshake would be sufficient. Presidents should, of course, honor the troops -- they just should not salute them.

Michael C. Desch is the co-director of the Notre Dame International Security Program.