Is Rand Paul Right About Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy?
Sen. Rand Paul’s endorsement of Mitt Romney isn’t all that surprising. I doubt that it will sway many of his father’s supporters to vote for Romney in the fall if they weren’t already willing to support the party nominee. Endorsements are most important as signals of party unity, and so in that sense it is useful for Romney. What interested me was this quote from Sen. Paul during his Hannity interview:
[Romney and I] had a very good and I think honest discussion about a lot of these [foreign policy] things; and I came away from it feeling he would be a very responsible commander-in-chief, I don’t think he’ll be reckless, I don’t think he’ll be rash, and I think that he realizes and believes as I do that war is a last resort and something we don’t rush willy-nilly into, and I came away feeling that he’ll have mature attitude and beliefs towards foreign policy.
I have no idea what it was that Romney could have said to Sen. Paul that would leave him with the impression that Romney’s foreign policy views were mature or that Romney is averse to starting unnecessary wars. Whatever it was, it must have been something very different from what Romney has said during his campaign. I think we have to assume that Romney just said what he knew Paul wanted to hear.
Romney probably does claim to believe that war is a last resort, but that is at odds with his public record of support for preventive war, and it contradicts his reliable support for other kinds of military intervention. He supported the war in Iraq, where the use of force was far from the last resort, he has given the public every reason to expect that he supports an attack on Iran, and he backed the illegal war in Libya. I am not aware of any major post-Cold War military action that Romney has opposed, and there is no reason to expect that he would have opposed any of them. I don’t see how that can be squared with Paul’s assesment that “he realizes and believes as I do that war is a last resort.” Virtually everyone claims to believe that war should be a last resort, but not nearly as many take policy positions consistent with that belief.
Sen. Paul’s comments bring to mind something about Romney that continues to puzzle me. Romney is by all accounts temperamentally risk-averse. Indeed, risk-averse is one of the more common descriptions of Romney that one finds in news reports and profiles about him. This seems to be reflected in his political decisions and his pattern of opportunistic behavior. Everyone seems to be in agreement that his running mate selection will be a safe, low-risk move. His famous lack of any firm political principles makes it less likely that he will persist in a disastrous policy once it has become politically dangerous for him. However, when it comes to foreign policy he presents himself as a deluded ideologue.
Many observers look at this apparent contradiction and readily assume that Romney wouldn’t actually conduct foreign policy as disastrously and recklessly as his campaign statements suggest he would. One way to make this unpersuasive argument is by appealing to campaign rhetoric: Romney can’t possibly believe the ridiculous things he says, and he’s just saying them during the campaign to mobilize his supporters, so no one needs to worry about what he’s saying. The candidate makes this a little easier to believe because of his willingness to say almost anything to win political support. At the same time, Romney is thoroughly untrustworthy for the same reason.
Another way to resolve the contradiction is to say that Romney’s absurd hawkishness is shaped by his risk-averse personality. In other words, he grossly overestimates foreign threats, overreacts to them, and emphasizes the need for overwhelming military power and global hegemony because he is risk-averse, which does not mean that he is averse to conflict. On the contrary, he probably buys into the fearmongering about how terrible and dangerous the world will be if the U.S. “declines” (i.e., reduces its military presence overseas and stops invading other countries). Suppose that Romney’s risk-aversion doesn’t encourage prudence and restraint in the conduct of foreign policy, but instead promotes exaggerated fears of the capabilities of other governments that have to be countered and “preempted.” If that’s right, Romney might not seem reckless, but his foreign policy still would be.