Mitt Romney’s Commander in Chief Problem

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nev., on July 24, 2012

For decades, Republican presidential candidates enjoyed a predictable advantage over Democrats on foreign policy. But not in 2012. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows President Barack Obama holding a steady 10-point lead on the question of who would make a better Commander in Chief. A recent Pew poll showed Obama with a 12-point edge on the question of who would better protect Americans from terrorist attacks. In a Pew poll four years ago, John McCain led Obama on that same question by 15 points — a whopping 27-point swing.

That’s an amazing turnaround. For three decades after the Vietnam War, Republican presidential candidates enjoyed a consistent advantage on foreign policy and national security. The Iraq War undid much of that. But Romney also brings an unusually skimpy foreign policy background for a GOP nominee. The last GOP candidate with so little experience in foreign affairs was Ronald Reagan in 1980, but at least the Gipper had a history of fervent anti-Communism.

Call it Romney’s Commander in Chief problem. In an election dominated by the economy, it might not be disqualifying. But in a close race, any disadvantage could spell defeat. Thus, Romney’s trip over the next week to the U.K., Israel and Poland is an effort to build his credibility as a statesman. But the first step was a Tuesday speech in Reno, Nev., to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention designed to draw a contrast with Obama. It was not a promising start.

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Romney’s main shortcoming is that he has no clear alternative vision on foreign policy. His primary complaint with Obama is both amorphous and unfair: Romney presents himself as a tribune for the ideals of American greatness and exceptionalism: “I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country,” he said on Tuesday. “I am not ashamed of American power.” The implication is that Obama has somehow given up on America, is more interested in apologizing for it than in restoring it. But that’s not a new idea — it’s been a familiar conservative refrain for more than three years, one that hasn’t quite stuck with many people who don’t TiVo Hannity. There’s also the fact that Obama doesn’t actually talk this way about American greatness. And the small matter of his troop surge in Afghanistan, which ticked off the left, and his intervention in Libya, which infuriated the far right.

As for specifics, well, there aren’t many. On a conference call with reporters yesterday, former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs whacked Romney for talking about foreign policy in “generalities and sound bites.” In Reno, Romney did little to refute him.

Romney complained, for instance, that Obama has set a “politically timed retreat” in Afghanistan. But apart from saying he would have allowed Obama’s “surge” troops to stay in the country for one more fighting season — something unlikely to have made a decisive difference in the conflict — Romney was vague about the endgame everyone knows is coming. He didn’t say whether he believes, as he declared in a January debate, that the Taliban must be defeated outright — or whether he thinks it might be worth hammering out a political settlement. And if Romney’s goal of “a successful transition to Afghan security forces by 2014” sounds familiar, it’s because it is the same as Obama’s, with an equally arbitrary time frame.

Romney would stiffen sanctions on Iran, though there are precious few notches left on that belt to tighten. Beyond that, he promised “all the firmness, clarity and moral courage that we and our allies can gather.” Exactly how this gathering will occur — have they looked under the couch cushions? — he didn’t say. Nor was his language implying the threat of military action any more concrete than Obama’s. Romney was similarly blurry about how exactly he would deal with Russia’s brutish leaders when it comes to Syria and missile-defense deals.

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Romney did promise to take a tougher stand against China, confronting Beijing on human rights and trade. But so does nearly every presidential challenger unburdened by the geopolitical consequences of such actions. On Middle East peace, a white paper accompanying Romney’s speech suggests he will get tougher on the Palestinians than Obama has been. But, again, the reality of governing has stymied most every campaign promise about that Gordian knot.

Romney’s sharpest contrast came on the question of defense spending. While Obama wants to trim the Pentagon’s budget in future years, Romney wouldn’t touch it. In Reno, Romney raised the stakes, blaming Obama for huge Pentagon budget cuts scheduled to occur at the end of this year as part of last year’s debt limit–supercommittee deal. Unfortunately, it’s a dishonest attack. Obama doesn’t actually support those cuts, and they were designed in collaboration with GOP leaders on Capitol Hill (though Romney didn’t mention that). The point was to make the cuts so unpalatable that Republicans would be forced to swallow a grand debt bargain. In reality, most of Washington gets that “the cuts will never probably happen.”

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Perhaps in a bid to create news headlines around a speech with little else of note, Romney bashed Obama for White House leaks about national-security operations, which he referred to as “a national-security crisis,” and called for a special prosecutor to investigate them. It’s a little hard to believe Romney really considers this a “crisis,” especially given the long history of national-security leaks running through several past administrations. But it’s not hard to see why Romney might want to gin up a phony crisis. When it comes to foreign policy, his views turn out to be fairly mundane.

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