For months now, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has overwhelmingly focused on the economy. But as he geared up his candidacy a couple of years ago, Romney opened with an argument heavy on foreign policy. In March 2010, for instance, he published No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, a campaign stage-setter largely based on the idea that Barack Obama was allowing America to slip into decline while bowing and caving to global rivals like China, Russia and Iran. It wasn’t until the recovery sputtered and Obama scored a string of foreign policy successes that Romney adopted a monomaniacal focus on the jobs picture.
But some Republicans remain convinced that they can score points against Obama on foreign policy. And now, in the wake of Obama’s open-mic comment to Russian president Dmitri Medvedev that he can show “more flexibility” on missile defense and other issues after the November election, Romney seems to be reviving his earlier line of attack. Romney pounced on the comment Monday, calling it “an alarming and troubling development” that suggests Obama is “not telling us what he’s intending to do” on various key foreign policy matters. Later in the day he delivered a surprisingly harsh assessment of Russia as “without question our number one geopolitical foe,” a perhaps defensible position when you consider questions like U.N. Security Council vetoes, but still a tough one to square with his past remarks about Iran. (For example: “Right now, the greatest danger that America faces and the world faces is a nuclear Iran.”)
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As it happens, though, Romney seems to have a special distrust of Russia. Though he’s barely mentioned it in recent months, there was a time when Romney was hounding Obama on the issue of Russia and missile defense. In No Apology, Romney trashed a 2009 decision by Obama to scrap a planned missile defense system in Eastern Europe a “huge concession” to Putin, although Defense Secretary Robert Gates and much of the U.S. intelligence community had no problem with it. Romney, not previously known as an expert in strategic arms reduction, was also one of the most vocal critics of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty Obama reached with Russia in 2010; he argued in the Washington Post that Obama team had been “badly out-negotiated,” and that the treaty gave Russia an effective veto over future American missile defense systems. (Never mind that virtually the entire non-neocon national security establishment– including Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Stephen Hadley, and a slew of top military leaders, along with George H.W. Bush–overwhelmingly disagreed with this analysis.)
But missile defense probably has less political valence than a larger idea that Romney latched onto, namely that Obama has some kind of a hidden agenda for his second term that he is concealing until after his re-election, at which time he’ll “run wild with policies and positions that the majority of the electorate oppose.”
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It is true that Obama has been vague about what key battles he would prioritize come 2013. But it’s hard to imagine that he’s been impatiently awaiting the post-November moment when he can sell out America to the Ruskies. Dan Drezner notes that there’s not a ton of historical precedent for that. And remember: Joe Biden may not be done caring about public opinion!
There’s also something ironic about Romney leading this line of attack right now. Just days ago, after all, Romney was explaining for the Weekly Standard the virtue of keeping his policy positions vague until after an election, lest they be misrepresented and attacked unfairly in the heat of a campaign. (Among other things, Romney has left his plans for the war in Afghanistan extremely opaque). Perhaps Romney should show more sympathy for someone who may be following his own advice.
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