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The Dictatress of the World

Jonathan Bernstein ponders Romney’s “America has not dictated to other nations” statement:

When I heard that claim that the United States “has not dictated to other nations,” it sounded like a gaffe to me; so far, however, I’ve seen little criticism of it, and to my surprise Team Romney is treating it as a brilliant comeback – they’ve released an “apology tour” ad quoting from the debate, and Paul Ryan tweeted out the bit about “dictated” this morning.

I’m sure their campaign thinks it’s a brilliant line, because Romney has used some version of it for months. It went mostly unremarked at the time, but Romney said almost the exact same thing in his acceptance speech in Tampa:

President Obama began with an apology tour. America, he said, had dictated to other nations. No Mr. President, America has freed other nations from dictators.

The implication is that saying that “America has dictated to other nations” is the sort of thing one says on a so-called “apology tour.” Of course, the “apology tour” has been the central foreign policy lie of the Romney campaign. The claim that America hasn’t dictated to other nations is how Romney demonstrates that he repudiates the made-up “apology tour.” On one level, it can’t make sense because it is the rejection of something that never happened. It is also a window into how Romney thinks about the U.S. role in the world.

As far as I can tell, Romney doesn’t mean that the U.S. doesn’t or shouldn’t issue ultimatums to other states. Romney’s statements on foreign policy are filled with calls to issue challenges and demands to other governments. Dictating to other states is what Romney thinks the U.S. needs to be doing more often, except that he will call this “leading.” This makes up a large part of what Romney thinks international “leadership” is. He emphasizes the importance of “resolve” and “credibility” because he wants the public to believe that he is better-suited to making demands of other governments and backing up threats contained in U.S. ultimatums. So if Romney doesn’t believe that the U.S. doesn’t or shouldn’t dictate to other nations, what is he talking about?

Based on what he has said, we can conclude that Romney’s view is that U.S. policies overseas never involve the domination of other nations or the imposition of American priorities on unwilling people. It is a restatement of the ideological claim that the U.S. is a benevolent hegemon whose actions typically lead to the liberation of other nations. That this is a view significantly at odds with the historical record and our own recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, does not concern Romney or his campaign. It is a self-congratulatory affirmation of the good intentions of the U.S. government, and a determined refusal to acknowledge that U.S. policies abroad can be very destructive and driven by arrogant presumption. Acknowledging that the U.S. has been arrogant or heavy-handed in its dealings with other nations is not acceptable to Romney because it gets in the way of the story that he wants to tell about American “leadership.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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