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How Mitt Romney Reduces Foreign Policy to Opposition Research

I will leave it to my colleague John Judis to predict the contours of the foreign policy of a Romney administration (as he does in the newest issue), but wish to pause on the thing that makes such articles as Judis’ possible in the first place: that we don’t really know for sure what Romney’s foreign policy will be. His campaigning on the subject has amounted to nothing more than a dogmatic, at times nitpicky insistence that President Obama must be doing something wrong, instead of offering an alternative or even any agenda for what he would do as the United States’ representative on the world stage—not to mention its commander-in-chief. The latest reminder came this weekend in David Ignatius’ column, which quotes “one prominent neocon who is sympathetic to Romney.” This source disdains Romney’s foreign policy campaigning as “opposition research” and a “drive-by shooting” of the president’s policies, and states, “Romney has done nothing to present a coherent foreign policy.”

That’s not quite true, of course. Romney has approached coherence in that he believes that if Obama did it, it is by definition incorrect: a critique that reached its decadent phase—or, if you prefer, self-parody—when Romney said that in order to discern his Israel policy, “You could just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite.” In that way, Romney’s foreign policy is the cousin of much of the Republican domestic agenda over the past four years, which has been simply to deny Obama as many victories as possible in the hopes of seeing him lose this November, while not offering a positive vision of its own.

Perhaps the worst thing about Romney’s attacks on Obama’s foreign policy is their brazen disingenuousness. On some issues, Romney’s objections are not really about actual foreign policy: for example, that the administration shouldn’t leak so much. On other issues, Romney has promised solutions that are comforting to offer and alluring to hear, but that no president, once in office, would or even necessarily could follow through on: declaring China a currency-manipulator on his first day in office; spending more money on defense, particularly the Navy, while pushing budgets that decimate domestic discretionary spending; moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (this after Romney evinced admirable restraint during the primaries on this pledge, which even President Bush didn’t follow through on).

Ultimately, the campaign’s official foreign policy fact sheet is just a hawkish gloss on what we’ve had the past four years (“The United States must recognize Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for what he is: a vicious dictator, a killer, and a proxy for Iran”—as if it hasn’t already?). Romney is against an Iranian nuclear bomb, as is Obama. Romney is against the regimes in Venezuela and Cuba—as is Obama, although I doubt the president’s team would so bizarrely refer to them as “Bolivarian.” Romney has called for an “American Century,” but doesn't stop to point out that Obama has never expressed the declinism attributed to him. (It is pundits, not the President, who are obsessed with finding strategies for managing America’s decline as a world power; and it was Obama who praised an essay denying American decline published in The New Republic.) He does not propose substantially different policies than the current administration’s for Iran or even cosmetically different ones for Afghanistan/Pakistan and Iraq. The only place where I discern a substantive difference is on Russia, where President Romney “will reset President Obama’s ‘Reset’”—which is of questionable wisdom and provokes concern from all sides, but hey, at least he is standing for something.

Romney has recently—and particularly with his selection of Paul Ryan as running mate—abandoned his obfuscatory strategy as far as domestic policy goes, realizing that when you are running for the highest office in the land, it is probably a good idea to tell voters, concretely and realistically, what you would do. But it is in foreign policy and national security where the president makes his greatest mark—the area where he is least impeded by other political forces. Coming during a time of high unemployment and a struggling economy, this election will not be decided on those issues. Yet a serious candidate still owes voters more than a combination of platitudes, hollow pledges, and unrealistic planks. At its worst, Romney’s campaigning on these issues conjures the basest image of the candidate himself, which the Ryan pick had done a good deal to rebut: that what he professes to believe is dictated solely by what he has calculated will make him the most likely to win.