On Columbus Day, Mitt Romney spoke about foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute, his third attempt to lay out a vision for how he would handle international affairs in the White House. Unfortunately, the only vision that Mr. Romney offered was a rehash of the tired mainstream Republican foreign-policy formula: solving every problem with more force (which, of course, costs more money).
On nearly every issue, Mr. Romney offered little more than tough talk, giving no indication that he understood the limits of the effectiveness of force – or, for that matter, the realistic limits on military spending, which he claims his administration will not cut, even while forcing the deficit down. Here are just a few examples:
*Iran: Romney told the audience at VMI, “I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran and will — and will tighten the sanctions we currently have.” He did not specify what new sanctions he would add to an already extremely tough sanctions program, or how exactly he would tighten existing sanctions. Mr. Romney might think that talking about more and tougher sanctions sounds good, but it is not clear to what end. Sanctions are meant to pave the way for a diplomatic solution, which will be crucial in breaking the impasse between the West and Iran and preventing the outbreak of war. Yet Mr. Romney gave no indication that he understood how sanctions fit into a broader strategy of reaching a deal with Iran, or that he was aware of recent headlines showing that existing sanctions are already having a devastating impact on the Iranian economy.
*Syria: This was the area where Mr. Romney drew perhaps the sharpest contrast between himself and President Obama, saying that he would “identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and then ensure they obtain the arms they need.” This proposal is indicative of Romney’s military-heavy worldview, because he sees the provision of weaponry as a panacea, rather than a source of new problems, which it has been in the past. Indeed, as the New York Times wrote after the speech, Romney’s policy ignores the dangers of the “Afghanistan problem,” which refers to the possibility of US-provided arms falling into the hands of extremists who later pose dangers to the United States itself. Moreover, many of the rebels who want to oust Assad almost surely don’t “share our values.”
*The Navy: Romney pledged to “restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines.” This is a textbook example of Romney’s “more is always better” philosophy: he didn’t explain what missions are currently being neglected because our Navy isn’t big enough, why the new ships and submarines are necessary, or – the ever-present elephant in the room – where he would get the money to pay for this expansion. A CNN fact-check made the point that “Having more ships does not really mean anything, according to experts. And making more ships does not necessarily mean anything, unless you have a plan for them.”
*Afghanistan: At the same time that Romney paid lip service to sticking to President Obama’s 2014 withdrawal timeline, he also criticized Obama’s “politically timed retreat” and promised to “evaluate conditions on the ground.” This seems to suggest that he’s willing to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Here, as on other issues, he’s out of touch: there is a growing consensus that the American presence in Afghanistan is doing little to improve the security situation there. Romney’s prescriptions for Afghanistan is woefully inadequate, relying on little more than the flawed assumption that an extended American troop presence will solve the complex problems in that country.
*The Budget: On the budget, we heard vague promises to “roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense.” As the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung pointed out, this is a false charge: Obama has maintained high levels of defense spending. (On the other hand, if Romney is referencing the “deep and arbitrary cuts” that would result from sequestration, perhaps he should recall that those cuts come as part of a deal that members of his own party, including his own running mate, voted for).
Romney seems to have hoped that simply calling for a tougher stance and additional military resources would bolster his case that Obama has been weak on foreign policy. But the fact is that adding more sanctions, more weapons, more troops, more ships, and more money to the Pentagon budget doesn’t translate to a stronger or smarter national security strategy. We’ve heard this before: it’s the standard Republican solution, and it doesn’t work. Recycled militarism is not good policy, and now, with a decade of war behind us and increasingly strained budgets, it’s not likely to be good politics, either.