Mitt Romney is now plunging himself into the foreign policy debate by giving a high profile speech at a Veterans of Foreign Wars conference before setting off on an international tour to meet with foreign leaders. His campaign claims that during his trip to Europe and Israel, Romney will “learn and listen,” a task which is long overdue. He recently proclaimed that those aspiring to be commander-in-chief “must offer their answers to the challenges we face,” yet he has failed to do so, despite having countless opportunities. Instead of strategic vision he offers platitudes. Instead of explaining priorities and trade-offs, he offers clichés. And while he is quick to heap scorn upon the president – a president who consistently outpolls Romney on national security – the former governor appears either incapable or unwilling to explain any substantive differences in the way he would handle the critical foreign policy challenges of our time. A man who believes that foreign policy is as simple as standing “like a watchman in the night” in order to “lead the free world” clearly is either not taking the responsibility seriously or has nothing to contribute to this debate.
In condemning the defense budget cuts that were approved by Congress, Romney asserts that we must instead spend much, much more. His rationale for this is supposedly based on the threats America faces, namely, “The regime in Tehran is drawing closer to developing a nuclear weapon. The threat of radical Islamic terrorism persists. The threat of weapons of mass destruction proliferation is ever-present.” Yet these are threats which are decidedly not effectively addressed by large conventional military capabilities. Is Romney suggesting that his administration would contain Iran by invasion? If not, then how would billions more for the Pentagon improve upon the Obama strategy? A strategy that has delayed the development of their nuclear program, organized the most restrictive sanctions regime in history, and brought Tehran to the negotiating table. While Islamic terrorism remains a threat, the Obama administration - through the use of intelligence, drones, and special forces - has done more to dismantle al Qaeda in three years than George W. Bush did in eight. And effectively countering WMD proliferation requires robust multilateral regimes and principled negotiations, not more troops and aircraft carriers.
Nowhere is the Romney foreign policy rhetoric more hollow and vacuous, though, than when he speaks about the transitions in the Middle East and North Africa. In the brief moments he spends discussing the region, Romney claims to desire an Arab world animated by freedom and modernity. “As president,” he says, “I will not only direct the billions in assistance we give to Egypt toward that goal, but I will also work with partner nations to place conditions on their assistance as well.” But what does this actually mean? The Arab Spring has ushered in remarkable opportunities for fresh engagement with the populations throughout the Middle East. As an entire generation of Arabs fundamentally re-orients their relationship to their governments, their economies, and the West, America has the unique ability to step in as a partner helping to develop civil society, economic infrastructure, and political liberalization.
But these are not objectives that can be achieved with rhetoric and business-as-usual. The details matter and Romney must be pressed on the specifics. Would he seek to re-balance that aid to Egypt away from military sales in favor of development funding? Would he work with freely-elected Islamist governments to advance common priorities? Does he believe, like 35 House Republicans, that aid should be withdrawn based on innuendo and suspicion? Or would he join GOP Senator Lindsey Graham in supporting innovative tools like the Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund? Despite the House voting to eliminate this important tool, Graham vocally supported $1 billion in funding, noting the importance of giving “the State Department the ability to go in to places like Tunisia and Libya that are at a crossroads and come up with some financial assistance to stabilize those countries.” Where does Romney stand?
As the governor sets out on his international tour he should focus on formulating real policy proscriptions instead of shallow applause lines. He is running against a president who has a striking track record of foreign policy accomplishments, and if he seeks to critique this administration’s strategy with any credibility, he will need to bring to the table far more than vague quips and patriotic chest-thumping. Romney is right when he suggests that a real leader must provide answers to the challenges we face. But he has yet to provide any.
This essay originally appeared in PolicyMic.