‘I know the president hopes for a safer, freer, and more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy.” So said Governor Mitt Romney in a fine foreign-policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday. The sentiment encapsulates both the substantive promise and the political peril of Mr. Romney’s alternative to President Obama’s foundering foreign policy. Because the Obama campaign has located the vast reserves of chutzpah required to paint Romney’s foreign-policy team as novices, and because the media has let them get away with it, Romney had to accomplish many things at once in a major address that sets the stage for a pair of debates that will feature questions on foreign policy.
Before anything else, Romney had to look and sound the part of the commander-in-chief — to evince the confidence, fluency, and resolve that Americans seek in the leader who will engage our friends, reckon with our adversaries, and appear in their television sets to relay momentous news from the Oval Office. The videotape shows that Romney, in one of his strongest deliveries yet, did just that, convincingly closing the gravitas gap enjoyed by the sitting head of state.
He had to acknowledge the Obama administration’s biggest foreign-policy accomplishment — its elimination of Osama bin Laden — while clearly demarking the limits of that accomplishment. Romney succeeded here as well, especially by plainly stating the bitter truth that, despite the administration’s dead-horse boasts about al-Qaeda, “The attack on our consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, was likely the work of the same forces that attacked our homeland on September 11, 2001.”
He had to make foreign policy — and the choice between foreign policies — relevant to the average voter. The economy is, justifiably, front and center at the kitchen tables of America, but Romney did yeoman’s work, for example, in repeatedly emphasizing the importance of free trade at the nexus of foreign and economic policy, and rightly warned that by neglecting a dangerous world we invite its danger to our doorstep.
Which brings us to Romney’s most thorny task: offering a contrast with the president’s approach to foreign affairs by articulating a broad strategic vision, as well as a specific set of policy actions, while not extending partisan politics beyond our borders or delving too deeply into specifics that could undermine U.S. diplomacy now or tie a Romney administration’s hands later. Here again, we believe Governor Romney largely succeeded.
On Iran, Romney committed to both a tightening of the current sanctions regime and a display of hard power by permanently returning aircraft-carrier battle groups to the region.
On Egypt and Libya, he made clear that America will do whatever it can to support the building of free institutions and free people, but that our aid will come with hard-and-fast conditions, and that we will maintain a free (and strong) hand in dealing with terrorists who conspire to kill Americans from inside their borders.
On Afghanistan, Romney made the case that a hasty and politically motivated withdrawal only increases the likelihood that the region will revert to its status as a haven for barbarians and murderers, and a base of operations in the jihadists’ never-ending war against the West.
On Israel, Romney promised an end to the unacknowledged drift of Washington away from Jerusalem that has occurred under this administration, and committed to America’s support of Israel’s moral right and material ability to defend itself — preconditions not just to the successful deterrence of our mutual adversaries in the region, but to the possibility of a free and peaceful Palestinian state.
Above all, Romney recommitted to the age-old maxim that guided the Roman Republic and Ronald Reagan alike to successful foreign policies: Si vis pacem, para bellum. Governor Romney understands that “peace through strength” requires a preponderance of American power abroad. President Obama believes that American power abroad is by its very nature provocative and belligerent. The killing of bin Laden notwithstanding, President Obama believes in fostering international cooperation through American self-effacement, and in speeches around the world has highlighted the U.S.’s alleged shortcomings. Governor Romney understands that the thirst among people of good will is for not less, but more America. He knows that in East Asia there is great fear of an unchecked China with increasing leverage over the United States; that in the Middle East, where decent peoples hold out hope for the Arab Spring’s redemption, questions about America’s staying power cause as much trepidation as questions about the region’s capacity for reform.
In so many theaters, the present administration’s policy has been opaque and withdrawn, rudderless and at odds with itself. By contrast, if Romney’s vision sounds insufficiently granular and nuanced for the tastes of the left-of-center Foggy Bottom class, as the early punditry seems to suggest, perhaps that’s because it counts on much the same basic principles that produced the first American Century to vouchsafe a sequel. Romney’s is a case for clarity, for active and intelligent engagement in a dangerous world, for an America that is a strong ally, a formidable foe, and an unrepentant force for good in the world.