In the first foreign policy speech following his momentum-gaining debate against President Barack Obama, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney expanded on his vision of an “American century,” a view he tied to the legacy of leaders like General George Marshall as he outlined a muscular, moral U.S. foreign policy with American exceptionalism at its core.
Romney aimed to distinguish his world view from the president’s, as he has in far-lower-profile foreign policy speeches, promising to “change course” in the Middle East by helping to provide arms to Syrian rebels and talking and acting even tougher on Iran.
“It is the responsibility of our president,” Romney said Monday at the Virginia Military Institute, “to use America’s great power to shape history – not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events. Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama.”
Romney wove together a constellation of tumultuous events in the Middle East that he said has left “the risk of conflict in the region” higher “now than when the president took office.”
And he promised what amounted to a middle ground between President George W. Bush’s activist “freedom agenda” and the pragmatic and downsized ambitions of an America exhausted and depleted by two wars in one decade.
“If America does not lead, others will,” Romney said, “others who do not share our interests and our values – and the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us. I am running for president because I believe the leader of the free world has a duty, to our citizens, and to our friends everywhere, to use America’s great influence – wisely, with solemnity and without false pride, but also firmly and actively – to shape events in ways that secure our interests, further our values, prevent conflict and make the world better – not perfect, but better.”
Romney and his team know as well as anyone that this election will ultimately be decided on economic terrain. But as polls show the race tightening further following last week’s debate, Romney seized the opening of the scrutiny many voters are now giving him to convince America that, in the words of one GOP foreign policy expert, “Obama’s failed leadership doesn’t stop at the U.S. border.”
Romney has himself committed some famous missteps this cycle when it comes to issues beyond U.S. borders. He attacked Obama on Libya in the early aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, even as news of Ambassador Chris Stevens’s death seeped out. He insulted his British hosts at the Olympics, not long after landing in London this summer. He also, in his GOP convention speech, ignored Afghanistan and the tens of thousands of U.S. troops fighting and dying there.
But as the news – and, just as important, the pictures – out of the Middle East worsen daily, Romney may successfully revisit the conventional wisdom that the White House is invulnerable on foreign policy. For months now, polls have shown that the Obama administration has erased the Republican Party’s traditional lead on national security issues. The public still largely approves of the president on foreign policy – with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden regularly reminding voters that it was Obama who decided to pursue and kill Osama bin Laden.
But the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll reveals a trend that Team Romney has sought to exploit with a series of speeches, including today’s.
In April 2009, two-thirds of registered voters said they approved of the president’s “handling of international affairs.” Five months later, that number dipped to 57 percent. By September 2012, as street protests roiled the Arab world in the aftermath of the YouTube video and questions continued to surround the attacks that led to Stevens’s death, that number fell to 49 percent.
And while bin Laden’s May 2011 killing remains the foreign affairs event that trumps all others in Obama’s win column, recent news out of the Middle East leaves the president more open to Romney’s charges in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that the United States “seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them. We’re not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies.”
In Monday’s speech, Romney promised to assist the Syrian opposition fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s government to “obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.” On Iran, Romney said that “we must make clear to Iran through actions – not just words – that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated” and pledged to tighten sanctions and “restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region” while allowing no “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel.
Romney again vowed to make aid to Egypt conditional on “democratic institutions” and the continuation of the peace treaty with Israel. And on Afghanistan, where the GOP nominee has struggled to differentiate his position from the president’s, he promised both to stick to the Obama transition timeline and to “weigh the best advice of our military commanders” when deciding on troop-level drawdowns.
Romney sought to tie the current upheaval in the Middle East to his narrative that “President Obama has allowed our leadership to atrophy.” As he wrote in the Journal, “by failing to maintain the elements of our influence and by stepping away from our allies, President Obama has heightened the prospect of conflict and instability.”
Romney Monday laid out his vision for America’s role in the world, one that is both far more forward-leaning than the current administration has exercised and far less energetic than Bush’s.
Whether Americans see it as a credible option in this era of regional upheaval, security threats and battle exhaustion will help to decide who will serve as the next commander in chief.