Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Mitt Romney: The Foreign Policy of Know-Nothingism

From Russia to the Mideast to the Korean Peninsula, the ex-governor is out of touch with geostratetic reality.
Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has become the inevitable Republican Party presidential nominee. Despite the weak economy, he faces an uphill race. It’s never easy to defeat an incumbent president. Moreover, Romney can’t rely on the GOP’s traditional foreign-policy advantage.

Throughout the Cold War Republicans posed as the party of national defense. That stance served the GOP well until the wreck of George W. Bush’s presidency. The public rallied around President Bush when he ordered the invasion of Iraq but soured when it became clear that the war was an unnecessary disaster begun on a lie.

Republican politicians continue to beat the war drums. All of this cycle’s GOP presidential contenders, save Rep. Ron Paul, charged President Barack Obama with weakness, indeed, almost treason. But the public isn’t convinced. The president who increased military spending, twice upped troop levels in Afghanistan, started his own war with Libya, talked tough to North Korea, loudly threatened Iran and Syria, and oversaw the hit on Osama bin Laden just doesn’t look like a wimp.

In fact, a recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that Americans prefer Barack Obama to Mitt Romney on international issues by 53 percent to 36 percent. Republican apparatchiks Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie nevertheless claim, “the president is strikingly vulnerable in this area,” but so far Romney is convincing only as a blowhard with a know-nothing foreign policy. Noted Jacob Heilbrunn of the National Interest, the GOP is “returning to a prescription that led to trillion-dollar wars in the Middle East that the public loathes.”

Romney’s overall theme is American exceptionalism and greatness, slogans that win public applause but offer no guidance for a bankrupt superpower that has squandered its international credibility. “This century must be an American century,” Romney proclaimed. “In an American century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.” He has chosen a mix of advisers, including the usual neocons and uber-hawks — Robert Kagan, Eliot Cohen, Jim Talent, Walid Phares, Kim Holmes, and Daniel Senor, for instance — that gives little reason for comfort. Their involvement suggests Romney’s general commitment to an imperial foreign policy and force structure.

Romney is no fool, but he has never demonstrated much interest in international affairs. He brings to mind George W. Bush, who appeared to be largely ignorant of the nations he was invading. Romney may be temperamentally less likely to combine recklessness with hubris, but he would have just as strong an incentive to use foreign aggression to win conservative acquiescence to domestic compromise. This tactic worked well for Bush, whose spendthrift policies received surprisingly little criticism on the right from activists busy defending his war-happy foreign policy.

The former Massachusetts governor has criticized President Obama for “a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude” in following George W. Bush’s withdrawal timetable in Iraq and for not overriding the decision of a government whose independence Washington claims to respect. But why would any American policymaker want to keep troops in a nation that is becoming ever more authoritarian, corrupt, and sectarian?  It is precisely the sort of place U.S. forces should not be tied down.

In contrast, Romney has effectively taken no position on Afghanistan. At times he appears to support the Obama timetable for reducing troop levels, but he has also proclaimed that “Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan under a Romney administration will be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders.” Indeed, he insisted: “To defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan, the United States will need the cooperation of both the Afghan and Pakistani governments — we will only persuade Afghanistan and Pakistan to be resolute if they are convinced that the United States will itself be resolute,” and added, “We should not negotiate with the Taliban. We should defeat the Taliban.”

Yet it’s the job of the president, not the military, to decide the basic policy question: why is the U.S. spending blood and treasure trying to create a Western-style nation state in Central Asia a decade after 9/11? And how long is he prepared to stay — forever?  On my two trips to Afghanistan I found little support among Afghans for their own government, which is characterized by gross incompetence and corruption. Even if the Western allies succeed in creating a large local security force, will it fight for the thieves in Kabul?

Pakistan is already resolute — in opposing U.S. policy on the ground. Afghans forthrightly view Islamabad as an enemy. Unfortunately, continuing the war probably is the most effective way to destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan. What will Romney do if the U.S. military tells him that American combat forces must remain in Afghanistan for another decade or two in order to “win”?

The ongoing AfPak conflict is not enough; Romney appears to desire war with Iran as well. No one wants a nuclear Iran, but Persian nuclear ambitiions began under America’s ally the Shah, and there is no reason to believe that the U.S. (and Israel) cannot deter Tehran. True, Richard Grenell, who briefly served as Romney’s foreign-policy spokesman, once made the astonishing claim that the Iranians “will surely use” nuclear weapons. Alas, he never shared his apparently secret intelligence about the leadership in Tehran’s suicidal tendencies. The Iranian government’s behavior has been rational even if brutal, and officials busy maneuvering for power and wealth do not seem eager to enter the great beyond. Washington uneasily but effectively deterred Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, the two most prolific mass murderers in history. Iran is no substitute for them.

