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The Sad Spectacle of the GOP Convention’s Fact-Free Foreign Policy

TAMPA—This convention, and the campaign to come, are supposed to be about jobs and the economy, not about foreign policy. But foreign policy still figures in the convention and campaign and will probably rear its head in Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech.

There are two kinds of foreign policy statements to watch out for in the months ahead: First, there are general philosophical statements about America’s role in the world; second, there are operational statements about what American should do about specific problems in the world. The philosophical statements loom large at the convention and in the campaign; but at the convention, the Romney campaign has done its best to muddle or ignore the thorny operational questions. Does that sound familiar? It’s the same strategy Romney is using with economic policy.

Most of the speakers I’ve heard who are surrogates for or represent the campaign have dwelt extensively on the philosophical questions of whether America is the greatest country on earth; whether it is, or will remain, number one; and whether it should lead, or ever allow itself to be led, in dealing with other countries. Romney is being portrayed as a champion of American exceptionalism and of America being first in the world; Barack Obama as indifferent to whether America is first or great, and willing to apologize for what he thinks have been America’s mistakes or shortcomings.

Romney is seen as Reagan; Obama as Carter. “Barack Obama has totally trashed the Ronald Reagan city on the hill,” former Senator Kit Bond told the Missouri caucus Tuesday morning. “Obama goes around the world apologizing.” “President Obama doesn’t see what an amazing place this is,” Romney’s son Josh told a breakfast meeting. “He keeps looking to Europe for inspiration. My Dad understands this is an exceptional place. This is a great country, the greatest country that has ever existed on the planet.” And the theme is being repeated by speaker after speaker.

The Romney campaign clearly likes the politics of American exceptionalism. It emphasizes the Mormon candidate’s American-ness and the President’s foreign-ness – certainly more effectively than by raising questions about his birth certificate. It echoes campaign themes that Reagan used in 1980 against Carter and George H. W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988. But it also could have operational consequences. It could suggest a more unilateral approach to foreign policy and a willingness to impose our will upon adversaries and challengers. Certainly, Romney drew these kind of conclusions in his campaign book, No Apology: the Case for American Greatness, and his White Paper on foreign policy that he issued last October that intimated a struggle for supremacy against Russia (America’s “number one geopolitical foe”), China, and Iran and the “violent jihadists.” (See my article.)

But at the convention, the campaign was careful not to draw any controversial conclusions from these philosophical musings about American greatness. The main session on foreign policy was hosted by the International Republican Institute, which Congress established in 1983 along with its partisan twin, the National Democratic Institute. Run by a former John McCain aide Lorne Cramer, it exemplifies the non-problematic side of Republican neo-conservatism—the emphasis on encouraging democratic movements in authoritarian or formerly authoritarian countries through education and training. It held a meeting at an auditorium in Tampa on “The Future of U.S. National Security Policy.” The speakers consisted of four Romney foreign policy advisors, led by Richard Williamson, a former Reagan administration official who was also one of McCain’s principal surrogates in the 2008 campaign. The graying heavy-set Williamson, who looks like former Secretary of State Richard Eagleburger, would probably not fill a high post in a Romney administration, but he is perfect for this campaign, because he can, if necessary, take the edge off Romney’s more bald assertions.

The panelists sat on stage before a table, with several hundred campaign delegates, press, present and former Republican officials, and foreign diplomats in attendance. Former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, who chaired the meeting, asked the panelists at one point about Romney’s statement that Russia is America’s “chief geopolitical foe.” Williamson explained that Romney was not trying to revive the Cold War. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “He talked about a geopolitical not a military foe.” (In fact, Romney has warned of Russia as a military threat.)

Another panelist former Minnesota Senator Norman Coleman jumped in to offer a further clarification, or dilution of Romney’s statement. “He talked about a ‘foe’ and not an ‘enemy,’” Coleman explained, although Coleman did not explain what the difference was, and I don’t think a dictionary would be much help. The panelists praised the bill coming up in Congress that would penalize any foreign official involved in human rights violations—a bill that is aimed partly at the Russians—but conspicuously steered clear of redline proposals, such as re-committing the United States to building anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe.

Romney’s representatives took a similar stand on other specifics. They said we should sell weapons to Taiwan, but adhere strictly to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. We should arm Syrian rebels (which it turns out the Obama administration has been doing covertly), but—in answer to a question from Foreign Policy blogger Josh Rogin—not establish a “no-fly zone.” We should declare that an Iranian nuclear weapon was “totally unacceptable,” but merely keep armed force an option. We should support human rights, but need not do so, Williamson assured the audience, by putting “boots on the ground.”

The speakers kept calling for a “robust” foreign policy and insisting that America should lead, and they denounced the Obama administration for failing to lead, but they offered very little indication that Romney would act any differently from Obama. That’s clearly what they intended to do. They wanted to get the rhetorical message across without committing Romney to any specific policies. Interestingly, Williamson and other Romney advisor, former George W. Bush State Department official Pierre Prosper, took a harder rhetorical line toward Russia at a posh smaller gathering at the Tampa City Club hosted by the neo-conservative Foreign Policy Initiative, which has key Romney advisors among its founders, and the institute of Modern Russia, headed by Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of the jailed tycoon. That was probably because of the audience. But they still steered clear of proposing any provocative actions that could invite a serious examination of Romney’s foreign policy. My advice to those wondering about a Romney foreign policy: read No Apology and fear the worst, or at least the worse.