So with the Muslim Brotherhood ascendant in Egypt (and its president Mohammed Morsi demanding the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian-born fanatic behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), the simmering drone war in Pakistan and Yemen, instability in post-revolutionary Libya and the roiling civil war in Syria, one would expect that Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team would be working overtime to differentiate itself from President Obama and formulate an alternative vision for American power.
Moynihan goes on to say that “the Romney foreign policy team is listless and inexperienced, frustrated by a lack of direction from the campaign.” The first and last parts seem to be true, which is why there have been so many recent stories filled with quotes from despondent and annoyed advisers. Alex Wong notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem entirely fair to Romney’s advisers to say that they are the inexperienced ones. After all, Romney’s inexperience is the biggest foreign policy problem that the campaign has.
What doesn’t make much sense is why this grab-bag of issues would require Romney’s foreign policy advisers to work overtime. Presumably Obama and Romney agree, along with everyone else in the U.S., that Morsi’s demand to release Rahman is completely unacceptable and out of the question. Romney doesn’t object to the use of drone strikes, and he likely wouldn’t have anything distinctive to say about them. There is instability in Libya, but Romney isn’t going to propose creating a stabilization force for the country. Besides, the Libyan government rejected this when the idea was first suggested, so what is there for Romney to say? Romney’s position on Syria policy is essentially identical to what the U.S. is reportedly doing right now. There aren’t meaningful differences between the candidates on any of these issues, so what exactly would be the purpose of having the advisers working overtime, except perhaps to give them something to do so they stop talking to the press?
Romney creates problems for himself on foreign policy when he simply makes things up about Obama’s record to create differences where none exists, which is what he would have to do on the issues mentioned above. He also gets into trouble when he tries to present himself as a hard-liner. This usually involves his adopting an absurd position that his own advisers can’t support. Both approaches are risky, and they expose Romney to the charge of being dishonest on the one hand or dangerous on the other. Contrary to the emerging conventional wisdom, Romney and his campaign have spent an inordinate amount of time on foreign policy already this year. They have no reason to bring it up, but they do so on a fairly regular basis. If that isn’t enough to satisfy members of his campaign or his hawkish supporters, that is more their problem than it is Romney’s.
Romney must wonder what he’s doing wrong to keep getting so many complaints from other Republicans on foreign policy. He’s pandered as aggressively and shamelessly as anyone can to tell hawks what they want to hear. He has put forward a military budget proposal that is fiscally irresponsible enough to please even the most profligate militarists. Romney has done everything from pledging total solidarity with Israel to claiming the ability to start a war with Iran on his own authority. He has to be asking himself, “What more do these people want?” The reality is that Romney doesn’t have a significantly different vision for American power, and where he differs on specific policies he usually proposes Bush-era retread ideas. Considering the material he has to work with, is it any wonder that he prefers to spend most of his time talking about other things?