Romney’s Evolving Security Policy: Unreality and Distinctions without a Difference
Posted by Bill R. French
Today, Governor Romney gave his third major speech on foreign policy in what appears to be a last-ditch effort to pass the commander-in-chief test. This came just a day after John Lehman, one of Romney’s advisors and Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, offered further details into the campaign’s much flaunted plan to increase shipbuilding from 9 to 15 vessels per year. Reading both sets of proposals together confirms that the campaign is continuing its foreign policy agenda of taking positions that either stay the course plotted by the current administration -- while claiming some sort of a new departure -- or represent basic misunderstandings of key security realities.
Here are four of Romney’s proposals that fit into those categories and leave unanswered questions.
1. “I will deepen our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf.”
The current administration has already dramatically increased security cooperation with Gulf partners. Included in that cooperation has been a $30 billion dollar arms deal to Saudi Arabia which contains 84 modified F-15s – adding to the country’s already enormous military advantage over Iran – and integrating the capabilities of American regional partners into an interoperable missile defense system. The latter effort has involved a multi-billion dollar deal to sell the United Arab Emirates the advanced THAAD ballistic missile interceptor system and the construction of a missile defense radar site in Qatar. In addition, the United States recently concluded a naval exercise focused on countering underwater mines with over 30 countries in the Gulf in response – the first of its kind.
Hence, the question to the Romney campaign is obvious: what has been deficient about U.S. cooperation with its Gulf partners and what should be done differently?
2. Lehman: Add an additional carrier air wing to the U.S. Navy.
While Lehman’s proposals made for an interesting read -- including a number of serious thoughts -- this was among those that appeared intended to help check the box on having elaborated on Romney’s much touted shipping plan without having met the burden of making sense. That’s because the basic math and operational realities of the Navy’s carrier fleet and air wings make this idea dead in the water.
The background here is that despite having 11 carriers, the Navy maintains only 10 air wings of around 80 aircraft. Romney now wants to go 11-for-11. But the reason for the current number of air wings is because the full carrier fleet is never fully deployed at once, making having enough planes for the 11th carrier superfluous. At any given moment, a number of the Empire-State-Building sized ships are undergoing repair or nuclear refueling. Because of this, according to a RAND study, Nimitz class aircraft carriers are deployed an average of 19 percent of the time. Of course, the Navy can surge more of its carrier fleet into action -- as is being done currently with a deployment of two carriers in the Gulf and two in the Pacific -- but since 1990, the Navy has never surged more than 6 carriers into service at once. For these reasons, what function an expensive 11th air wing would have is unclear.
3. “I will call on our NATO allies to keep the greatest military alliance in history strong by honoring their commitment to each devote 2 percent of their GDP to security spending. Today, only 3 of the 28 NATO nations meet this benchmark.”
Of Romney’s latest round of foreign policy commitments, this one is surely the easiest to meet: calling on other countries to do something can be done in the time it takes to utter a phrase. However, having that call be meaningful or accompanied by any reasonable chance of success is another matter entirely. While hopefully those who have projected the Euro Crisis will extend some 20 years are wrong, the fact remains: no solution remains in site and funds are scarce for military spending. Even if the crisis was to be ‘fixed’ overnight and the continent’s debt was brought under control, the European budgets would no doubt remain tight and highly prioritized.
With this backdrop, one wonders what plan Governor Romney has that will convince European members of NATO to spend more on defense when their publics generally want to reduce or maintain current levels military spending?
4. “I will vigorously pursue the terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed Americans.”
Given the tragic deaths of Ambassador Stevens and three other American diplomats, this bromide is perhaps the most disconcerting of those released by the Romney campaign in its national security media blitz. Here, Romney tacitly paints the picture that the administration is not pursuing those responsible for the attack against the U.S consulate in Benghazi but all evidence is to the contrary.
First, Libyan officials have just announced a number of arrests made in connection with the attack.
Second, there are mounting signs of potential military action against the group that perpetrated the killings and affiliated organizations. The Washington Post is reporting that:
“The White House has held a series of secret meetings in recent months to examine the threat posed by al-Qaeda’s franchise in North Africa and consider for the first time whether to prepare for unilateral strikes.”
Further, the New York Times reports that:
“The top-secret Joint Special Operations Command is compiling so-called target packages of detailed information about the suspects…the command is preparing the dossiers as the first step in anticipation of possible orders from President Obama to take action against those determined to have played a role in the attack on a diplomatic mission in the eastern city of Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three colleagues three weeks ago.”
In connection with these developments, the intelligence group Stratfor is reporting on "curious U.S. and French military deployments.”
What, then, would Governor Romney be doing differently on this score?