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Speak Loudly and Carry a Toothpick

The question, for the entire campaign, about a hypothetical Romney Administration’s foreign policy has been: would it actually implement the “omni-directional belligerence” that he campaigned on? Or would he “speak loudly and carry a toothpick” – announce a variety of belligerent policies and then not actually follow through with any action when his bluffs are called.

If the third debate is any indication, we can now conclude: it’s the latter. Over and over again, Romney has made it clear: America must be the leader. We must be the organizer. We must stand on principle. We must be strong, clear, firm. But: that doesn’t mean we should actually do anything in particular. The point is: talk more, and louder, and don’t worry how our words will be received, because if we talk clearly, loudly, and with principles, then we’ve done our job. We’ve announced our “objective.” Which means the opposite of “subjective.” Which means what we say will happen.

There’s no there there. Even on topics where he’s supposedly forcefully disagreed with the Obama Administration, the Romney who showed up tonight disagreed with presentation, and had nothing to say about substance. On Syria: we don’t need to use our military, we just need leadership, to get the opposition organized. On the missile defense for Poland: he objected to the “way” we dealt with it, not necessarily the result. On Israel, he objected to the “tension” in the relationship, but not to any particular policy we’re following. On Iraq, he didn’t want to leave more troops in place; he wanted to leave on our terms. And on and on and on. His objections were entirely to symbolism – Obama should have visited Israel earlier; he shouldn’t have been “silent” when the Green Movement happened; we should indict Ahmadinejad for hate speech; and so forth.

There’s a decent list of possible objections to President Obama’s foreign policy, but Mitt Romney didn’t make any of them – neither the kinds of objections Daniel Larison and other writers at this magazine want to hear, nor the kinds of objections that he’s been campaigning on. Instead, he seemed to be following Bill Kristol’s advice:

There’s no need for Mitt Romney to flyspeck Barack Obama’s foreign policy record. Voters are aware of the deficiencies of Obama’s foreign policy. In any case, Obama is not going to win the presidency on the strength of his foreign policy. So Romney doesn’t have to mount a detailed critique of various Obama foreign policies. He has to stipulate that all is not turning out as Obama claimed it would, that all is not well in the state of the world. Then, even more important, Romney has to demonstrate that he can be trusted to steer the American ship of state in a sounder direction and with a steadier hand. This will require setting forth the core principles he will follow—principles of American strength and leadership, of standing by our allies and of standing up to enemies—and then explaining how, in general terms, he will execute a foreign policy based on these principles.

In other words: say nothing substantive and promise everything will go better if you’re in charge.

Of course, it’s still possible that a President Romney secretly wants to engage in a massive escalation of our interventions around the world, but that just feels like a weird read of his character. What seems much more plausible to me is that Romney would just be a terrible diplomat, because, apart from resurrecting the Free Trade Area of the Americas, he has no interest in foreign policy. He treats foreign policy as a matter of domestic marketing, and he believes that the people of the United States want our country to be really obnoxious, but not actually take any serious risks.

Unfortunately, the world is unlikely to follow Romney’s script – there is inherent risk in treating foreign policy as cavalierly as Romney clearly does. Take a look at the Bush Administration’s North Korea policy if you want to see what obnoxiousness as a strategy looks like. But, you know, who even remembers that North Korea became a nuclear power on Bush’s watch? What people remember is: Bush “confronted” North Korea, and denounced the Clinton Administration’s “appeasement.” If they even remember that.

President Obama, like the first President Bush, has pursued a foreign policy that an anti-interventionist should hate. But at least he has a foreign policy, and, on the strength of both his performance in office and his conduct of the debate, he clearly cares about it. Foreign policy is one of the few areas where the President has the overwhelming preponderance of power, largely unchecked by Congress or the courts. It’s probably a good idea to have a President who has given a little thought to how that power might best be used effectively, even if he tends to use it too aggressively.

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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