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For Character And Against Kremlinology In Candidate Selection

It’s probably superfluous for me to do so, since we blog for the same site, but I recommend reading the exchange between Daniel Larison and Conor Friedersdorf on whether there’s a dime’s worth of difference between Romney and Obama on foreign policy.

Conor basically makes the case for agnosticism thusly:

  • Romney clearly is willing to say anything that his audience wants to hear, so we have no idea what he “really” believes and therefore no idea what he’d actually do in office.
  • Obama appeared to be campaigning in 2007-2008 on a significant change in course in foreign policy, but then delivered a very high degree of continuity with the Bush Administration; hence, there’s no reason to think that he’ll be more restrained than Romney would in the exercise of American power.
  • Hence, a plague on both their houses.

Larison’s response, basically, is to look at what the candidate has said, look at who he hires, and look at what his coalition favors. Romney has campaigned as a unilateralist, arguing consistently in favor of a more confrontational policy and a higher defense budget. He has hired a collection of neoconservatives in good standing to advise him. He has behaved, consistently, as if the greater political risk is appearing insufficiently hawkish. It doesn’t matter whether Romney believes what he says. If he says something because he thinks it’s in his interest even though he doesn’t believe it, presumably he’ll do that same something for the same reason.

I want to strongly endorse Larison’s rejection of Kremlinological interpretations of what Romney “really” intends. Steve Sailer has said advanced such a reading several times, suggesting that Romney learned two lessons from his father’s “brainwashing” debacle: never publicly question the consensus of the foreign policy experts – but don’t believe those experts either. Implicitly, he’s suggesting that Romney is secretly unconvinced by the dominant hegemonist paradigm, but has been assiduous about stridently supporting that paradigm publicly to protect his viability within the system. I don’t think this is a useful way of thinking about things, for the very reasons Larison suggests. If Romney campaigns as a strident hawk, he will not have the political capital to reverse course – and there’s no reason to believe he’d want to make reversal a priority anyway. Obama, remember, reneged on some of his campaign promises in order to remain within the foreign policy consensus. That’s a much easier – and more common – task.

But I think Conor has a point as well, specifically if we look at Iran policy. Romney has campaigned on a policy of confrontation on all fronts. I would expect this to result in poorer relations with a host of countries such as Russia and Turkey. But there is a difference between confrontation and war. War is a high-risk gamble. Romney, to me, doesn’t seem much like a high-stakes gambler.

That doesn’t mean he couldn’t be backed into war. Indeed, it strikes me as highly plausible that Romney would, by pursuing a failed policy of confrontation, create a situation where his credibility was at stake if he did not escalate to the use of force. But, then again, President Obama has already put himself in much the same position by pursuing a policy of coercive diplomacy.

Would a President Romney go to war with Iran if backed into it? Or would he back down in some weasely fashion, revealing himself to be a big talker with a little stick? I don’t see how we can know. The upshot, though, is that I see the choice (with respect to Iran) as follows. I believe Obama is trying to resolve the Iranian situation without resort to war. But he’s committed himself to war if his policy of sanctions fails. And I believe – based on his actual behavior, both his willingness to use force and his unwillingness to stray outside the foreign policy consensus – that he would launch a war if he felt that sanctions had failed. That is to say: I don’t think he’s bluffing. Romney, I believe, is not interested in a diplomatic solution to the Iranian situation. He’s interested in posturing against Iran. When that posturing fails to deliver any results, will he go to war? Or will he continue posturing? I don’t know how we can know for sure – I don’t even know how Romney can know for sure; he’s never been in that seat, or anywhere near it. But it seems to me that to vote for Romney on the assumption that he will exercise more restraint than Obama is to vote for him on the assumption of bad character – that is to say, we’ll be saved from war by his (assumed) unwillingness to follow up belligerent threats with violent deeds. That’s very worth considering if what you’re trying to do is figure out what a Romney Administration would actually look like. It doesn’t seem like a good reason to vote for somebody.

(To be totally clear: I am not at all arguing that a willingness to wage war is an index of good character – far from it. Nor am I arguing that a willingness to refrain from using force, or to back down from a commitment when circumstances change, is an index of bad character – far from it. Reagan was right to pull the Marines out of Beirut. Obama is right to be staying out of Syria. I’m saying that making promises you don’t intend to keep is an index of bad character. Bush Jr. was right not to go to war over Georgia. But his Administration gave every indication that it was willing to back the Georgian government up in its confrontation with Russia, a reckless promise that had to be broken. That showed back character. We have every reason to believe that Romney will make reckless promises with respect to how he will handle Iran. We don’t know whether he’ll keep them.)

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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