IF MITT ROMNEY'S latest foreign-policy speech, delivered to the Virginia Military Institute on October 8th amid much build-up from campaign aides, was a barnburner, it would have to be a small and highly flammable barn.
Moderate Massachusetts Mitt Romney, the self-assured centrist who made such a splash at the first presidential debate last week, put in another appearance in Virginia, delivering a more-cautious-than-expected attack on Barack Obama’s foreign-policy record—one that carefully avoided blaming the president or his diplomacy for the murderous attacks in Benghazi that left America’s ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three colleagues, dead.
True, in its main signposts and landmarks, it was a traditional conservative speech, with references to Churchill, the cold war, America holding a lamp of freedom aloft for the world to see, and Reaganesque talk of achieving “peace through strength”.
But in its main line of attack—an opportunistic claim that the incumbent president had foolishly failed to see a magic strategy that would vastly increase American influence in the world and defang the nation’s foes—the speech reminded Lexington curiously of another presidential candidate closer to the present day, Barack Obama in 2008.
Four years ago, Mr Obama’s pitch was to point to a violent, angry and chaotic world order, and, in effect, to say the following:
Look at this mess. Now consider something demonstrably true—that lots of foreigners think that George W. Bush is a bully and a cowboy who started divisive wars of choice dressed up as wars of necessity, undermined the principle of multilateralism with self-serving talk of coalitions of the willing, and lost the moral high ground occupied after the September 11th attacks by conducting a response that flouted international law. There is a logical link between that mess and that conduct. If I turn away from Bush-like conduct, America’s standing will be restored, divisions healed and the world will be in magically better shape.
That pitch worked for lots of foreigners, the most impressionable of whom (tsk, Scandinavians) awarded the incoming President Obama the Nobel peace prize on the strength of it.
The problem was that foreign policy is easier to critique than to fix. To give a name check to Robert Cooper, a British and European Union diplomat, former Blair adviser and all-round sage whom I quoted in a piece last week anonymously, the trouble with foreign policy is that it involves foreigners, and they do not always do that you want.
Carping opposition politicians, laying into an incumbent for failing to right the world’s wrongs, have a right to criticise, but then must offer a credible answer to the counter-question: well, what are you going to do about it, then?
Mr Romney’s speech failed that test several times. Thus, though he is right to point to foreign-policy setbacks that make the Barack Obama of 2008 look naïve and opportunistic, his own analysis is not any less opportunistic, and no less cheap.
In essence, he said this morning in Virginia:
Look, the world is a mess. Now ponder something incontrovertible: that my opponent made an unusually explicit bet that America’s diplomatic hand would be magically strengthened if he were seen listening to other governments, swaggering less, paying careful heed to grievances in the Muslim world and paying more respect to multilateral bodies. That has not made the world less messy, so I, Mitt Romney, will reverse that course and my change will have magical consequences.
Yet take Mr Romney’s detailed case, and it is full of wishful thinking, unsupported assertions and omissions.
For example, Mr Romney said:
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.” These mobs hoisted the black banner of Islamic extremism over American embassies on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. As the dust settles, as the murdered are buried, Americans are asking how this happened, how the threats we face have grown so much worse, and what this calls on America to do. These are the right questions.”
That struck me as both an unknowable assertion and politically risky. Certainly these images of anti-American protest are fresh in voters’ minds. But have the threats faced by America “grown so much worse” in four years? Do American voters feel that? Some dangerous situations have grown more perilous, notably Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb. Pakistan remains a scary mess, and so does the Middle East. But many Americans are more focussed on the fact that Mr Obama has ended the war in Iraq and is bringing troops home from Afghanistan soon. Compared to the drum beat of alarm that sounded throughout the 2004 election campaign, for instance, with its terror alerts rising to red, the country feels pretty calm.