Romney has engaged in almost infantile ridicule of the Obama administration’s attempt to engage Tehran. Yet the U.S. had diplomatic relations with Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Washington came to regret not having similar contact with Mao’s China. Even the Bush administration eventually decided that ignoring Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea only encouraged it to build more nuclear weapons faster.

Regarding Iran, Romney asserted, “a military option to deal with their nuclear program remains on the table.”  Building up U.S. military forces “will send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, acting in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons… . Only when the ayatollahs no longer have doubts about America’s resolve will they abandon their nuclear ambitions.”  Indeed, “if all else fails … then of course you take military action,” even though, American and Iranian military analysts warn, such strikes might only delay development of nuclear weapons. “Elect me as the next president,” he declared, and Iran “will not have a nuclear weapon.”

Actually, if Tehran becomes convinced that an attack and attempted regime change are likely, it will have no choice but to develop nuclear weapons. How else to defend itself? The misguided war in Libya, which Romney supported, sent a clear signal to both North Korea and Iran never to trust the West.

Iran’s fears likely are exacerbated by Romney’s promise to subcontract Middle East policy to Israel. The ties between the U.S. and Israel are many, but their interests often diverge. The current Israeli government wants Washington to attack Iran irrespective of the cost to America. Moreover, successive Israeli governments have decided to effectively colonize the West Bank, turning injustice into state policy and making a separate Palestinian state practically impossible. Perceived American support for this creates enormous hostility toward the U.S. across the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Yet Romney promises that his first foreign trip would be to Israel “to show the world that we care about that country and that region” — as if anyone anywhere, least of all Israel’s neighbors, doesn’t realize that. He asserted that “you don’t allow an inch of space to exist between you and your friends and allies,” notably Israel. The U.S. should “let the entire world know that we will stay with them and that we will support them and defend them.” Indeed, Romney has known Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for nearly four decades and has said that he would request Netanyahu’s approval for U.S. policies: “I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, ‘Would it help if I say this?  What would you like me to do?’” Americans would be better served by a president committed to making policy in the interests of the U.S. instead.

Romney’s myopic vision is just as evident when he looks elsewhere. For instance, he offered the singular judgment that Russia is “our number one geopolitical foe.” Romney complained that “across the board, it has been a thorn in our side on questions vital to America’s national security.”

The Cold War ended more than two decades ago. Apparently Romney is locked in a time warp. Moscow manifestly does not threaten vital U.S. interests. Romney claimed that Vladimir “Putin dreams of ‘rebuilding the Russian empire’.”  Even if Putin has such dreams, they don’t animate Russian foreign policy. No longer an ideologically aggressive power active around the world, Moscow has retreated to the status of a pre-1914 great power, concerned about border security and international respect. Russia has no interest in conflict with America and is not even much involved in most regions where the U.S. is active: Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Moscow has been helpful in Afghanistan, refused to provide advanced air defense weapons to Iran, supported some sanctions against Tehran, used its limited influence in North Korea to encourage nuclear disarmament, and opposes jihadist terrorism. This is curious behavior for America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”

Romney’s website explains that he will “implement a strategy that will seek to discourage aggressive or expansionist behavior on the part of Russia,” but other than Georgia where is it so acting? And even if Georgia fell into a Russian trap, Tbilisi started the shooting in 2008. In any event, absent an American security guarantee, which would be madness, the U.S. cannot stop Moscow from acting to protect what it sees as vital interests in a region of historic influence.

Where else is Russia threatening America?  Moscow does oppose NATO expansion, which actually is foolish from a U.S. standpoint as well, adding strategic liabilities rather than military strengths. Russia strongly opposes missile defense bases in Central and Eastern Europe, but why should Washington subsidize the security of others? Moscow opposes an attack on Iran, and so should Americans. Russia backs the Assad regime in Syria, but the U.S. government once declared the same government to be “reformist.” Violent misadventures in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya demonstrate that America has little to gain and much to lose from another attempt at social engineering through war. If anything, the Putin government has done Washington a favor keeping the U.S. out of Syria.

