I listened to Romney’s VFW speech this afternoon. It was mostly a pastiche of the usual baseless complaints and a handful of bad policy ideas. Remarkably, Romney chose this venue to revisit his Venezuela alarmism and the worn-out criticism of Obama’s response to the Green movement protests. These are two of the most discredited objections he could have repeated. On a more substantive note, he said that he would demand that Iran cease all enrichment, which is a demand designed to be rejected by the Iranians. That re-confirms that he has no interest in pursuing a negotiated solution.
He also had this to say on the war in Afghanistan:
President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war — and to potential attacks here at home — is a politically timed retreat.
That wouldn’t be a bad line if it made any sense. Would the U.S. and NATO still be fighting the Taliban after they withdrew from Afghanistan? Obviously not. Aren’t the U.S. and our allies more likely to face attacks at home because of an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan? Yes, they are, so how is withdrawing from Afghanistan going to make attacks more likely? Romney wants to object to a timed withdrawal, but he doesn’t want to be criticized for the open-ended military commitment that his position implies.
Romney went on to say that he also favors withdrawal by the end of 2014, which would seem to make his previous complaint meaningless:
As president, my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. I will evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders.
Even though he seems to endorse withdrawal by the end of 2014, Romney insists on distinguishing himself as the candidate that will focus on “conditions on the ground.” That suggests that he will be more inclined to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014. Each time a withdrawal deadline approaches, hard-liners will insist that the U.S. cannot “abandon” Afghanistan, and Romney has consistently sided with hard-liners on every significant issue so far. This is the same candidate that finds fault with U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, so why should we trust that he would follow through on withdrawing from Afghanistan?
He also boxed himself in on managing the relationship with Egypt with this remark:
The United States is willing to help Egypt support peace and prosperity, but we will not be complicit in oppression and instability.
It’s a nice sentiment, but it will be interesting to see what that could mean in practice. Is Romney saying that he would be willing to suspend U.S. aid to Egypt if the military there continues to use its power in the country to preserve its privileges? Is Romney proposing to make this a general principle of U.S. relations with authoritarian regimes in the region, or does it apply only to Egypt? Even when Romney tries to make specific commitments, he resorts to generalities that tell us very little. Since this speech was Romney’s first major foreign policy address of 2012 so far, it is a little surprising how light on specific policies it proved to be.
Judging from the applause he received during the speech, the convention audience was similarly underwhelmed by a lot of what he had to say. The applause that he did receive was polite, but not especially enthusiastic. Romney delivered the entire speech in that strained, almost incredulous-sounding tone he uses when he wants to convey emotion.