What Mr Romney was really trying to do was to sound calm and bipartisan while conveying some of the flavour of more partisan attacks by his supporters, when they claim that trouble in Benghazi is a result of American weakness. For example, Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, told voters in Ohio to draw a direct link between what they see on television and the Republican charge that Mr Obama is an apologiser-in-chief. In his words:
If you go home after this and turn on your TV, you will likely see the failures of the Obama foreign policy unfolding before our eyes. You see, if you look around the world, what we are witnessing is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy. Four Americans were murdered in a terrorist attack in Benghazi. The point is in a Romney administration, when we know that we are clearly attacked by terrorists, we won't be afraid to say what it is. If terrorists attack us, we will say we had a terrorist attack, and more importantly, we will do what is necessary to prevent that from happening by having a strong military, by making sure that our adversaries do not test us, do not think that we are weak and in retreat. This was not simply an isolated incident but indicative of a broader failure. Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon. The Middle East is in turmoil. Nearly two dozen nations we witness on our television screens were burning our flags in protest in riots. You see, if we project weakness abroad, our adversaries are that much more willing to test us, to question our resolve, and our allies are more hesitant to trust us.”
Is Mr Ryan really saying that the rage of flag-burning mobs is triggered by American weakness? Is he even saying that terrorism is triggered by American weakness? What about flag-burning protests and terror attacks on America during the Bush years? Were they triggered by American strength? What about protests in Pakistan against drone strikes that kill Islamic militants? Are those protests against a weak or an assertive America?
Mr Ryan must know, deep down, that in contrast with the full-scale wars between states of earlier times, globalised protests and terror attacks are asymmetric responses. Their whole point is that they are not calibrated to the strength of an adversary. Surely the bigger, painful lesson of recent decades is that anti-American hatred among Islamic extremists is triggered by bipartisan policies that America cannot and should not change, starting with strong support for Israel, and some that are not going to change any time soon, such as close co-operation with the petro-monarchies of the Gulf.
Mr Romney, for his part, added this careful caveat, arguing that:
The blame for the murder of our people in Libya, and the attacks on our embassies in so many other countries, lies solely with those who carried them out—no one else.”
However he went on:
But it is the responsibility of our President to use America’s great power to shape history—not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events. Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama.”
Then came his magical claim:
The greater tragedy of it all is that we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East—friends who are fighting for their own futures against the very same violent extremists, and evil tyrants, and angry mobs who seek to harm us. Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our President is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity.”
Mr Romney pointed to Syria, quoting a woman from that blood-soaked country and saying: “We will not forget that you forgot about us.” He cited pro-American demonstrators in Libya, and the abortive Green revolution on Iran, during which, he said, Mr Obama was silent. His message was clear: America is foolishly betraying its would-be friends.
In truth, his speech, though grave and stern in its delivery, was pretty short on policies that differ greatly from Mr Obama’s.
And in the areas where it did propose substantial policy shifts, the sad truth is that they would probably clash with his plans for magical transformation. He suggests that he would treat Israel with more consideration than Mr Obama has, for instance. That may be his best judgment of how to handle the Middle East, and is certainly good American politics for a Republican. But it would not win America friends with those reformists he praised in Libya or Syria.
Mr Romney offered language on Iran that was a smidgeon tougher than Mr Obama’s, talking of not tolerating the development of an Iranian nuclear capability, a lower threshold than denouncing an Iranian bomb. But even assuming it is clear what Mr Romney means by vowing not to tolerate such a thing, if he were to endorse, say, Israeli strikes on Iran, it is entirely possible that would damn America for a long while in the eyes of those same Iranian reformists that he faults Mr Obama for abandoning.
The world is maddeningly complicated, even for American politicians keen to assert simple truths about strength and moral courage. Mr Romney seems to know that, deep down. Thus while criticising Mr Obama for doing nothing to stop massacres in Syria, he offered a hedged plan of his own, saying:
In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran—rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East.”
Well, yes. But what if those reassuring Syrian rebels, who share American values, are not large enough in number or great enough in strength to defeat the Assad regime, arms or no arms? What if the Assad regime can be toppled only by Islamists driven by sectarian hate rather than dreams of Jeffersonian democracy? Mr Romney knows that these are the messy, unsatisfying questions that face presidents, and which currently face Mr Obama.
Yet he concludes with platitudes about a world crying out for more American leadership, not less, and embracing his duty to make the 21st century an “American one”.
Mr Romney chides Mr Obama for putting his faith in empty, though ringing oratory. Today’s foreign-policy address was no more than that, alas.