This doesn’t mean America should not confront Moscow when important differences arise. But treating Russia as an adversary risks encouraging it to act like one. Doing so especially will make Moscow more suspicious of America’s relationships with former members of the Warsaw Pact and republics of the Soviet Union. Naturally, Romney wants to “encourage democratic political and economic reform” in Russia — a fine idea in theory, but meddling in another country’s politics rarely works in practice. Just look at the Arab Spring.

Not content with attempting to start a mini-Cold War, Mitt Romney dropped his nominal free-market stance to demonize Chinese currency practices. He complained about currency manipulation and forced technology transfers: “China seeks advantage through systematic exploitation of other economies.”

On day one as president he promises to designate “China as the currency manipulator it is.” Moreover, he added, he would “take a holistic approach to addressing all of China’s abuses. That includes unilateral actions such as increased enforcement of U.S. trade laws, punitive measures targeting products and industries that rely on misappropriations of our intellectual property, reciprocity in government procurement, and countervailing duties against currency manipulation.  It also includes multilateral actions to block technology transfers into China and to create a trading bloc open only for nations genuinely committed to free trade.”

Romney’s apparent belief that Washington is “genuinely committed to free trade” is charming nonsense. The U.S. has practiced a weak dollar policy to increase exports. Washington long has subsidized American exports: the Export-Import Bank is known as “Boeing’s Bank” and U.S. agricultural export subsidies helped torpedo the Doha round of trade liberalization through the World Trade Organization.

Of course, Beijing still does much to offend Washington. However, the U.S. must accommodate the rising power across the Pacific. Trying to keep China out of a new Asia-Pacific trade pact isn’t likely to work. America’s Asian allies want us to protect them — no surprise! — but are not interested in offending their nearby neighbor with a long memory. The best hope for moderating Chinese behavior is to tie it into a web of international institutions that provide substantial economic, political, and security benefits.

Beijing already has good reason to be paranoid of the superpower which patrols bordering waters, engages in a policy that looks like containment, and talks of the possibility of war. Trying to isolate China economically would be taken as a direct challenge. Romney would prove Henry Kissinger’s dictum that even paranoids have enemies.

Naturally, Romney also wants to “maintain appropriate military capabilities to discourage any aggressive or coercive behavior by China against its neighbors.” However, 67 years after the end of World War II, it is time for Beijing’s neighbors to arm themselves and cooperate with each other. Japan long had the second largest economy on earth. India is another rising power with reason to constrain China. South Korea has become a major power. Australia has initiated a significant military build-up. Many Southeast Asian nations are constructing submarines to help deter Chinese adventurism. Even Russia has much to fear from China, given the paucity of population in its vast eastern territory. But America’s foreign-defense dole discourages independence and self-help. The U.S. should step back as an off-shore balancer, encouraging its friends to do more and work together. It is not America’s job to risk Los Angeles for Tokyo, Seoul, or Taipei.

Romney similarly insists on keeping the U.S. on the front lines against North Korea, even though all of its neighbors have far more at stake in a peaceful peninsula and are able to contain that impoverished wreck of a country. The Romney campaign proclaims:  “Mitt Romney will commit to eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its nuclear-weapons infrastructure.”  Alas, everything he proposes has been tried before, from tougher sanctions to tighter interdiction and pressure on China to isolate the North. What does he plan on doing when Pyongyang continues to develop nuclear weapons as it has done for the last 20 years?

The American military should come home from Korea. Romney complained that the North’s nuclear capability “poses a direct threat to U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere in East Asia.” Then withdraw them. Manpower-rich South Korea doesn’t need U.S. conventional support, and ground units do nothing to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Pull out American troops and eliminate North Korea’s primary threat to the U.S. Then support continuing non-proliferation efforts led by those nations with the most to fear from the North. That strategy, more than lobbying by Washington, is likely to bring China around.

Romney confuses dreams with reality when criticizing President Obama over the administration’s response to the Arab Spring. “We’re facing an Arab Spring which is out of control in some respects,” he said, “because the president was not as strong as he needed to be in encouraging our friends to move toward representative forms of government.” Romney asked: “How can we try and improve the odds so what happens in Libya and what happens in Egypt and what happens in other places where the Arab Spring is in full bloom so that the developments are toward democracy, modernity and more representative forms of government?  This we simply don’t know.”

True, the president doesn’t know. But neither does Mitt Romney. The latter suffers from the delusion that bright Washington policymakers can remake the world. Invade another country, turn it into a Western-style democracy allied with America, and everyone will live happily every after. But George W. Bush, a member of Mitt Romney’s own party, failed miserably trying to do that in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The Arab Spring did not happen because of Washington policy but in spite of Washington policy. And Arabs demanding political freedom — which, unfortunately, is not the same as a liberal society — have not the slightest interest in what Barack Obama or Mitt Romney thinks.

