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September 01, 2012

The Romney-Obama Foreign Policy Debate -- Of Campaigns and Caricatures
Posted by David Shorr


While Tampa was hosting the Republican convention this week, hosted its own battle of the expert surrogates -- particularly an exchange between Obama supporters Bruce Jentleson and Charlie Kupchan and Romney supporter Peter Feaver. The debate this campaign season over national security has been a pretty high-temperature contest, and Feaver calls 'foul' on how Democrats have been waging it:

But it is simply false to then claim, as Kupchan and Jentleson do, that Romney's worldview "...reveals a basic misunderstanding of the role of power in international affairs" or that he clings "to the notion that the more often the United States flexes its military muscles and demonstrates bravado, the more readily the rest of the world will have to get in line...." That is a caricature that exists in the minds of Democratic spinners, not in the reality of how a President Romney would wield American power and influence.

Spinner sounds awfully crass, but regular Democracy Arsenal readers know I have hammered away at this critique -- highlighting Republicans' propensity for bluster and faith in the magic of the Resolve FairyTM. Okay then, I'm perfectly willing to step back and have a meta-debate. Today's topic: simplistic Republican worldview, characterization or caricature?

Before I dive in, though, a few more words about what Prof. Feaver asks of his political counterparts. In the same piece where he decries unfair stereotypes, he also argues that President Obama only achieved foreign policy successes by acting more like a Republican, while 

in almost every case where Obama followed his own instincts, he undermined the success of the policy or made the situation worse. 

Wait, it gets even better. Feaver also wrote an additional post in which he gave himself a big pat on the back for being so generous and laudatory toward the Obama administration. Then he dared Obama supporters to admit policy failures and not let ourselves muzzled by an Administration that is "exceptionally thin-skinned." Feaver goads us by saying that he knows admitting any kind of error is "dangerous for Democrats to do." On twitter I believe they call this concern trolling

I can't speak for Bruce or Charlie, but the relentless, mendacious, shrill campaign against President Obama -- not just this election year, but the last three years -- just hasn't put me in much of a mood to provide self-criticism at the other side's request. Besides, Feaver has already chalked up all of Obama's successes as validations of the Republican approach; what kind of foreign policy debate is this, any way?

Now returning to the question at hand, is the idea of Republican foreign policy as muscle-bound and blustery a fair representation of how a President Romney would wield American power? For all Feaver's cries of "spin" and pride in the Romney campaign's foreign policy white paper, let's stick to the arguments and ideas that have been put before the American people.

Nearly the entire Republican foreign policy platform is a variation on the same theme of President Obama not having been sufficiently firm and unyielding in the pursuit of America's international aims. I have seen virtually no admission that US foreign policy has to be calibrated to interests, positions -- realities for that matter -- other than our own and thus see no reason why Democrats should give credit for it. This has put the Romney campaign in a box of its own making and sometimes led to the odd spectacle of the Romney camp trying to criticize the Obama administration while arguing for things the administration is already doing.

To bang on another drum I've been beating a lot, there's an Obama foreign policy success that Republicans mention even less than the killing of Osama Bin Laden: putting Iran under the toughest sanctions and strongest international pressure ever. And I'd argue this success stems directly from President Obama's instincts about playing to the court of international community opinion -- testing Iran's good faith, earning the moral high ground (rather than presume it), and quietly obtaining broad diplomatic support. 

But rather than merely assert that the Romney campaign has been singing the same simplistic note about how American power works, the rest of this post will consist of passages from the Republicans' most significant statements on foreign policy... 

Governor Romney speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in July: 

It is a mistake – and sometimes a tragic one – to think that firmness in American foreign policy can bring only tension or conflict. The surest path to danger is always weakness and indecision. In the end, it is resolve that moves events in our direction, and strength that keeps the peace.

I will not surrender America’s leadership in the world. We must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose, and resolve in our might.

This is very simple: if you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I am not your President. You have that President today.

In John McCain's piece for Foreign Policy this week, he gives perfunctory nods toward the limits of American power and folly of vainglory, but they're completely belied by the following: 

Republicans recognize that our first responsibility is to our allies and partners and that our president should never appear more eager to engage with our enemies than to deepen ties with our friends. Negotiations do not succeed, especially with governments that care only about preserving their own power, simply because the American president makes a speech or promises "more flexibility." 

As much as Republicans have decried the supposed failure of President Obama's Russia reset to bear any benefits, I wonder if they're prepared for the following scenario. President Putin is probably aware of the extent to which Governor Romney has used him as a domestic political bogeyman. What if Putin greets President Romney's arrival in office by saying "nice little NATO supply route to Afghanistan you've got there..."

Then there was this from Condoleezza Rice's speech in Tampa:

Indeed that is the question of the moment- “Where does America stand?”  When our friends and our foes, alike, do not know the answer to that question – clearly and unambiguously — the world is a chaotic and dangerous place.  The U.S. has since the end of World War II had an answer – we stand for free peoples and free markets, we are willing to support and defend them – we will sustain a balance of power that favors freedom.


Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will rebuild us at home and inspire us to lead abroad.  They will provide an answer to the question, “Where does America stand?”

Because of course American influence is a matter of making clear to the world where we stand. If others knew where we stood, they wouldn't oppose us or do bad things. Seriously, have Republicans been any more forthright in addressing tough foreign policy choices as they have for domestic policy? I'd say the vainglorious shoe fits, and the burden of proof is on the Romneyites.


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