Yet the latter wants “convene a summit that brings together world leaders, donor organizations, and young leaders of groups that espouse” all the wonderful things that Americans do. Alas, does he really believe that such a gathering will stop, say, jihadist radicals from slaughtering Coptic Christians?  Iraq’s large Christian community was destroyed even as the U.S. military occupied that country. His summit isn’t likely to be any more effective. Not everything in the world is about Washington.

Which is why Romney’s demand to do something in Syria is so foolish. Until recently he wanted to work with the UN, call on the Syrian military to be nice, impose more sanctions, and “increase the possibility that the ruling minority Alawites will be able to reconcile with the majority Sunni population in a post-Assad Syria.” Snapping his fingers would be no less effective.

Most recently he advocated arming the rebels. But he should be more cautious before advocating American intervention in another conflict in another land. Such efforts rarely have desirable results. Iraq was a catastrophe. Afghanistan looks to be a disaster once American troops come home. After more than a decade Bosnia and Kosovo are failures, still under allied supervision. Libya is looking bad.

Even without U.S. “help,” a full-blown civil war already threatens in Syria. We only look through the glass darkly, observed the Apostle Paul. It might be best for Washington not to intervene in another Muslim land with so many others aflame.

Despite his support for restoring America’s economic health, Romney wants to increase dramatically Washington’s already outsize military spending. Rather than make a case on what the U.S. needs, he has taken the typical liberal approach of setting an arbitrary number: 4 percent of GDP. It’s a dumb idea, since America already accounts for roughly half the globe’s military spending — far more if you include Washington’s wealthy allies — and spends more in real terms than at any time during the Cold War, Korean War, or Vietnam War, and real outlays have nearly doubled since 2000. By any normal measure, the U.S. possesses far more military resources than it needs to confront genuine threats.

What Romney clearly wants is a military to fight multiple wars and garrison endless occupations, irrespective of cost. My Cato colleague Chris Preble figured that

Romney’s 4 percent gimmick would result in taxpayers spending more than twice as much on the Pentagon as in 2000 (111 percent higher, to be precise) and 45 percent more than in 1985, the height of the Reagan buildup.  Over the next ten years, Romney’s annual spending (in constant dollars) for the Pentagon would average 64 percent higher than annual post-Cold War budgets (1990-2012), and 42 percent more than the average during the Reagan era (1981-1989).

If Mitt Romney really believes that the world today is so much more dangerous than during the Cold War, he should spell out the threat. He calls Islamic fundamentalism, the Arab Spring, the impact of failed states, the anti-American regimes of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, rising China, and resurgent Russia “powerful forces.”  It’s actually a pitiful list — Islamic terrorists have been weakened and don’t pose an existential threat, the Arab Spring threatens instability with little impact on America, it is easier to strike terrorists in failed states than in nominal allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, one nuclear-armed submarine could vaporize all four hostile states, and Russia’s modest “resurgence” may threaten Georgia but not Europe or America. Only China deserves to be called “powerful,” but it remains a developing country surrounded by potential enemies with a military far behind that of the U.S.

In fact, the greatest danger to America is the blowback that results from promiscuous intervention in conflicts not our own. Romney imagines a massive bootstrap operation: he wants a big military to engage in social engineering abroad which would require an even larger military to handle the violence and chaos that would result from his failed attempts at social engineering. Better not to start this vicious cycle.

America faces international challenges but nevertheless enjoys unparalleled dominance. U.S. power is buttressed by the fact that Washington is allied with every industrialized nation except China and Russia. America shares significant interests with India, the second major emerging power; is seen as a counterweight by a gaggle of Asian states worried about Chinese expansion; remains the dominant player in Latin America; and is closely linked to most of the Middle East’s most important countries, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. If Mitt Romney really believes that America is at greater risk today than during the Cold War, he is not qualified to be president.

In this world the U.S. need not confront every threat, subsidize every ally, rebuild every failed state, and resolve every problem. Being a superpower means having many interests but few vital ones warranting war. Being a bankrupt superpower means exhibiting judgment and exercising discretion.

President Barack Obama has been a disappointment, amounting in foreign policy to George W. Bush-lite. But Mitt Romney sounds even worse. His rhetoric suggests a return to the worst of the Bush administration. The 2012 election likely will be decided on economics, but foreign policy will prove to be equally important in the long-term. America can ill afford another know-nothing president.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here